You’ve probably heard that meal planning can help you save money, keep on track with a healthy diet, and free up more of your time. But if you’ve never been one to put much thought into your weekly menus, or you’re not a super-organized person by nature, the idea of meal planning can feel downright overwhelming.
I honestly started meal planning under duress. With just my husband and I to cook for, I have to humbly admit that we ate out a lot. But in January, my step-son moved in with us to complete his last semester of college and I knew we had to change our eating habits for several reasons. One, because of scheduling, I would probably end up running out at least 2 times to get food and two, we couldn’t afford how much we were spending on take out before so we for sure couldn’t with three people to feed. And three, our take out choices had become really unhealthy and left us feeling tired and bloated all of the time. I had to make meal planning work.
It was tough at first. Figuring out what everyone likes, trying to infuse some variety week after week and creating a once a week shopping list without forgetting anything were only a few of the obstacles I had to overcome.
It really is worth it though. Once you get into the swing of a meal planning system, you’ll be glad you did. These tips will help you figure out how to make meal planning work for you – so you can start saving money, time, and sanity!
If you’re still undecided on whether to take the plunge and commit to meal planning, here are three of the top reasons to give it a try:
3 Reasons Why You Should Meal Plan
1. Meal planning saves the time and mental energy you’d otherwise waste staring into the fridge deciding what to make, or aimlessly browsing the grocery store shelves, hoping for a flash of inspiration. No more getting to the end of a busy day and then having to pull together enough brainpower and ingredients to whip up something satisfying.
2. Meal planning makes healthier food choices automatic. The temptation to simply grab takeout is far less likely when you know you have something healthy, tasty, and easily accessible waiting for you at home.
3. Meal planning saves you money. When you plan ahead, you can shop around and take full advantage of sales and bulk prices. The impulse buying and overspending that go along with unplanned grocery shopping trips are naturally limited. And, of course, eating at home is nearly always cheaper than buying restaurant food!
And here is an unexpected benefit I discovered when I started to meal plan: no more complaining or arguing or saying, “I don’t want that, how about this.” Once my family discovered I was committed to meal planning, they knew what to expect every night. I hung the meal plan on the fridge for all to see. I was flexible in as far as much dinners could be switched around but that is as far as I strayed. Surprisingly, everyone adapted quickly.
Here’s what you need to know and consider before you start cooking:
Meal Planning 101: 7 Tips To Get You Started
The good news is, once you figure this part out, you’ll be able to put your meal plans (almost) on autopilot. Keeping my old meal plans in a binder has helped me become faster at meal planning especially with rotating our favourite meals week to week. You may want to do that too.
1. Choose a plan that works for your life
First things first, you have to consider which types of meals appeal to you – to prepare as well as to eat!
Do you love coming home to the aroma of a crock pot full of simmering stew? Do you love the simplicity of frozen meals you can quickly toss in the oven to reheat? Casseroles, pot pies, chili, soups, and lasagna are tasty examples of meals that will freeze well and yield multiple meals per batch. Another option is having veggies pre-chopped and meat pre-seasoned that you can whip up into a quick and simple stir-fry or a nice big salad at the end of the day.
If you are a take-out junkie like we were, try some of these copy cat recipes of your favourite restaurants.
2. Get it down on paper
Make a master list of meals and ingredients that you already know you and your family will enjoy. Try to come up with at least 10-20 meals so you can rotate them and avoid getting stuck eating the exact same things every week (unless you are a particularly picky eater and that is what will make you happy, of course).
You can add in a few intriguing new recipes you’ve wanted to try, but primarily sticking to things you already know and love (especially in the beginning) can make your new plan easier to implement. Keep in mind that writing out a meal plan doesn’t set it in stone! It’s your plan and you can make changes at any time if something’s just not working.
3. Take inventory of your storage supplies
Make sure you’ve got enough pieces of Tupperware or Pyrex to store your weekly meals and/or prepped ingredients. While you’re at it, take this opportunity to purge all of the pieces with missing lids!
Go through your list of meals and figure out which shapes and sizes you’ll need. Consider whether you’ll be mostly packaging food in single-serving portions, or storing larger amounts to heat up all at once for family dinners. Make sure all of the containers you want to use will reasonably fit in your refrigerator and freezer.
4. Come up with a simple schedule
Some meal planners like to assign a different type of meal for each day of the week, such as soup on Monday, taco salad on Tuesday, stir-fry on Wednesday, roasted chicken on Thursday, etc. Of course, you don’t have to keep a strict schedule – no one’s going to stop you from heating up the lasagna you’re craving on Monday or saving tacos for Friday instead!
5. Get the most mileage out of your cooking
Whenever possible, incorporate versatile foods that can do double or triple duty. Large batches of rice, beans, soups, etc. can be incorporated into multiple meals throughout the week. Try to get creative by carrying leftovers from dinner into lunches for the rest of the week. For example, you could roast a chicken for dinner one night, and use the leftover meat to make chicken salad or top your lunch salad the next day.
6. Look for inspiration
If you get stumped on what to cook (or end up in a rut as time goes on), take a look through the indexes of your favourite cookbooks or browse Google and Pinterest. You can search for recipes by type of meal, cooking method, or even for recipes that require a certain ingredient (or group of ingredients).
It is possible to save time by having someone else do the meal planning and shopping list-writing for you. There are tons of cut-and-paste meal plans out there – from entire meal planning cookbooks to thousands of sites all over the internet. If you happen across one that calls to you, by all means, give it a try! Just be sure you’re always keeping tip #1 in mind, and don’t be afraid to play around with the plan to make it your own.
7. Create your shopping list
Once you have your meal plan for the week complete, it is time to make your shopping list so that you only have to go shopping once. I go through my meal plan, day by day, and shop my fridge and cupboards first. Then I write down everything I need on my shopping list.
Additional Tip: On my meal plan I list everything, and I mean everything, I need for each meal. So if we are having a burger and fries dinner, I list all the condiments we would need as well. This prompts me to check my supplies when I make my shopping list.
That’s it! You are ready for the week. That wasn’t so bad was it?
Depending on the meals you have chosen, you may be cooking every night but I encourage you to go a step further and try to cook ahead once you have a knack for meal planning. That will make your meal plan really shine and save you tons of time.
Make your cooking day fun!
Meal planning typically involves setting aside a large chunk of time (anywhere from an hour or two to an entire afternoon) to do all of the necessary cooking, prep, and cleanup for the week to come. The more fun you can make this process – and less like a chore or a burden – the easier it will be to stick with your meal plan.
Try to make your kitchen time feel like “me” time to look forward to. Make a ritual out of putting on your favorite music, an audiobook, or a podcast and having some coffee, tea, or wine while you work. And once you’ve gotten all of the dishes clean, treat yourself to some relaxation time – knowing that you’re starting a new week with minimal cooking and dishes ahead!
Once you get into the swing of it, meal planning really will make your life easier – and it can even be kind of fun. So give it a try! Start with super simple meals the first week or two. Once you’ve got that down, you can get creative and experiment with adding new recipes to your rotation. Before long, your new meal planning routine will feel like second nature – saving you all kinds of time, money, and mental effort!