Thursday, February 26, 2015

How To: Meal Plan

Meal planning means different things for different people.  The benefits of meal planning are undeniable:  saving money on your groceries, less pre-packaged or fast food, eating healthier, less gas due to extra trips to the store or drive through.

I don't meal plan like my mom does, and it took me a long time to accept that didn't mean I was a failure, or couldn't do some version of meal planning.  So don't be discouraged if my system doesn't work for you.  Be inspired to use this as a springboard to find something that does work for you!

My mom used to comb the coupon inserts and grocery ads in the weekly papers.  This does not work for me, because it's 2015 and nobody reads the paper anymore.  I also don't have the desire, or time, to look through websites and apps for coupons.

Next, she would design her weekly menu around what was on sale and her coupons.  If I tried this, I am certain I would end up with some type of sauce that included toothpaste and cat food.  Yum.

Finally, in one day, with two small children, she would travel to all of the different stores to pick up her sale items and use her coupons.  She was a SAHM, and this was her contribution to saving money for the household.  It is an impressive system, and really good for her for being able to do this.  I work outside the home, and shopping this way (even without children in tow) would be exhausting, and take me all week to complete.  Even as a SAHM, I'm not sure I would be able to keep up with this and keep my sanity.

Anyway, the following is what works for me.  And it has not always looked this way.  It will continue to evolve as our lives do.  It is a similar concept of what my mom did, but modified for how my brain works.  I am hoping you will be able to glean an idea or two from here to work into your lifestyle.  Or copy it exactly!

Step 1.  Make a list of all the meals you make on a regular basis.  If you can't think of things off the top of your head, write them down as you make them.  Separate each food item into categories onto a piece (or several pieces) paper.  Sort by main dishes, sides, salads, soups, breakfasts, sandwiches, desserts, etc.

In the beginning, stick with what you usually cook.  We are creatures of habit, and if you are trying to meal plan with all new recipes, you probably won't stick with it because it's not natural or comfortable.  We will add new recipes later in this process (keep reading).

Step 2.  Once a week (I usually do it on Friday evening or Saturday morning so that I have the entire weekend to pick up any groceries I need), look at what you have on hand (chicken, beef, corn, spinach, etc.), and look at your list of meals.  What do you have already that you can make?  How does the time it takes to make those foods fit in with the next week's schedule?  Don't plan a meal that takes all day to cook on a day when you have a lot going on.  Do a crockpot meal that day, or sandwiches, something fast.

If you do want to incorporate ads and coupons into your meal planning, start at this step.  What's on sale?  Can I substitute spinach that's on sale for the kale in this recipe?  Is there a really good deal on meat?  If so, buy a lot of it, use some for this week and freeze the rest.

Step 3.  Write down the meal you want to make on the day you want to make it.  You can do this on a pieces of paper or a menu planner.  You could even write it in your planner.  I write mine on a magnetic board on the fridge for everyone to see.

Step 4.  Make a separate grocery list for each store you go to.  You know the layout of that store (i.e., meats in the back, produce on the right, etc.).  So for Walmart, you put apples, fresh spinach, ice cream, canned chili, bacon, crackers, yogurt, Windex, diapers.  Because that's the order you will get them as you walk through the store.  Then you are less likely to miss THAT ONE THING you needed.  If you get apples from Walmart, put them on that list.  If you get them from Costco, put them on the Costco list.  Don't make one giant list for all groceries.  I keep my grocery list in my planner.  I add the things we run out of, and any extra ingredients needed for the weekly menu (fresh produce, spice, etc.).

Step 5.  Check the next night's menu to make sure that A) that meal still works for that night, and B) you don't need to do any prep work (like take out frozen chicken).  I do this after I clean up dinner.

Step 6.  Sometimes things happen.  Roll with the punches.  Earlier this week, I forgot to check my menu, and lo and behold, I needed to thaw chicken and I didn't (Step 5 anyone?!?).  I decided to switch hamburgers and chicken.  Hamburger patties thaw much more quickly that chicken breast, and the amount of time to prepare the meals were equal.  Maybe a meeting comes up at work and you have to get take out food that night.  Just bump the meal to a leftover night, or use it early the following week.

Step 7.  Once you have a few weeks of regular menu planning under your belt, grab your dusty cookbook or head on over to Pinterest.  Add one or two new meals to your next week.  If you really like it, add it to your regular meals for rotation in your meal planning.  If you don't like it, toss it, or try a new version the next week.  I don't suggest more than two new meals per week because it can get overwhelming, and that is how we get discouraged.

Some ideas that might appeal to you:

Having a set night for certain themes, like Taco Tuesday or Pizza Fridays (store bought or make your own).  Knowing ahead of time that day is assigned a food can take some pressure off of you to be creative.  Honestly, many of my weekly menus recycle the same meals.  It's nothing super fancy.  I'm not a professional chef, and I know my kids like certain foods.  I'm okay with that.  I just want to eat dinner with my family.

Some people take one day to do all of their food prep.  Chop/slice/bag all in one day.

Get your kids involved!  Have them choose a meal.  Older kids can (with supervision) make simple family meals.  My 12 year old feels so accomplished when he prepares chicken nuggets and mac and cheese for the family.  For younger children, they can pour, stir, and set the table.

Make extra, and eat the leftovers for lunch during the week.
  • Save money on your grocery bill each week.
  • Save money (and boost your health) by not eating last-minute prepackaged or fast foods.
  • Eat a wider variety of healthy meals because you’ll be in the habit of planning and checking out new recipes and controlling the ingredients.
  • Get your kids involved in the process of cooking family meals.
  • Save time and gas by not making extra trips to the store on the fly for dinner.
Additionally, when families share daily meals together:
  • Children and teens are less likely to develop addictive habits such as drugs, alcohol, or smoking.
  • Children feel heard and important and therefore have a greater sense of self-confidence and are less likely to give into negative peer pressure.
  • Children do better academically because dinnertime is a great opportunity to teach communication skills.  Lots of chatter at the dinner table and adult conversation gives kids an edge with their verbal communication skills.
  • Children learn proper table manners. Waiting until everyone is served, no chewing with your mouth open, elbows off the table, etc. are all important manners to learn at a young age. 
  • Parents are able to save their precious sanity by spending more quality time with their loved ones, and less wasted time figuring out dinner.
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The key is to be flexible.  I hope this helps!

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