Meal Planning 101

I love meal planning.  Not just because I am a little anal about organization, but because I love the way a simple plan can free up more time and money for other, more enjoyable things.  When I first married Tim I’d dread cooking supper.  When done with work and driving home, I’d wrack my brains trying to think of what to cook, and trying to remember if I had the ingredients I’d need to make it.  Meal planning was the key to unlocking the enjoyment of cooking for me.  Before planning it was just a chore- afterward it became another creative outlet in my life.  Here are some other reasons I plan my meals each month:

  • I save money at the store
  • I save time cooking
  • I am less stressed about cooking
  • I spend less time grocery shopping
  • I waste less food
  • I am healthier (I control what I eat more than possible when eating out)
  • I stay excited to cook by cooking what I enjoy eating

You may think this is really far-fetched, and indeed, I do sometimes grow tired of cooking, or stressed before dinner, or unintentionally waste food that should have been eaten, but this is not the norm.  Meal planning makes deciding what to make for dinner really easy.  I know what to make and I know I have the ingredients.

The biggest question you probably have is: How do I start meal planning?

  • Well, first you will want to assess how much money you have to spend on groceries each week or two or four.
  • Next you will need to decide how you want to go about cooking each day.  This could mean that you put dinner in the slow cooker before heading to work in the morning, cook when you get home from work, cook when it’s convenient because you are home with the kids all day anyway, or that you cook up a whole bunch of freezer-friendly meals and reheat things daily.
  • Based on the method(s) you decide to use, you will want to assemble an array of recipes that you enjoy eating, that fit your time frame, and which you can afford to purchase with your grocery budget.
  • Lastly, you will decide if you want to plan each and every meal, or keep some staple items around for breakfast, eat leftovers as often as possible for lunch, and keep some sandwich materials around for the odd lunch when there are no leftovers.

For me this looks like:

  • $300 per month for all food and cleaning supplies
  • I like to do a mixture of all the methods listed above, except cooking “after work”.
  • I really enjoy eating healthy, homemade foods, many recipes are here on the site, though I am modifying our meals and leaving out some of the saucier foods that I’ve posted recipes for.
  • I keep staple items for breakfast and eat leftovers for lunch almost every day, but that may change as my family grows.

Everyone says, “Go big or go home” but this is not really a good attitude to have when starting a meal plan.  The best way to start is with baby steps.  Initially even the small changes will feel really big, so adjust to them and add in more planning, or more freezer meals as you get the hang of things.  When I started meal planning I simply wrote out about 21 suppers that I thought we’d like to eat in a month and purchased enough food to make about 7 of them each time I shopped.  I’d also purchase my staples like bread and eggs, any cleaning supplies I was out of, and maybe a treat, if I had money.  I only wrote out 21 meals because it seemed that we’d only cook about that many times per month.  The other 7 suppers per month were date nights, invites to friend’s homes, leftovers, or simple sandwiches because we were in a hurry.

Now that I have been meal planning for 6 years, I still use the same method, but with a few little tweaks:

  • I now plan my meals around what meats I have on hand.  I have access to inexpensive turkey products, and tons of venison (deer meat), so I don’t need to purchase meat very often.  When I do, it’s enough for several months. If you have to buy your meats  regularly, I recommend watching sales fliers and planning around the best deals at your local stores.  Or, if you can budget it and have the freezer space, buying a whole pig or steer can really save on the price per pound.
  • I choose to buy all the non-perishable or freezable ingredients for my meal plan in one huge shopping trip at the beginning of the month. Then, as I run out of staples, fruit, or a certain perishable I need for a meal, I will buy them as needed in smaller shopping trips.  The biggest reason for this is that Tim and I only have one car, so finding time to grocery shop when I can drive is difficult.  By handling it this way I can reduce shopping trips to 2-3 per month.
  • Additionally, I really like freezer meals and the time they save cooking and dish washing.  I will be posting more on freezer meals later, but for now I’ll say that the easiest and most efficient way to make freezer meals (in my opinion) without cooking like a madwoman for 3 days, is to just double a recipe that is freezer-friendly, and put half in an appropriate dish or bag for thawing and reheating later.  Super easy.  You already made the dishes dirty, prepped all the food, and assembled it- now you have a bonus meal ready for a busier day this month, with little to no extra work.

So, do what fits your schedule, your budget, and your lifestyle.  If something works well for you, continue doing it.  If something doesn’t work for you, try something different.  I tried the “cooking like a madwoman” method of freezer meal-ing, and that wasn’t my style, but now I know that and I’m free to use other methods without feeling like I must be missing out.  Do some research and try different things to figure out a method that is sustainable and enjoyable to you.

Happy Planning!

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