When people get busy, meal planning isn’t something they think about doing because they don’t think they have time. I mean, they’re already too busy, right? No, they’re wrong. The time that you spend planning your meals will save you a lot of time and stress later in the week. There are even some options for meal plan subscriptions online to make it even easier. As added benefits, you’ll eat healthier and probably save money.
Something that is important to remember is that life will still happen and there will be times when your plan doesn’t work like you thought it would. Don’t let that increase your stress. Your meal plan can be fluid enough to adjust to these times.
I do my meal planning on Sunday afternoon each week. I try to plan 1-2 meals that are in the crockpot so they don’t take much prep time. Planning super easy meals on very busy nights during the week also helps reduce stress. These include things like hamburgers or hot dogs on the grill, tacos, and quesadillas. And now that my children are grown, I plan at least 1 night per week where one of them cooks.
I also try to plan at least 1 or 2 “new” recipes to try each month to increase the variety. Some of them end up being tried once and then we throw the recipe away, but others get added to our regular meals. Some of our current favorites were found this way.
Creating the Meal Plan
1. Maintain a List of Meal Options
The first step in meal planning is to have a list of the meals your family likes. I have a list in a folder that is actually multiple lists. Recipe options are separated them by type of main dish, i.e. chicken, beef, pork, pasta, fish, meatless.
I also have a “C” written beside each recipe that is made in the crockpot, and an “F” beside those that are prepared ahead freezer meals. Yes, a meal can have both a “C” and an “F”. Those are the best.
I also have a list of side dishes that we really like. In addition, I try to keep fresh vegetables in the refrigerator so we can easily add a salad as a side dish any time we want one.
2. Update This Week’s Family Calendar
Each Sunday, I update the family calendar so I can tell who is going to be here for each meal. We have a household command center calendar where everything is kept so everyone can see it. Once I’ve got the calendar updated, I can start actually planning meals.
3. Add Dinner to the Bottom of Each Day
Our household planner has a place at the bottom of each day for the meal plan. I always put the plan down in pencil so changes can be made easily when needed.
It’s important to match your schedule with your meal plan. You don’t want to be doing a meal that takes a lot of prep time on your busiest day. If you enjoy cooking, you also don’t want to have a super simple meal on a day that you have time to be in the kitchen.
Matching the calendar is very important for our family because my daughter is allergic to gluten. I need to make sure that I don’t plan any meals with gluten in them on nights when she is here. Over the years we’ve converted most of our recipes to gluten-free but there a few family heirloom recipes that just don’t convert well. Those meals are saved for nights when she’s not here.
I usually try to not have more than 2 main dishes from any category in any given week. In addition, I try to limit large preparation meals to once or twice a week. Some people have a regular rotation of meals that they use making planning even easier. I don’t currently do that because our schedules are so different from week to week.
Once I have the main dishes planned, I go back and add side dishes where needed. Some main dishes don’t really need a side, and others are best with just a salad, so there are usually only a few side dishes.
I’ve created a printable to give you an easy place to do your meal planning and grocery list preparation. You can find it here.
Grocery List and Shopping
1. Put Items Needed for Dinner on the Grocery List
Once I have the menu planned, I pull each recipe from its storage location. I go through each recipe and add the items that we need to the grocery list. This includes the non-perishable items that I already have in the pantry so that they are replaced before we actually use them. When I’m done with this step, the recipes go into a pocket in our command center so they’re easy to find when we’re ready to start cooking.
2. Keep Stock of Non-Perishable Items
We have a system in our house to maintain our stock of non-perishable items that we use regularly. Anytime anyone uses one of these items, they add it to the grocery list on the side of the refrigerator. When I’m making the shopping list, I just add these items. This keeps things stocked so when we need to “punt” we have options. In addition, since I only plan dinner in our house, these items are available for everyone to use for the other meals.
Other resources that I use are pantry, refrigerator, and freezer inventories that are posted in each place so everyone knows what is supposed to be there. Being the type A person that I am, each item on these lists has an assigned location. This makes it easy for me to glance and see if we’re missing anything that’s not on the list on the refrigerator.
3. Place Order
One of the greatest things lately that has saved me time and energy is the Walmart pick up service. I go online and place an order for most of the things on our list. Then I schedule a pick-up time for Monday. They will pull the order for us and have it ready and waiting at the pick-up time I choose for tomorrow. And there’s no additional charge for using this service.
4. Additional Items
There are a few things that I either can’t get from Walmart or I prefer to get somewhere else. The final step in preparing the grocery list is to create a list of those things that we need so I can go to the regular supermarket or farm stand tomorrow and get them.
My son picks up the groceries from Walmart at the scheduled time. All he has to do is pull into a pick-up spot, call the number, and tell them which order he is there to pick up. Then, they bring the order out and load it into the vehicle for us. Depending on how I’m feeling, I will go get the other things or he’ll stop to get them on his way home.
When he gets home with the groceries, it only takes the two of us a few minutes to put them away. After my daughter gets home from work that afternoon, she and I will do whatever chopping or preparing that can be done ahead for the rest of the week.
The Rest of the Week
Now we’re ready for the week and I don’t have to think about the menu. As a part of my evening pick-up, I check the calendar each evening for tomorrow’s dinner. I make sure that anything that needs to be gotten out of the freezer to thaw is done.
If our schedule changes, it’s usually easy to just switch a couple of days within the week. And, if we just don’t eat a meal, I carry it to an early day in the following week so the ingredients aren’t wasted.
If this is still too much for you, there are a lot of options that do parts of the process for you. Here are just a few. I’m sure there are more out there.
Meal Planning Services
These services provide a weekly menu and shopping list. Most have several specialized diets to choose from if you need them. Here is a list of just of few of these services.
Meal Preparation Services
These services not only give you the menu, but they ship all of the ingredients already measured and sometimes even chopped.
Extra Time Saving Tips
If you’re in a good meal planning and grocery list-building routine (or at least have a few good plans already hashed out), consider re-using them! Save good plans with the matching grocery list (instead of tossing them out after the week is done) in a dedicated Home Binder. If you don’t have time to put together a meal plan for the week, simply pull out an old plan/grocery list and head off to the store!
Are you one of those people who like to cross off their list as she shops so they can’t be reused? Two possible solutions: 1) Make an extra copy before you shop and tuck it into your Home Binder for future use, OR 2) Place your list in a clear page protector and cross items off with a marker. Your list will stay clean as you check off what goes in your cart! Once your home, a damp cloth will take away your marks on the sheet protector.
Do you have tips or tricks that help you with your meal planning and grocery shopping? Let me know in the comments below or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.