To those unfamiliar with meal planning it can feel like an overwhelming task, but that’s usually because we view meal planning from the end point. As newbies look at those delicious dinners created and long grocery lists, it can be a tad intimidating. It all looks amazing; however, you may ask…how do I do it?
Meal planning, even as a busy mom, is not as difficult as it seems. I have come up with a simple, effective system for meal planning and broke it down into three key steps: selecting recipes, shopping for ingredients, and prepping your meals.
These steps might seem pretty obvious, and yes, they may be, but there’s a strategy within each of them. It’s the strategy that makes meal planning worth it! Along the way we’re going to cover what you need for success, what is inessential, and share a few bonus tips you can implement as you settle into the routine.
You’ll leave this post with a solid understanding on how to craft your own meal plan so when that eternal question of what’s for dinner is asked you’ll have just the right answer 😉
Basics of Meal Planning
Before we dig in, let’s make sure we’re on the same page about what meal planning is and what it isn’t.
What it is: Meal planning is asking the what’s for dinner question once for the whole week, instead of every night, and then shopping for and prepping the ingredients before cooking. The simplest format is following these three steps:
• Select your dinners and their recipes, if needed.
• Shop for ingredients.
• Prepare those ingredients.
Start on a Friday: This is what works best for me personally. The weekends are the only time I have to get out and do grocery shopping as a busy working mom, so I kick of the weekend by creating my meal plan on Friday night then shopping on Saturday then I will meal prep for an an hour or so on either Saturday or Sunday.
What it isn’t: Meal planning can change you’re life as a busy mom; however, it can be easy to blow its effects out of proportion. While it does solve many problems, you’ve got to tailor it to fit your needs. You need to take some time for trial and error to find a system that works for you. You’ve also got to make room one free night…enjoy a date night or pizza night with the fam!
What you need to get started
Consider asking yourself a few questions as you begin your meal planning journey. You need to figure out why it is you are interested in meal planning. Is it to…
• Eat healthier?
• Save money?
• Save time?
• Have more variety?
• Spend more time with family?
• Prevent wasting food?
If you’re just getting started with meal planning, only choose one or two of the above and keep them in mind when you do (my favorite) part of meal planning…picking out the recipes.
Choosing your recipes.
Choosing your recipes the reasons behind your desire to meal plan into action. In fact, this is the most critical step since it starts of a chain reaction, because you shouldn’t really just choose a bunch of recipes and hope for the best. Start thinking about and researching your meal plan a few days in advance before you want to give it ago. This will give you time for the full process of making a shopping list, shopping, and then prepping. Here’s how I recommend you pick your recipes.
Decide how many meals you need and how they fit into your day.
Take a look at your calendar or through your planner for the coming week and which nights you will be making a home cooked meal. Five nights is generally the most common. Then, you need to consider the details. On the nights that you’re cooking, how do those meals fit into your day? For example, on the nights where you stay late at work, a 10-hour slow cooker recipe is a good idea. If you have to go out for a church meeting after dinner, what recipes do you have that take 30 minutes or less?
I also like to take a look at the weather forecast for the week. Is it going to be rainy (perhaps a nice soup would work well) or uncharacteristically hot (a light salad with grilled chicken might hit the spot). I tend to crave certain foods depending on the weather, so taking a look ahead will let you know if you need to plan some comfort food to warm the soul, or lighter fare to help keep things cool.
Where will you find your recipes?
There is no end of recipe options out there! Taking a look at your reason for meal planning will help to narrow them down. Are you looking for quick 30 minute meals? Recipes that can cook in the crockpot while your at work? Do they need to fit into a specific eating plan like Keto or Paleo? These will all help point in the right direction.
When you have the general idea of what you want there are cookbooks, cooking sites, Google, or my personal favorite….Pinterest, that will provide you an abundance of ideas to choose from.
Rules for picking the right recipe:
Choose meals that provide leftovers: They’re the gift that keeps on giving.
Only add one or two new recipes: For the rest choose family favorites that you know they will love. This helps keep you from feeling overwhelmed by cooking a new recipe every night.
Pick recipes based on common ingredients: This starts with looking at what you already have in your fridge, freezer, and pantry. Shopping your own kitchen can help you avoid wasted food. Additionally, this saves money and helps you not to end up with 4 bags of brown rice and 10 cans of diced tomatoes. Plus, if recipes have the same common ingredient – say you choose 3 recipes with chicken – one day you can cook the whole chicken and have that with a few sides. The next day you can take the leftovers and use them for quesadillas or a casserole…then with whatever is leftover you could make a soup. Talk about money saving!
Choose things you’ll love: It might take some trial and error, but you’ll soon figure out what types of recipes are your favorites. There is nothing worse than planning a whole meal and then not enjoying it and having it go to waste. Only cook what you’ll eat!
Crafting your grocery list
You’ve done the hardest part of choosing your recipes! Awesome job! Now what do you need to make them? I tend to go through a two step process to creating my list. Don’t get overwhelmed! It’s not difficult 🙂
Make a master ingredient list
This is not your grocery list, but it is the first step in creating the perfect one, while also helping you take inventory of what’s in your kitchen. Start by going through each recipe’s ingredient list to make up the master list of things you’ll need for the week. For example: right down every ingredient for each recipe and then consolidate them (if you have 3 recipes that call for eggs, then add them up and you’ll know just how many you need for the week). Then, take some time to through your kitchen and cross off anything you already have. No more coming back from the store and realizing you now have 3 tubs of greek yogurt.
Make the grocery list
Don’t jump in the car yet! There’s one more simple step that will help save time at the store and keep you from forgetting any important items. This is to group your grocery list by the the various food departments in your store (produce, meat, dairy, etc.).
I like to take it one step further and list the items in the order I find them in the store (for me this looks like: veggies and fruit, bread, canned goods, baking necessities, meat, dairy and then frozen goods). If you are a mama you know the layout of your store by heart…that’s why it takes you 5 seconds to run in and grab the item you forgot, while it takes your hubby 15 minutes!
Prepping for the week
Don’t let your excellent recipe planning, list making and grocery shopping bite the dust by not following through with a little bit of meal prep. Meal prepping will help stave of the desire to grab take out because you really don’t want to take the time to chop up all those veggies for stir-fry after work.
Set aside some time Saturday or Sunday to do some batch cooking and prep work. Things like chopping up veggies, portioning out fruit and pre-cooking your chicken are all helpful activities you can do to lessen your time in the kitchen during the workweek.
Meal planning is not difficult, but it’s no piece of cake either, especially when you’re new to it. So if you showed up here seeking to make your life in the kitchen a bit calmer, you’re well on your way. Each time you go through the process of meal planning you learn what not to do, where you can improve, what you can do without, and how to personalize the process to fit your needs. Keeping consistent will only makes you better.