Do you get to supper time every day and realize you have neither a plan nor any decent ingredients to slap together? Do you end up doing more “food prep” (heating up pre-made items) than actual cooking? Do you include a lot of pantry or freezer packaged meals as your go-to’s? Do you wish you could prepare a more balanced, healthy and delicious meal for your family every day, but you just feel way too rushed and busy to do this even some of the time? This post is for you! I am going to talk about the many benefits of using a meal plan and then give some tips on how to execute one effectively to make this part of your life run much more smoothly!
Why should I bother with a meal plan?
1. Save money – when you go to the store and just buy random items and ingredients, you’ll end up with a pantry and freezer stocked full of …. expired items, packaged foods (read: full of preservatives, sugars, and other unknown ingredients), and random ingredients you have nothing else to go with. There is no sense spending money on things for them just to sit in your pantry or take up space in your freezer.
2. Waste less – this also goes along with saving money – every time you have to throw food away, you’re throwing money away! What if you could buy just the food you need, so the waste is much less? There is a way! Eliminate that weekly fridge clean-out where you go through and chuck all of the veggies past their best days, random containers of leftovers, and expired jars of who-knows-what (I know you had good intentions of using that Costco-sized jar of horseradish, it was such a great deal!!! But……)
3. Eat better – its unlikely that you’re eating a healthy balanced meal if you’re slapping food together on a quick timeline, or even worse, picking something up in a drive through because you’re just too busy! Fast food is fine now and then, but if its your regular go-to for rushed nights, you’re not doing yourself or your family any favours. There are some great healthy on-the-go options these days, but most still opt for the burger since its far cheaper than buying a healthy salad. What if I told you there was a way to eat healthy EVEN IF YOU HAVE NO TIME TO MAKE A MEAL AT SUPPER TIME? You really can!
4. Save time (and keep your peace!) – Instead of running around like a chicken with its head cut off, trying to defrost meat at the last minute, or making the decision to order or pick up some
fast fat food, you can enjoy a more peaceful existence because you already have a plan! You’re already on your way to the healthy meal, and there is no last minute panic!
How to meal plan like a boss!
Make a little time for the pre-planning
- Set aside a small block of time once a week, or a larger block of time once a month, and sit down with your computer and or cookbooks. This will be time well spent – although it may take 30 minutes of your weekend to plan your meals, it will save your sanity EVERY SINGLE DAY!
- Choose and organize the recipes you want to use into one location, or at least you’ll want to make note of where you’ve found a recipe so its handy when you need it. I use my iPad photo albums to collect recipes (I take photos of cookbook/magazine recipes, or screen shots of online recipes). I have one album of all of the recipes I’ve collected, one of my tried and tested recipes, and then I use the favourites option to highlight those I’m planning to use in the current meal rotation (you could also easily copy them into a new album). This requires a bit of set up time, but once you’ve put a little effort in, you’ll build up a great selection and it will streamline the process even more. You can also use Pinterest or Facebook to collect recipes, or print them out and create your own binder. Do whatever works best for you! Once you’ve got your base collection of recipes, you can always add to them by trying a couple new recipes each time you meal plan!
- Determine how many meals you need to plan for. I personally only meal plan for suppers, because they are my big meals with the family. Lunches I keep basic- its just me and one kiddo at home, so I always keep tortilla shells, bread, lunch meat, macaroni, salad fixings, etc on hand which can be used for easy lunches at home or for school. I generally send the leftovers of any suppers with the husband for his lunch.
- I use a printed meal plan template (a copy of the one I developed can be found here) – one page for each week. My version includes only 6 meals, but sometimes I’ll just write a 7th on the bottom, or perhaps we will be having a special meal out, or leftovers from one of the larger recipes from the week. I use the first shopping list column for items I have on hand (so I don’t use them inadvertently for something else, its like my “reserve” list!) and the second column for items for my shopping list.
- I’ll make note of any particularly rushed days, when I won’t have time to make a full meal at supper time, and plan quick or make-ahead meals for those days (hello, crockpot and taco Tuesday!)
- Lots of rushed days? Did you know you can make almost ANY recipe in your crockpot on low for a few hours or on high for 7-8? I LOVE my crockpot and couldn’t live without it for all of our busy days!
- Check the pantry, freezer and fridge for ingredients you already have that need to be used! No sense buying more when you have things on hand. I’ll add those items to my meal plan, or make a small note of ingredients I already have.
- Plan for seasonal foods – planning your meals around what is seasonal will help you to save money on produce ingredients.
- You can save time by cooking some extra food. Double a recipe and enjoy two dinners (one now, one tomorrow or to freeze for another rushed day). Or cook some extra steak or chicken and make a super quick meal of fajitas, or a salad for supper the following night!
- You can also utilize meal planning websites that do it all for you like, once a month big cooks, and some cookbooks which incorporate meal plan and shopping list ideas (for example, More Time Moms Family Meals). I have a few personal dietary restrictions and preferences so I much prefer just to choose from my own favourite recipes!
Shopping for your meal plan
- If you plan for the month in advance, you can save extra money by shopping on 10 or 15% Tuesdays (the first Tuesday of each month at many grocery stores) or by purchasing larger bulk portions of items you use a lot of (think Costco sized meat packages, bags of potatoes, and canned goods). A big shop can get you all of the ingredients you can keep in the house for the longer term, then you’ll only need to do short top-up trips in between for fresh produce, bakery and dairy items. Fewer trips to the store means fewer non-essentials purchased on a whim!
- Use a convenient app like Wunderlist or myShopi to organize your shopping lists for the stores you frequent (I have lists for Costco, the regular grocery store, and Walmart which I use for groceries amongst other stores!)
- You can also save by price matching (use the handy Flipp app or website on your phone and ditch the paper flyers!) and watching for weekly sales, or purchasing a little extra of items you go through a lot of when its on sale.
- Keep “extra” purchases to a minimum. Unless you know for sure that you will eat it, don’t buy it! If you don’t buy cookies, you’re far less likely to eat them – so you’ll be grateful later when they aren’t a temptation!
- Add your staple items to your shopping list when you are running low, so you’ll never be out of spices, garlic, bread, fruit and veggies, milk and eggs.
Put the plan into action
- Think ahead. I have a timer set in my iPhone which rings around lunch time (this is the time that works for me, maybe its at breakfast time for you, or even the night prior) to remind me to prepare for that night’s meal. I use this as a reminder to ensure I have all of the ingredients, pull out anything that needs defrosting, or do any special advance prep thats necessary (ie. marinating). When I’m a few hours ahead of the game I can always switch plans or pick up any missing ingredients at the store if I have to. Much better than scrambling at 5pm with no plan!
- Have a few simple ideas in your back pocket for how to deal with any meals where you must be on the go. I generally don’t schedule activities in such a way that we can’t make time for at least a quick meal at home in between. However, sometimes it happens when you have kids in multiple activities! We had a weekly tradition for a short while of going straight from one kid’s sport to another with under an hour between (and a 30+ minute drive). But we didn’t have to rely on fast food even once, because I planned ahead and just like I pack school lunches, I packed our supper. I brought along things like PB&J (or just PB or cheese or chicken) sandwiches or wraps or some small bowls of macaroni, some fruit, some veggies, etc. It was a regular picnic in the vehicle while we made the commute. This may not be the most delicious or super healthy meal, but in a pinch its still miles ahead of anything you can buy under the golden arches (and a fraction of the cost!).
- Factor in a meal out now and then – everyone deserves a special treat on occasion! My favourite part of eating out is the fact that I don’t have to clean anything up! Oh, and I kind of love food too!!
- Enjoy your low-stress daily meal prep, full of healthy, whole food ingredients!
These are just some of the ideas and techniques I’ve incorporated into my meal planning, I’m sure there are a tonne of extra tips out there! If you have any great tips, please feel free to share them in the comments below! We can all get better and benefit from the ideas of others! If this is new to you, give meal planning a solid try and I think you’ll be happy you did! Need some extra ideas on how to eat when you’re on the go? Check out my FREE Busy Mom’s Guide to Healthy Eating on the Go for some great ideas you can implement for those rushed days!