Meal planning was consistently one of the scariest challenges for me. It always felt overwhelming to take it on, with grocery lists, recipes, and cooking schedules it’s a lot to manage! Between my full-time job, running my company, Cody’s work schedule, Levi’s schedule, and doing it all around staying social with my friends, planning my meals out has been essential. It took a little bit to figure out my ideal system, but now that I go into each month with a plan, it’s much easier.
After honing the planning process and figuring out my system for a whole year, I narrowed it down into three(ish) steps; Review, Select, Shop. These might seem pretty obvious, but for meal prepping newbies, it’s hard to see the easy strategy.
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What is Meal Planning?
I saw meal planning super easily explained as asking the what’s for dinner question once, instead of every night. For some people it’s asking the question once a week and for others it’s once a month. The simplest way to approach it, no matter what your planning period is:
Bonus Tip: you don’t have to start your meal planning on a “normal” day, like Sunday or Monday. I build my weeks around when I can grocery shop, which is Thursday nights. So when I plan my weekly grocery trips, I will shop for all planned meals from Thursday to Wednesday.
Other things to remember while meal planning:
- You don’t need a big fancy binder of meals and post-its and planners and organizers to make this work. I pop my calendar right into Google Calendar and write my list in a cute notebook!
- It’s not just for big families. You always see the mom of 8 kids, 4 dogs and a husband and a half planning all these meals, which definitely gives meal planning big-family-energy. But for me it’s just myself and Cody, occasionally cooking for our family or friends.
- You don’t need to be an expert chef. You want to plan for take out twice a week and a frozen meal on Tuesdays? You do you! Your meal plan doesn’t have to be fancy home cooked every day!
- It’s not set in stone. Have a bad day at work? Go for takeout. Forgot to take chicken out of the freezer? Swap today’s meal for tomorrow’s pasta. As a matter of fact, my #1 meal prepping tip is to always have a few go-to emergency meals on hand, just in case! For us, that means noodles and frozen meatballs!
Review Your Calendar
Ironically, the first stage of meal planning has nothing to do with meals. It has to do with figuring out what in the world you’re actually doing for the next month. For me, the key things to work around are Cody’s work schedule and pre-planned social things. That looks like me being the primary chef Monday through Wednesday when Cody is commuting, planning quick meals on Fridays before game night, and, for November, doing a big shop before my business trip to prep for a lot of cooking and baking right after.
When you look at your calendar, whether paper or virtual, always keep in mind what nights you’re out of the house, how often you want to be doing takeout, any busy night, any traveling days, etc. And don’t forget to double-check with anyone else you’re cooking for/with! I keep a separate calendar of what Cody is up to just to help decide whether we have the time for a new long meal, or stick with a quick favorite.
Review Your Pantry
The thing I see so many people forget when meal planning, eat down what you have! Chances are, you have a built-up stock of some foods, or if you’re like me, a bunch of mostly-eaten boxes of pasta. See what you have started and what needs to go, what produce is on its way out. And most importantly, what food items did you buy and never ever get around to eating? Take those as a sign of food items you could probably pass on next time around! Make a mental note or grab a sticky note to keep track of the base items you need to get through ASAP, so you don’t forget to incorporate them in recipes earlier in your plan.
Bonus Tip: use this as the time to clean out your fridge too. I try to do a mini sweep every week, just tossing out empty containers or funky produce. But once a month when I do my meal planning, I empty each shelf, wipe them down with whatever cleaner I have on hand, and refresh the organization and drawer set up. It doesn’t usually take too long to do, but it’s definitely a cleaning task we put off for too long!
Select Your Recipes
This is where you get to make meal planning more custom for you. Focus your recipes on your meal plan goals, whatever they may be. These could include focusing on saving money, adding some variety to your diet, reducing food waste, or just making it easier to deal with every day. You can also plan out whatever meals you choose, just breakfasts, all three meals, just lunches, whatever works for you. For me, I focus on making daily planning easy, and primarily plan our dinners.
First and foremost, I always add in our goto recipes on busy days first. For us, that usually means spaghetti and meatballs or some pasta variation. This just guarantees us a good, easy meal on days where dinner has to be reliable and quick. Then adding in any special requests that Cody has for meals and some of our favorite seasonal meals (especially this vegan Penne Vodka!). I have an objectively terrible memory, so every year I make a new cookbook and I keep a spreadsheet with recipes we love. Then I add in new recipes to try. I keep a goal in mind here, whether it’s using up the last of an ingredient, wanting something sheet-pan, or just taking on a new challenge in cooking style. I’m not a great chef, so my best tip here is to keep it reasonable! The first time cooking a new recipe will take longer and will definitely be harder than it looks. Just make sure your eyes aren’t bigger than your cooking skills!
The biggest perk for planning meals is that you can chain your meals. This could be as simple as a double batch of chili to make plenty of leftover lunch on busy weeks or finding two recipes that use zucchini so you don’t have to waste half of one. Or it could be more complex and use all parts of an ingredient to make multiple meals. This can be a little tougher, but it’s not terrible to plan!
The best starter meal chains start with a grocery store roasted chicken. We’ll eat chicken and rice with gravy and a veggie for one meal. Then I’ll remove and save all the leftover meat, and boil the bird down to make a stock. I will save veggie scraps for a couple of weeks in the freezer and add them to the boiling bones for flavor, things like carrot heads and scraps, parsnips or squash ends, or that start to go a little squishy, and always a couple of onion tops! Boil for a few hours, strain and you’ve got chicken stock! I’ll save two-thirds of the batch, dividing it into reusable containers, letting it cool, then freezing until I want to use it. For the rest, I’ll add some fresh soup veggies, egg noodles, and the leftover meat, and boom! Easy soup, good for a week’s worth of meals.
Build Your Grocery List
Everyone has their own method of building a grocery list, but if you’re in need of a good grocery list system for your meal planning, I got you. The most important element is to properly organize your list so that you don’t have to run around the entire store like nine times. There’s nothing worse than having to walk the whole way back because you forgot like, one tomato. Always organize your list by section, and the order you walk the store in. And make sure you have frozen foods last, nothing worse than having squishy ice cream! This will depend on the layout of your grocery store. For me, this means to produce, deli, fresh meat, grocery aisles, dairy aisle, and ending with frozens.
I go through each recipe in my meal plan and check the grocery list against my stocks. Sometimes I’ll skip ingredients like parsley (fun fact, I cannot stand parsley!) or sub in something new (like ground beef instead of sausage), but this way I know I have everything I need for the dish. While I shop on Thursdays for the week ahead, I will sometimes shop for a few extra days of meals, just in case I don’t get out on Thursday. Especially for November, my month ahead is a crazy one! After listing all the ingredients needed for the meal planned recipes, I move on to snacks and other non-food necessities. This includes things like breakfast that I don’t meal plan, snacks for Cody’s lunches at work, and the food items we keep in stock (eg spaghetti, diced tomatoes, frozen meatballs, coconut milk).
Bonus Tip: Keep a running list of these necessities between shops so you don’t forget! There’s truly nothing worse than getting home and realizing you forgot laundry detergent or toilet paper! I love using a magnetic notepad that I keep right on the fridge.
Learning how to meal plan for a month has truly changed the way I grocery shop and cook for the better. It was super intimidating to start, but having done it for a few months, it’s not nearly as scary as it seems from the outside with grocery lists, recipes, and schedules to balance. Figuring the ideal meal planning system has made cooking so much easier, especially as my schedule seems to get busier and busier every month!
Sound off in the comments, are you a meal planner? What does your system look like?
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