Have you ever thought of meal planning but wondered where on earth to begin? Have you worried it is too complicated or inflexible to implement in your life? After over a decade of meal planning for my household, I am here to tell you that it is an absolute life saver for both your sanity and your budget. By following this handy how-to guide, you’ll be on your way to greater peace of mind and increased savings for your bank account. Read on to learn how to meal plan like a pro!
Step 1: Make a list of your family’s favorite meals. Take 15 minutes to jot down all the meals you can think of that are enjoyed by your family (aim for between 15 and 30 ideas). Be sure to include a variety so that each of your family members has a few favorites on the list.
Step 2: Identify themes. Looking through your meal list, start grouping them by similar ingredients (i.e. beef dishes) or style (i.e. Italian). When I did this, I found my family’s favorite foods to be soups, salads, Mexican food, Italian food, and chicken dishes. Look to create at least 6 themes to represent 6 days of the week on your meal plan. Many people like to keep one day a week open for eating out or ordering in. Do what works best for your family.
Step 3: Consider your family’s schedule. I used to enjoy the television show Fixing Dinner, hosted by Sandi Richard. In working with busy families to create a personalized meal plan, Sandi got them to identify “Fright Night” – the craziest night of their week – to help them create a quick meal for their limited time that evening. This tip really helped me fine-tune my own meal plan, and I recommend you implement it too. “Fright Night” (or nights!) is a great time to use frozen or prepared foods, planned leftovers, or a quickly-assembled meal, so that grabbing takeout can be avoided.
Step 4: Plot out your meals. Using a blank calendar-style template, assign a theme/style to each day of the week based on how much time you generally have for meal preparation that day. For my family, Mondays are for salads, Tuesdays are for soups, Wednesdays are for poultry dishes, Thursdays are for freezer foods (due to Fright Night), and Fridays are Italian food. I have designated Saturday nights for meals suitable for entertaining (a little fancier and larger quantity); Sundays are for meals that don’t fit the other themes, but I still like to have in the rotation. Once you plot out your themes, begin to fill in meal ideas from your master list. I recommend either a 2 or 4 week meal plan. I find that having a 4 week plan allows for greater variety, except for a few meals that my family doesn’t mind eating twice in one month. This wards off boredom and promotes nutritional balance at the same time.
Step 5: Post it on your fridge. You can laminate your master meal plan or insert it into a plastic page protector. Then put it on your fridge for easy reference. This is especially helpful if you are sharing cooking duties with others in the family. My husband is a good cook and likes helping out in the kitchen, but finds it much easier if he knows there is a plan.
Step 6: Use it to create your shopping list. Based on my meal plan, I create a shopping list for a 2 week period. This helps me stay out of the grocery store as often, which saves me time, helps me take advantage of bulk savings, and reduces unneeded purchases. Knowing my planned dinners in advance helps me check what ingredients I have on hand and what I will need to purchase. This way I do not find myself lacking a key ingredient in the middle of a recipe, or buying duplicates.
What about flexibility? A meal plan is a guideline. No matter what happens, you know you have the ingredients on hand to make a certain number of meals. If a spontaneous dinner invitation or other occurrence changes the plan, it is easy to switch around meals. In my case, I typically move forward a meal with perishable ingredients, and take out a meal based mainly on frozen or canned foods. Any unused ingredients can carry forward to the next meal plan.
With a bit of planning, you can create a meal plan that works for you and your family. Don’t be afraid to work with and adjust it as needed so it really works for you. Remember, it doesn’t have to be fancy in order to work! Meal planning improves the chances of eating together as a family, getting better nutrition, and reducing unnecessary spending on last minute grocery shops or take-out foods. Give meal planning a try – I would love to hear how it works for you (comment below or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org).
Your turn: Do you plan your meals in advance? What would you add or remove from the steps above?