They’ve Got This!
Tips, Tricks, & Things to Think About
By E. Edmonds
Why Bother? Why I started this journey.
I enjoy scratch cooking for my family but I started meal planning for a few reasons:
- To meet a tight budget.
- To reduce food waste.
- To prepare foods that met a specific diet (low salt, heart-healthy).
- To answer a question plaguing many at 4 pm…… What is for dinner?
How do I even start??
Meal planning can feel daunting, especially if you don’t like cooking, but it is certainly something that you can implement in your life by just starting to write your plan.
Are there Apps I can use? Are they the best way and are they free?
There are lots of apps and companies that will meal plan for you. Some even provide a grocery list, but those options can be expensive and not tailored to your lifestyle or preferences. I keep my plans and grocery lists in a file on my computer so I can reuse them.
Aren’t all meal plans the same?
Your meal plan will be different than mine because it will be tailored to your preferences and lifestyle. However, you can follow my process to create a plan that will work for your family.
Do I need to commit to planning every meal for the first week?
No, I started with 3 days the first week.
Will my plan be good to go right away or will I need to change it often?
Maybe, but more likely your plan will be modified and tweaked as you gain more experience.
What are some things I need to consider when I am meal planning?
- Do you want variety each day of the month or do you want to simplify and have a plan that works week to week with just minor adjustments?
- Do you have a budget restraint?
- Do you have any health considerations?
- Do you have preparation time constraints?
All these layers will work into your plan… eventually.
How do I start??
Quick, grab a piece of paper, and let’s start! In the next few minutes, you will create a Meal Idea List.
- What are your go-to meals each week?
- What did you make last week for dinner?
- What is your favorite restaurant meal (often you can find a copycat recipe)?
- What is a special meal that you make but only a few times a year or a month?
- What are the favorite meals of others in the house?
- What family traditions do you have each week (ie. Taco Tuesday or Pizza Saturday)?
- Is there a meal you’ve had with family or friends where you could ask for the recipe?
- Do you have a favorite salad or seasonal recipe in the summer?
- Do you have a favorite soup or comfort food in the winter?
NOTE: You can sort your list by protein, season, prep time, or not at all.
What if I don’t have very many recipes?
As you create this your list you might realize you don’t have a lot of recipes for a category of meal styles. Mark it down on your list and ask around to see if anyone has recipes to share. ie, I need a good meatless meal, or I like beans, but I don’t have a recipe for black beans; or what can I make with a pound of chicken.
What should I do with all the recipes I collect? What’s the best way to organize them?
To make meal planning and daily preparation easier, in the long run, you could start to create a recipe binder based on your Meal Idea List. I’ve worked on my Recipe Binder for a few years and it is a great tool to have all my recipes organized and ready in the kitchen. My recipes are also digital so I can access them if I’m traveling. I have a general idea of how much each recipe costs to make per serving and general nutrition which are layers I’ve added over the years. I like to try new recipes and when I find a winner it goes directly into my binder. You can store your recipes in a format that works for your family whether that is recipe cards, binder, or a digital file on a tablet.
When should I plan my meals? A certain day of the week, once a month??
I meal plan on the same day each week, usually the day before I grocery shop. You can adjust to plan for as many days as you need to stretch between grocery shopping trips.
How do I go from the meal list to planning my meals?
- Inventory your refrigerator, freezer, deep freezer, and pantry. Is anything expiring? Write down any meals that come to mind. This inventory will take longer the first few rounds of meal planning, but once you go through the process a few times you will remember what you have on hand.
- Look at the store flyers to see the sale prices on protein and produce.
- Have a general idea of your pantry staples. I know what I keep stocked in my kitchen (spices/salt, oil, butter, eggs, etc). As you build your meal plan each week you will see what items you will need to keep as staples and you will build familiarity with your supply.
- Keep a running grocery list and add staples to them as you see they are running low.
- The next step is pulling out your calendar/planner.
- Which days do you have time to cook a more time-consuming meal?
- Are there days where you will be running from sun up to sun down and you just want to come home to a cooked meal? (This is where a Slow Cooker meal might be helpful.)
- Are there meals you can prep earlier in the day, or earlier in the week, to make dinner easier on busy nights?
6. Start slotting meals you have on hand into the spaces on the calendar where it makes sense.
- Try to choose a variety of protein sources and flavors.
- Try to include some lower-cost meals each week to balance your budget.
- Use your Meal Idea List to fill in the spaces, or maybe there is a new recipe you want to try.
NOTE: My family is not super picky with meals, but I know where the preferences are, so I may put a favorite meal next to a day I know the meal isn’t a favorite. I decided early on in mothering that I wasn’t going to make individual meals, however, I make sure there is at least one component of the meal I know each child will like.
7. Once you have your Meal Plan, add another 1-2 meals that are super quick into your plan (VERY IMPORTANT!!) This means you are preparing for 8-9 dinners a week. Think of these extra meals as padding for a day that doesn’t go according to plan so that takeout is not the only option- Plan B meals.
- This super quick meal for me is usually shelf-stable or frozen heat and eat, like pasta and sauce, or a frozen family-sized meal.
- These extra meals often cost a little more because they are mostly convenience foods, but they are still cheaper than heading to a drive-thru.
- If you don’t use these Plan B meals, then they can be put on the next week’s plan.
8. Once you have your Meal Plan outlined for the week, check the recipes to make sure you have all ingredients and ingredients for sides.
9. Write down what you are missing so your grocery list is ready to go for the next day.
10. Mark in your planner, or make a reminder in your phone to indicate which days you need to move frozen components or meals into your refrigerator for the next day.
I have a meal plan for one week – Now What??
If you don’t mind eating similar meals week to week, you can tweak your Meal Plan Week and hold here. If you like more variety, create a second-week plan using your meal list, then repeat the two weeks or add a third week.
I’m serving roughly 4 different weeks on a rotation, and I change out a few recipes seasonally.
Will my family get bored if I repeat meals?
My family does not seem bored because there is lots of time between each time I serve most recipes, and, because I rotate flavors and protein sources within a week, we’re not eating similar things each day. Also, if you are intentional about making a plan with leftovers you can find creative ways to recreate leftovers into a “new” dish.
What’s the best way to make my shopping lists for the meal plan?
If you make a Meal Plan for 2 (or more weeks) at a time you can write multiple grocery lists at once to save time. I tend to do a larger shop once a month, and pick up perishables weekly.
- The first grocery list will have all the perishables for week 1 and all the shelf-stable items for the entire Meal Plan.
- A second list will just have perishables for week 2
- Create a third list with perishables for week 3, etc.
NOTE: The less often you shop the more money you can potentially save on gas and impulse purchases.
How can I keep things from going to waste in my pantry?
Twice a year I go through my pantry and freezer and pull out anything that is expiring in the next month or two. I challenge myself to include the items into my meal plans. Many recipe websites allow you to search recipes by ingredients to help spark creativity. Although, now that I intentionally plan I don’t have as many things expiring because I only buy what I need or regularly use.
Can meal planning be done successfully if you don’t have an extra freezer for storage? What are the benefits of having an extra freezer?
If you don’t have a separate freezer, you might consider purchasing one, however, because you only buy what you need each week you don’t need to have a deep freezer. Extra freezer space can help reduce food waste and allows you to minimize grocery expenses by purchasing items on sale. For example, you can blanch and freeze vegetables from your garden for the winter. If you have fruit that is starting to turn bad, you can prep them and freeze for a smoothie. If bread is going out of date you can pop it in the freezer. And, when you do cook a time-intensive meal you can double it and freeze the other half for a quick meal. If you have a smaller family you can break a larger recipe into family-sized portions into the freezer. When protein goes on sale, I often stock up so that my price per servings are more consistent week to week.
Is meal planning only for dinner or does it have to be for all meals?
I started Meal Planning mainly for dinner. Lunches for my family usually involve repurposing leftovers which I wrap up directly after dinner into portions for school/work. However, you can easily work on a lunch plan, or even a breakfast plan using the same techniques.
Sample Meal Plan
|Sunday||Family time, Zoo Day
Evening meal prep
|Leftovers or something quick like toasted sandwiches and soup. Evening Prep any lunches, boil hard-boiled eggs, rice, beans, and other sides, etc|
|Monday||Shopping Day; Home after school||“Sunday Meal” like a roast chicken. Prep fruit and vegetables for snacks and easier meals.|
|Tuesday||Practice until 4:30||“Taco Tuesday” with leftover chicken/beans made on Sunday or Monday prep|
|Wednesday||Husband late, Practice until 5:30||Slow Cooker Meal|
|Thursday||Mom’s group- Bring food
Home after school
|Breakfast for dinner (double the egg bake recipe when I make food for Mom’s group)|
|Friday||Celebrating a birthday||Restaurant|
|Saturday||Movie night/Pizza Saturday||Pizza- mark planner to start early if you’re making dough from scratch.|