Meal Planning answers the “What’s for Dinner?” question.
How many times have you driven home after a long day, dreading the, “What’s for dinner” question? You know as soon as you walk through the door, your life gets a little crazy. You’ve got your family, the mail, the laundry, and even the dog, all vying for your time and attention. I don’t know about you, but the idea of scrounging through the freezer for ideas in the midst of all of this stresses me out (read on to see how meal planning can come to the rescue)! All too often, whether out of convenience or laziness, it leads to one too many frozen pizzas and drive-throughs. Unless, of course, you have a plan.
5 Meal Planning Tips for the Beginner
Meal planning takes some time and effort, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll actually save time – and stress. Not only that, you’ll eat healthier and actually save money, too!
So just how do we pull this meal planning thing off and not go crazy? If you are a beginner, it can feel a bit overwhelming. I suggest starting small at first, since it’s highly unlikely you will stick with something that’s unrealistic for you. Here are some basic meal planning tips that can easily fit into the lives of a busy family.
#1: Stock the basics
Eliminate the “there is nothing to eat” excuse by making sure to stock several basics in your fridge/freezer/pantry that can be used at a moment’s notice. Use them to create go-to meals with ingredients such as:
- Proteins: ground beef, ground turkey, steak, and previously made stews or crock pot dinners
- Veggies: beans, peas, or whatever other frozen vegetables you enjoy are quick and easy to cook and can be supplemented with fresh fruits and vegetables you shop for during the week
- Pantry/dairy: spices, breads, pastas, rice, soups, eggs, and baking items are always great to have on hand and work well on their own or in your favorite Pinterest recipes.
#2: Write out your plan
Dave Ramsey says having a written budget is telling your money where to go rather than wondering where it went. Much in the same way, a written menu plan helps you become a proactive, conscious decision-maker when it comes to your eating. If you’re a meal planning beginner, I would start with planning one meal per day (dinners tends to be the one that catches most of us off guard, so I’d start there) then as you get more organized you can work your way up to 5-6 meals per day. For lunches and snacks, you can always supplement with the staples you have on hand or combinations of leftovers.
Of course, life happens and you may not stick to your plan 100% of the time. That said, knowing that at least one meal a day is planned for will bring you more peace of mind than you might imagine.
#3: Plot a weekly calendar
YOU know which nights you will be crunched for time, so plot your meals on a calendar according to your life that week. Don’t be planning a complicated meal on evenings that involve late office work or your kids’ soccer game, because chances are those are the nights you will feel the least like cooking. Plot out easy meals like leftovers or crock pot dishes on the busy days. Save the more complex meals for when you have more time (it will help you avoid that frozen pizza).
I have nothing against adapting other people’s suggested meal plans (check out some samples on this page). However, that is just a starting point. You can definitely take that plan and make it work for you and your family based on your own preferences and lifestyle. Don’t forget to include a variety of protein, carbs, fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats!
It’s almost time to go shopping! But first, let’s make your list.
#4: Create a strategic shopping list
Armed with your plan, and taking inventory of your existing stock, you are ready to create your list. Organize your shopping list by category. Try to stay around the perimeter of the store, where the real food is. When you get really good at streamlining this, you’ll even be able to write your list in order of how you’ll walk through the store. This way you won’t find yourself crossing the aisles “browsing” for things you don’t need or being tempted by too much processed food. This alone will save you huge amounts of time (and money)!
You can creaete your list on a phone app, paper, or even a spreadsheet, it doesn’t matter. You might even create a master list of ALL the items you might potentially be shopping for in a given week, and just check mark the items you need during this particular trip. What matters is you have one, and you stick to it.
#5: Cook (and prep) in bulk, then pack in portions
I wish I could say I love cooking, but I just don’t. Making the most efficient use of my time matters to me, so I can get in and get out. Sunday afternoons for me often means doing some prepping in bulk, then portioning out everything for the week. Sometimes I’ll double a recipe and freeze the other half for a later meal, as well. This bulk prep may look a little like this, with multiple things going on at once:
- Oven: chicken, mini turkey meatballs, spaghetti squash
- Stovetop: chili, ground turkey for tacos, a stir-fry, spaghetti sauce, and hard-boiled eggs
- On the counter: brown rice in the rice cooker
- Cutting board: veggies, fruits, other fixings
At the end of all of this, you’ll have multiple meals ready to go for a week of healthy, conscious eating. Place them in resealable containers in the fridge, and you’ll be ready each morning to just grab-n-go! I usually use the Glad containers or these bento boxes I get from Amazon (affiliate link).
Practice Makes Perfect!
Let’s face it. Meal planning does take time, and we are all so busy. It’s no wonder we often take the easy way out! The more I practice meal planning, the more I see the benefits and that makes it time well spent. Here’s to actually saving money and stress in the long run, and to NOT falling into the trap of fast food and bad choices. There will be stumbling blocks, for sure, but I’m finding success, one home-cooked meal at a time, and I hope you will, too!
Here’s to meal planning success in your home!