Meal planning: you either love it, or you hate it.
Some people love cozying up to their favorite pinterest board, pen in hand, and scribbling down recipes and ingredients for the week. What’s even more astonishing is that these people actually buys the groceries, makes the food and it turns out amazing…
Others (like myself) are not so lucky.
Photo credit: https://modernmommymadness.com/
- Maybe we just don’t have the skills to decorate a cake that looks like a monster truck.
- Or maybe we have so much going on in our lives that it’s impossible to sit down and actually plan out meals.
- Or maybe the thought of writing 5 hundred lists just to make 6 dinners sounds exhausting.
Me, every time. Photo credit: craftfail.com
I claim all of the above. I’m a mom, a wife, a nurse, a business owner… and if by some unexpected turn of events I have 2 extra hours in my week, I am not going to use it planning meals, going shopping for 5 thousand spices that I’ll only use once, cook meals that take way longer than the “cook time” on the recipe say the will, only to have my toddler throw all the food on the floor and my husband say he’s “not sure it’s his favorite” (a very polite and loving way of saying don’t ever make this again). Nope, I’m sleeping those two hours away.
So what’s the alternative to painstakingly planning meal that take way too much time, cost too much money, and no one will eat?
Not planning meals isn’t a good option –
For the longest time, I just winged it. I’d go to the grocery store with absolutely no list and just buy a variety of veggies, fruits, meats, and grains and beans, specifically buying what was on sale. I’d have a fridge full of food, but no clue what I was to do with it. I’d look up a recipe or two, but generally had all but one or two ingredients that I would have needed to make the recipe. Usually I’d end up making one stir fry, a few other attempts at dishes throughout the week (thanks google for the sub-par recommendation on “what do I do with a pork chop”) And inevitably half of all that fresh food would go bad.
I was wasting money, wasting time, and no one was enjoying the last minute meals I threw together and the chicken was ALWAYS DRY. Always.
Meal planning services –
There are a variety of meal planning services out there, and your experience with them may vary. I’ve had meal delivery done by a local chef, the food was delicious and fresh but it was pricey. I have not done the meal kits that are so popular these days, so I can’t really speak to those.
I will say I’m not a huge fan of the “menu planning” memberships. I’m talking about the ones where you pay a small monthly fee for them to send you a pre-made grocery list and menu ready to go.
In theory these sound like a great idea, and they may be worth a try for you. However, I’ve found they’re less than useful for myself personally. For one thing: the recipes have a 50/50 ratio of sounding delicious to no-way-my-family-would-eat-that. Also, they still require a significant time commitment: You still have to decide which recipes to cook, which sides to make with it, and how many servings you need. This one sized fits all approach just didn’t work for me.
Meal planning is possible, if you do it right –
If you’re a fan of planning a variety of meals throughout the week, my incredible client Brynna is the one you want to talk to. Next week on the blog she’ll be sharing her strategy for making a solid meal plan less complicated, and actually fit with your life. No more planning to make meals that take too long when you happen to have PTA meeting the same night, no more produce going bad because you didn’t have a good use for it.
Brynna’s strategy is very useful if you have 1 or more hours to dedicate to planning on the weekend, but if you don’t have the time, have little experience with cooking and eating at home, or would rather not spend the time or energy to think about what to eat, here’s how I automated my meal planning.
How I spend 5 minutes a week planning my meals, (and cut my grocery budget in half in the process) –
The key to a 5 minute per week meal plan is this: make one plan, and keep using from week to week with minimal variations.
Step 1: Write out five recipes or meals that are simple to make and that you know your family enjoys. If you’re dealing with picky kids, consider a family style meal approach to give them options.
Right now my recipes are as follows:
Monday: Pan roasted chicken thighs, fresh veggies and dip, seasoned brown rice.
Tuesday: Turkey taco bar
Wednesday: Salmon, roasted potato wedges, steamed veggies,
Thursday: Turkey meatballs, pasta, sauce, steamed broccoli
Friday: Meatloaf (turkey, lean beef, or bison) mashed potatoes, roasted veggies,
Three of my current family meals
Typically I serve raw veggies with dip and fruit with each meal too. Yours don’t have to look like mine, find things that your family will enjoy.
Step 2: Plan a shopping list for your recipes, adding ingredients you will need for breakfasts and lunches as well. I also make a “fun” recipe on sunday nights that might be more involved (and yes, probably from pinterest) so I’ll add the ingredients I need for that as well.
Keep that shopping list somewhere handy (like, on your computer so you can print it out every week, cross of items you still have, and hit the store)
Step 3: Continue using the same plan week after week. When you’re ready to hit the grocery store, just print your list and go.
my shopping list, divided into three stores.
Each week, make only slight changes to your recipes. For example: you may do lemon pepper salmon one week, teriyaki salmon the next. The only thing that changes is the seasoning. I swap out seasonings, plus choose fruits and veggies based on what’s in season. that means only a small portion of my grocery list varies from week to week.
Step 4: If you get sick of a recipe, swap the entire thing out for a new recipe, making no more than one swap a week so that you aren’t bombarded with changes to adjust on your shopping list. Add and remove from your shopping list as needed.
Step 5: enjoy home cooked, delicious food all week….minimal time and thought required.
Note: This process requires a little leg work to get started. Initially you may have to dedicate an hour or two to setting up your system, but once it’s in place, your average time for planning your meals and grocery list will be about 5 minutes per week — all you need to do is review your list for what you have, add an additional “fun” meal if you want, and make some changes in seasonings.
Once I started using this system my grocery bill dropped to half of what it was before. This is a big deal. I had been trying to get control of an out of control grocery budget for a long time. I have some ideas as to why this way of planning and cooking is so cost effective.
- I used up ingredients before they went bad: if I had half open jar of marinara sauce, I had a plan for where it was going the next week.
- Every item on my list had a job: I never bought food that didn’t have a place on our table, so I knew everything would be used and none of it wasted.
- I wasn’t running to the store for random seasonings and spices in the middle of the week that I thought I had but didn’t. Because as you and know, a shopping trip for one item means you walk out of the store with ten.
- I didn’t cook meals that my family wouldn’t eat, meaning no more pb&j “after dinners” for the toddler or late night bowls of cereal from my poor, hungry husband.
Also – a surprising side benefits for moms of picky kids: my son, who’s almost two, is eating much more variety now that we have some consistency to what we eat. When we first stared this, my picky almost two year old would only eat veggies, fruits, and a bite or two of rice at dinner. He would eat plenty of mac and cheese and crackers, just not our dinner food. This evening at dinner he pounded down an entire chicken thigh, ate a bunch of green beans, some rice and some watermelon. If I had to guess, I’d say a low pressure dinner environment, combined with frequent exposure to the same foods helped him feel much more comfortable with what was served. I’ve seen this happen in the past few weeks as he is experimenting much more with what is on our dinner spread.
If you’re struggling to get meals on the table, feel overwhelmed at the thought of planning and preparing meals, or ending up ordering pizza or getting fast food regularly despite your best intentions, consider starting with this type of approach. It may not be as thrilling as creating pinterest-worthy dishes every night of the week, but you, and your family will be fed, happy, and a few dollars richer each day. If you’re ready for a more varied approach to meal planning, stay tuned for next week – another system for planning meals that involves more time commitment, but also more novelty is coming at you next week.