Meal Planning 101

meal planning 101We all plan meals, whether monthly or mere minutes before they hit the table. Purposeful meal planning is all the rage in circles of moms trying to find the time to get it all done while on a budget.

At first, planning meals may feel burdensome, like one more thing to do in your already busy day. The fact is you are already planning meals, but doing so in advance can save you money and time, as well as help you to be more thoughtful about what you want your family to consume overall.

First, take note of what you are already eating. It’s happening whether the meals are planned or not. Try to recall the meals of the last week (or write down your meals for several weeks to get an idea). Assess what you like about your dinners and what changes you’d like to see over time. Perhaps you’d like to add more veggies, eat less take-out, eat fewer fried foods, or just add more variety.

Next, consider what you already have on hand. Planning meals requires buying ahead of time the particular ingredients of each meal, but you also need the basics always in stock at home. This can vary for each family but sugar, flour, basic spices, olive oil, vinegar, beans, tomatoes, pasta, rice, and so on based on your inclinations. You can also prepare your kitchen by having a no-buy week, weeks, or month. This is great incentive to save a few bucks to stock your kitchen with basics for the future.

With all of these things in mind grab a pen. On a calendar (whether fancy or just a sheet of paper with days jotted down) write out a meal plan for one or two weeks. You can also plan breakfasts and lunches. I don’t write these down in advance but rather have about 10 go-to meals that I keep fairly in stock, based on sales.

When I don’t plan meals I can feel frazzled by 5 PM. In reality the dinner hurdle is not as bad as I think. I plan about five meals knowing that we will have one or two leftover nights and possibly a pizza take-out night (or something similar). We also have a night where we eat dinner at the church. Suddenly my week only needs 4 meals to make it through. I also now include a night or two per month where I take random things in my pantry and make magic happen. This helps to keep my pantry and fridge tidy.

Running short on ideas? Pinterest and Google are your best friends. If there is a brand you like (of a condiment or other staple, like Annie’s Organic), roam their boards. Gather ideas and brainstorm. You can also search recipes by main ingredients (vegetable casserole) or ethnic variety (Italian). If you use a crockpot or pressure cooker you can find a treasure trove of appliance-specific meals. Some moms do freezer meals and fix everything at once so they only have to cook one weekend a month!

Ask friends for their favorite recipes and, most important, ask your family for some of their favorites or requests! To keep track create your own Pinterest board with links to recipes, bookmark recipes, write them down, or print them out into a binder. No matter how keep your recipes, if you use Pinterest for specific types of meals regularly, it will start finding them for you—even easier!

If budget matters to you plan your meals by what’s on sale. You may be able to look online at your local grocer’s website or by circulars/mailers that arrive to your home or that can be picked up at the front of the store. Incorporate coupons as you see fit. When you have space, buy sale products for more than just the one meal (in other words in bulk, based on how much space you have at home). Also plan meals that use similar ingredients. Perhaps you only need one cup of mushrooms for Monday night but you can save money by buying the large pack, so plan a meal that uses them again by Wednesday.

Plan for the week and make a list of the ingredients you’ll need to make that happen. By going to the store only one or two times a week I don’t fight traffic or dwell the aisles of the store as often, saving significant time and money (because all time and money is significant these days!). In the beginning you may find planning rather intensive. Take small steps. Don’t try to overhaul everything from the beginning. Start with what is comfortable and incorporate any changes slowly.

At the end of each week, assess what worked well and what didn’t. Keep a list of favorites so you can incorporate them into your rotation. Make a list of any pantry staples you need to replenish so you can purchase them during the next week’s shopping trip.

Lynette is a mom of three children from 6 months to age four. She has cloth diapered all three since birth and enjoys all things eco-friendly and mindful living.

Tags: budget, family, food, home, meal planning

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