Some people love meal planning, some people hate it.
Whether you like it or not, it can be really helpful for your budget, your time management and your sanity as a parent.
Everyone goes about meal planning a little differently, but this is how our resident food contributor, Natalie, sets herself up for success before the actual “meal-planning” time begins.
1. Know your budget. You can’t know what ingredients you can afford to buy unless you know what you have to spend. We use a cash envelope system in our house, so I divide up the monthly grocery money based on how many times I think I’ll go shopping so I don’t overspend early in the month.
2. Know your schedule. You can plan a menu for a full month, two weeks, a week, or even a few days. Do what seems most convenient for you and your family. (I usually plan for about a week.) I look at the week ahead to see what’s on our schedule and plan our meals around those events. If we have a busy night, I usually plan a crockpot meal or something very easy to throw together. If we plan to be home all day, I might make more ambitious plans.
3. Know what’s in your fridge. Most of us are lucky enough to keep a well-stocked fridge, freezer and pantry. Let’s make use of that! Take stock of what you already have and build your first few meals around items that need to be used up. This is a great way to save money and use up food you already have. To streamline the process even more, try using a freezer inventory like this one.
4. Know your culinary limits. Not everyone enjoys cooking, and that’s okay. Meal planning doesn’t have to mean elaborate, gourmet meals every night. It’s perfectly fine to put “frozen pizza” on your meal plan if you don’t like spending a lot of time in the kitchen. The important part is that you’ve planned ahead and you’re prepared to feed your family without scrambling around at the last minute.
5. Know where you can shop. There are tons of choices for grocery shopping- traditional and specialty grocery stores, farmers’ markets, co-ops, online retailers and bulk food stores. Don’t let them overwhelm you- use them to your advantage. Find out where you can get the best deals on your staple foods and plan accordingly. For example, I buy some bulk baking ingredients online, so I build that into our budget every few months. We also frequent our local farmers’ market, so I make sure not to waste money on produce at the grocery store that I might find a few days later for a better price.
6. Keep a recipe stash. This makes the actual planning portion go a lot faster. Whether you keep a physical stash of magazine clippings, a Pinterest board or a simple written list, it’s a good idea to have your favorite recipes on standby. That way you don’t have to find all new recipes every time you sit down to plan.
7. Don’t forget breakfast, lunch and snacks. If you spend all your time focusing on dinner plans, you might forget that you have to feed your family a few other times a day as well! If you don’t plan for these meals, you can end up spending extra money eating out or buying expensive convenience foods. You can plan each individual meal and snack or just buy basics that you know will work (ie eggs for breakfast, bread for sandwiches at lunch, fruit for snacks, etc).
8. Set aside specific time for planning and shopping. Maybe your children are all angels when you sit down to make plans, but mine surely are not! I like to set aside special, quiet, kid-less time to plan our meals. It makes the task much more enjoyable and helps me to think clearly. If you like to get your shopping done alone, set aside that time, too.
9. Plan it out. Find a plan that you like and fill it out! There are tons of free printables online. Just search “meal plan printable” on Google or Pinterest and you’ll get tons of results. Try this weekly one for a more detailed plan and these blank monthly ones for looking ahead.
10. Give yourself a break when it doesn’t work out. Relax! It takes a little while to get in the swing of meal planning. It is easier in some seasons of life than in others, so don’t beat yourself up if you can’t find the time to plan or if you hit some bumps along the way. Just try again whenever you’re ready.