Meal Planning 101

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Most of my married life I have made a meal plan. We don’t always stick to it; sometimes we switch it around to work around our schedule, should it change after I’ve planned our meals, or we grab take-out or choose to go out for a meal. I write my grocery list using my meal plan and I typically only purchase things we need to make the meals on the list and maybe a few impulse buys – if there’s a good sale at the grocery store on something we may need/want.

That sounds all well and good, right? But what if you’ve never meal planned before, how do you even get started? It’s a daunting task. Especially when you have a system that seems to work for you. We, Hubs & I, have tried to go grocery shopping without a plan and holy cow, that was a bad idea! We spent WAY more than we typically do and it seemed as though we walked away with nothing that was actually usable. We have since learnt that lesson! I’m not saying I plan every week religiously. I SHOULD, but it doesn’t always happen and guess what, we’re spending more money, or picking up take-out, eating out more and just not eating as healthily as we should. But when I do plan, sometimes I plan for weeks in advance if I know we’re going to be busy, we spend less, have food in the house *gasp* and no longer look at each other – kids included – like we’ve been asked the final Jeopardy question  when it comes to “what would you like for dinner?” *insert Jeopardy music here*.  I’ll take “How quick can you drive to Sonic? for $800, please Alex”. Seriously! It’s terrible.

Having a meal plan helps us stay on top of things. Especially on those busy nights – pick up the kids from school and then it’s off to baseball practice/game or a band event and then we’re not home until around 8pm and we’ve still not stopped for dinner. Most of the time, if I know we’re going to be out and about, I’ll cook something in the crock pot or it’s a night we plan to make/pick-up subs for dinner. My kids choose to eat dinner after an activity, as living in Florida and trying to play sports on a full tummy isn’t pretty. We have also found that if we do eat before the activity, by the time we get home they’re “starving” and want to eat another meal. I do make sure they have a  bigger lunch and a good snack before we head out to a practice/game and then we eat once we’re home for the evening.

So, now that I’ve gone over all of my reasons for needing a meal plan, let’s get down to the “how do you do it?” As our needs as a family have changed – schedule, kids getting bigger and my cooking knowledge has developed – so has my meal planning. I still meal plan based on a few “basics” and then go from there. I typically ask what meals everyone would like to eat, sometimes I get an answer, or a random list that just sounds like we’d be eating like college kids for a week and many times, a shrug of the shoulders.

I take that list, or lack there of, and look over our schedule. I do also take into consideration if we’ve eaten a meal within a week or 2 and move it to later in the upcoming meal plan – homemade mac & cheese seems to be one that’s requested weekly – this way we’re not eating the same thing over and over. I then take my planner, iCal or whatever has all of our plans in/on it and fill in dinners around the things we have going on. For example: If we have baseball on Tuesday night, that is not the night that I try a new recipe or cook a super involved dinner – that’s a quick fix, crock-pot meal night. I do try to make an elaborate meal on a Sunday. We have Sunday family dinners, it’s what I had as kid – I’m from England and we always had a roast dinner on a Sunday – and I’ve tried to bring that tradition to my kids. A huge roast every week in Florida isn’t always practical, so we substitute it for a more labor intensive meal.

There are tried and true recipes that the family always requests, but you know you don’t want to eat the same thing over and over again, so we try to mix in a few new recipes here and there. I have a collection of recipe books, Pinterest boards full of recipes and now I’m subscribed to a couple of meal planning services (more on those to come), that I use as fillers around the requested meals.

These are a select few of the recipe books that I use on a regular basis, but I have a whole kitchen cabinet with my recipe book collection stored in it. These are also the recipe books I was going to use for the meal plan I was working on while taking the pictures for this blog post.

I am currently using a Mambi Mini Happy Planner to plan our meal plan and grocery list. This mini planner fits perfectly in my purse and my hand while I’m in the store. I can’t even take credit for this idea, as I saw it on a planner group on Facebook (I believe it was this one). I have copied the events from my main planner to the meal plan one, just to ease meal planning and arranging meals around what/when we’re doing things.

I also note the recipe book and page, or if it’s a Pinterest link (I typically end up bookmarking to my iPad for ease), or if it’s from one of the Meal Planning services I mentioned above. This way, coming back to the recipe is quick and easy when I start prepping/cooking dinner.  I typically pull the recipe book out that morning and place it on my recipe book stand in the kitchen, so that it’s one less step at dinner time. Plus, I like the look of having a book out on the counter. I guess that’s the “bookie” in me.

Once I have my meal plan, I sit and write the grocery list. I typically have all of the recipe’s out and open and go through the pantry, fridge and freezer to see what I have or don’t have, what’s expired and needs to be replaced. I organize my grocery list by department in the grocery store and I typically write a Sam’s list – I buy my meat, some lunchbox stuff and some produce in there – and then an Aldi/Publix list. I know, you’re thinking “3 grocery stores?” Yup. I grocery shop all in one day too! I know, I’m crazy, but it saves money in the long run and we have a house full of groceries. I normally start at Sam’s and take my cold/thermal bags and then shop Aldi and pick up whatever I couldn’t at the other 2 stores at Publix. It sounds like a lot, but honestly, it’s not too bad!

Sometimes, I even skip the whole writing a grocery list and just take the whole recipe book to the store. Yeah, that wasn’t my best day! I got to the checkout and realized that I’d forgotten the apples *smacks forehead*, you know.. for the APPLE cinnamon pork chops we were having for dinner?!? Thank goodness the Bestie went with me to the store and she’d picked up a bag of apples, so I stole a few from her.

Meal planning doesn’t have to be fancy meals all the time. Some times we just grill chicken, bake potatoes and make a salad. Having a plan on what to eat for the week does help with cutting your grocery costs, we’ve proven that several times and I don’t use coupons! Having a meal plan also helps you remember what you’re pulling out of the freezer, should you need to, the day before or morning of. I also use my meal plan as a way to get help in the kitchen. There are nights that we plan for Hubs or the kids to help with or cook dinner. Our kids are now getting old enough to start helping in the kitchen and it’s nice, every now and then, to have a little break from cooking.

So, now you know how I meal plan, how are you planning? Are you like me, or do you have another system that works?

If you’re not already following me (@theplannerandpaperco) on Instagram, you should because who knows what other fun grocery mishaps maybe posted!