Thursday, September 8, 2011

Meal Planning

I remember the days when I would make out a whimsical grocery list of basics we needed (fruit, butter, bread, milk, eggs, etc) and trot myself down every aisle in the grocery store picking up anything else that looked good or was on sale. Then everyday about 5PM on my way home from work I would struggle over what to make for dinner. Funny enough it always seemed that I would need one extra ingredient that I didn't have, so I would have to think of something else to make or make an extra trip back to the grocery store. Of course if I had to go to the store I would pick up a few extra things while I was there as to not waste my trip on just one item. This was my normal routine until....

One day I was at a friend's house and I noticed a small piece of paper stuck on her fridge with different meals listed out on it. I asked her about it and she said that at the beginning of each week she quickly writes down the different meals she's going to make for her family that week. She then had a cute little notepad sticking next to it with a pre-labeled lined grocery list on it that she would fill out after she made up her meal plan. You see she usually sent her husband out to do the shopping (don't we all wish this), but to make it easy on him she had a list that is sorted out by areas of the store so he wouldn't forget anything. I had an epiphany!!! How simple was that to take a few minutes to plan everything out at the beginning of the week, make up a list of all the items needed for those meals, and sort the list out so it's easier to shop!

Meal planning has to be one of the most simple ways to get the most out of your grocery shopping and gives you a little more sanity in picking what to eat each day. This can definitely lead to some real money and time saving benefits as well. Also if you are trying to lose some extra weight or have special dietary needs to consider, planning your meals out can positively affect your health and well being.  There are all sorts of different meal planning methods, but this is what has worked for me over the past few years and maybe it can help you too.

1) Set Aside Time to Plan

It is key to set aside time to plan out your meals and make your grocery list approximately 15-30 minutes. Making this a priority can save you a lot of time, money and head aches later on in the week. I like to wait until Sunday evenings after my children have gone to bed so I am not interrupted and I'm ready for my weekly grocery shop on Monday mornings.

2) Plan a Week's Worth of Meals

I like to plan my meals one week at a time. I tried planning out a monthly schedule, but it didn't seem very flexible.  Plus I usually grocery shop for about a week's worth of food at a time in respect to my fresh fruit and vegetables.
  1. Focus on dinner meals - main course then fill in salads and sides
    • Make list of your families favorite meals and pull it out when you need some ideas
    • Check out my "What's for Dinner?" posting each week to get meal ideas and recipes or click on "menu" under my Index for past postings
  2. Consider items needed for breakfast and lunch
    • Evening leftovers can be used for lunch
    • Items needed for a packed lunch
    • Staple items for breakfast eggs, toast, pancakes, homemade muffins, etc
    • Some ready to go items for those potentially late running mornings
  3. Snack items you would like to have
    • Plan ahead for healthy snacks like fruit, vegetables, cheese, lean meats
    • Think about homemade goods like granola bars, zucchini muffins, oatmeal raisin cookies, etc.

3) Write Down Your Selections

I utilize a laminated weekly calendar to jot down my meal and snack ideas for the week.  I keep this menu posted on the side of my refrigerator so everyone can see, but you can put yours anywhere in your kitchen to help remind you what you've planned.   Right next to it I also keep a little note pad on a magnet to write down items that I run out of during the week.

Other ways you could make your list:
  • use a scratch piece of paper
  • create a computer template and print out loads of copies
  • use a big monthly desk calendar page
  • put it in your paper or electronic planner or smartphone

Things to Consider:
Nutritional and Dietary Needs
  • Look to balance out your nutritional needs by looking at a full day's menu - For information on recommended nutritional guidelines go to
  • Consider any dietary needs or food allergies your family members or dinner guests may have and plan accordingly
  • Planning your meals and snacks out can help you better stick with any weight loss programs you are on - set up your planning calendar the way your diet recommends you eat
    • For example: Breakfast - snack - lunch- snack - dinner - snack

Your Family
  • Consider your family's schedule for the next week
    • What nights do you have in or out?
    • What nights you need a quick prep meal or have time for a more intricate one?
    • Are there meals you need to make ahead?
    • Are their special occasions to celebrate?
  • Build most of your dinners around family favorite meals especially if you have picky eaters, but try at least one new recipe a month to find new family favorites

Maximizing Your Time and Current Food Available
  • Pick a meal that you can double and freeze the other half for a later date
    • I like to make a double batch of our favorite homemade spaghetti sauce and freeze part of it so create two meals in the time I make one
  • Pick a meal that creates leftovers to use in another meal that week
    • Roast a whole chicken and use left over for chicken salad sandwiches
  • Look in your freezer and pantry for items you want to use up
    • Keep your food stock rotated and use up your oldest items to make room for new
  • Look for leftover items that need used up along with extra perishables and produce you have
    • If you have extra fruit getting too ripe, consider making smoothies or a fruit-based dessert
    • Extra meat and vegetables could be used for a soup or casserole
    • If you can't incorporate those leftovers right away, package them up and freeze them until you can
  • Meat can be very expensive, so consider incorporating some meatless main dishes and meals using small amounts of meat in them like casseroles, soups, stir fries, etc. to help cut down costs
  • Some side dishes can be made in bigger batches and utilized for multiple meals throughout the week
  • Check your favorite grocery store's ad for sale items to incorporate into your menu

Trying Something New
  • Get inspiration for new recipes from cookbooks, magazines, online recipe sites or blogs
  • Cut out recipes out of some of my favorite magazines that you want to try and put them in a big binder 

Be f-l-e-x-i-b-l-e !!!

You never know what will pop up on any given day, so your well thought out plan will inevitably change on some days.  Don't get discouraged because you've already planned at least you have 5-7 meals ready to go in your kitchen because you planned out a week's worth of meals.

Just in case though, it doesn't hurt to have some quick, ready-to-go meals in the freezer or pantry if you don't have time to make any of the meals you had planned.
  • Frozen ready to cook pasta/rice meals
  • Spaghetti sauce and pasta
  • One of those "Helper" meals
  • Frozen pizza
  • And more....
Next time we will look at "How to Make an Effective Grocery List" using your meal plan.

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