I was recently asked to teach a mini lesson on meal planning for a church activity. Turns out I have a lot more to say than my allotted 5-10 minutes slot so I thought it would make an excellent blog post. Specifically, my topic was meal planning for small children, but since all people eat, I think that the majority of my advice is applicable to every age category. I’ll list my general meal planning method in this post and then do another one with my tips for meal planning for families with small kids.
I’ve always been a planner, so it probably won’t come as a surprise to most people that I also plan my meals. I think most people realize on some level that meal planning could make their lives easier, but because they view it as a chore they put it off or don’t do it at all. If you fall into that category, you are missing out on some life changing stuff! Perfect Pea has a list of Five Ways Meal Planning Can Change Your Life that I’ll list below and then add a few of my own.
- You’ll Save Time – Yes, meal planning takes time, but it will cut down your grocery store trips and you’ll gain back the wasted minutes/hours/days spent staring into the fridge hoping the dinner gods will speak to you. Meal planning also makes you more efficient at the grocery store and will gain you back time you would have lost meandering through the store waiting for items on the shelf to speak to you.
- You’ll Save Money – As Perfect Pea points out “spending money eating out due to a lack of planning is one of the quickest ways to blow though a monthly food budget.”
- You’ll Reduce Waste – Since you have a plan for the food you buy you’ll have a lot less stuff dying a slow death in your refrigerator.
- You’ll Eat Healthier – Perfect Pea says, “When you’re hungry without a plan, it’s hard to think rationally. That’s when bad decisions are made. Fast food, a bag of chips, or a bowl of ice cream as a dinner substitute. It’s our bodies telling us that we’re hungry and we need calories, fast.” Have you been there? I know I have.
- You’ll Have More Fun – This includes being able to anticipate meals as Perfect Pea notes, but I also like that it allows me to try new things and find ways to include my kids.
- You’ll Fight Less with Your Spouse – I know you’ve had those moments when your spouse comes home from work and as delicately as they can, tries to ask what’s for dinner. Then, since you have no idea, you snap at them for having the audacity to ask such a stupid question and things spiral out of control. With a meal plan, you can avoid this scenario. Instead you already have dinner started when your spouse comes home or when they walk in the door you ask them to start chopping up some veggies for the stir fry you’re having. Or if you’re as lucky as I am, if you’re at swim lessons with the kids and your spouse beats you home you find he’s started the planned meal.
- You’ll Yell at Your Children Less – When your children come up to you at 4:00 and ask you what’s for dinner in whiny voices you’ll have a perfectly rational response. Refer back to spouse scenario in number 6.
- You’ll Hate Meal Time Less – I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked to another mom and they’ve mentioned how much they hate thinking about dinner. With a meal plan, most days you don’t have to think about it. You just have to follow the plan and listen to your favorite podcast or talk with your spouse while you do it. Suddenly dinner prep time is your favorite time.
I prefer to meal plan in Google Calendar. It isn’t as cute as a meal plan board, but I would highly recommend some sort of an electronic format. There are many reasons for this.
- It can’t get lost. Having a physical meal calendar at my house would be a nightmare. My kids would constantly be rearranging things, erasing my plans, eating the pieces, or generally destroying it with whatever idea popped into their heads first. For that reason alone, making my meal plan digital is worth it. Additionally, Google Calendar is where all my other events are so when I look at my week I can go, “Oh, yikes, Tuesday is crazy! We better do something easy that night.” or “Thursday my afternoon is busy, but my morning is pretty open. That would be a great day to do a meal in the slow cooker.”
- I can easily switch meals around. If a scheduled meal rolls around and I just don’t feel like eating it, I can easily switch it with another meal with a simple click and drag.
- Save Meals for the Future. If I make a double batch of something and then freeze it I can put that as a meal on some random date in a few weeks. Then I can easily incorporate it into a future week’s meal plan and the meal won’t be forgotten in the freezer. This also works if I eat out somewhere and eat something I want to try at home. I just hang the idea out on a future date and work it into my meal plan when I’m ready.
- I can take it everywhere with me. This is helpful when I’m at the store trying to remember why some item is on my list and whether it can be substituted for something else (maybe it’s out of stock or ridiculously expensive).
- It can be in multiple places at one time. I share my meal plan calendar with my husband. This makes it so we both can see it even if we are in different places and he can start dinner when he beats me home as I mentioned earlier.
I plan my meals one week at a time. Because I like to eat fresh ingredients and a variety of things, this works best for me. I’ve heard of people that will spend an entire day prepping freezer meals for an entire month and while that’s impressive, I don’t find joy in that sort of thing. If you do, more power to you. No matter the frequency, it’s best to choose a specific day that you plan your meals because it will build a habit. I plan my meals on Tuesday evenings or Wednesday mornings simply because that’s when the ads change. Also, I like grocery shopping on Wednesday mornings because the stores are relatively quiet.
I think this is the one that people struggle with the most. The what to eat part. To make things easier on ourselves we’ve set a few ground rules. Generally, I only plan dinners. We don’t put a lot of creativity into breakfast (mostly variations on eggs with toast, so as long as I add eggs to the grocery list and remember to make bread we’re good) and 90% of the time we eat leftovers for lunch. Each week my dinners includes a variation of these three categories: Breakfast for dinner, stir fry, and a Meal Salad. This makes it so three meals are basically taken care of and we only have to come up with four more. Obviously, those categories might not work for you, maybe you’d like to eat a casserole once a week or soup; use whatever categories work best for you. For the remaining meals I first look at the ads to see if the sales inspire any recipes (for me, more often than not they don’t) and finally I turn to my Recipes to Try Pinterest Board or some of my favorite cookbooks. The three most used at my house are: How to Cook Everything, How to Cook Everything Fast, and The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook. I also will glance back at previous meals (another feature of having your meal plan on the cloud) to remind myself of meals that we’ve enjoyed, but haven’t eaten in awhile. As I add the meals to my calendar I add notes on page numbers in cookbooks or links to recipes so they’re easy to find when it’s time to start cooking.
As I choose the meals, I add the needed ingredients to my list, checking the fridge or pantry for items as needed. (For reference, the list is also electronic, surprise, surprise!) Finally, I’ll add any other miscellaneous items (school snacks, lunches for the days we won’t have leftovers, breakfast stuff, etc). Now I’m ready to get in and out of the grocery store and on with my life without having to give much thought to the dreaded question: What’s for dinner?
Meal planning takes some effort and a bit of time, but once you try it you’ll realize it isn’t that bad and in the long run it really does make your life easier if not more peaceable.