Help Me! Meal Planning Basics

Image courtesy of @loseweightandlaugh 

Does your meal planning feel like this picture? This is one area that I struggle with on a daily basis. I end up going to the grocery store every day or every other day which wastes time and money because I tend to over-buy (Hey, it was a great deal!) or I forget that one item (again). My mom lives in a rural area and can only go shopping once a week. How does she do it? How does she plan that many meals ahead? Here are her tips she shared that helped me.

Have a stocked pantry:  These are the foods that are the building blocks of meal planning.  My goal is to have many ingredients in my pantry all the time.  See my pantry suppy list here.

Write down the top 14-20  meals your family likes.      Keep this list where you can find it easily.  If you get stuck, there are magazines, websites, apps and blogs dedicated to helping you plan meals.  You are confined by your budget but by using spices, sauces, and flavorings you can make even the simplest meals tasty.   What I have found is that my family generally likes certain things.  We aren’t usually going to try a recipe like “Quinoa and Lime Artichoke Sauce with Pearl Barley on Bison Burgers.”   A meal like Southern-Style Chicken and Sausage with some potatoes is more our style. Generally, we want something tasty but the meal  shouldn’t take too long to prepare.  Keep it simple so that you are most likely to follow through.  I love to cook but I still have limits to my time.  If you like to cook, save one night of the week for a more time-intensive meal- maybe Saturday or Sunday night.

Plan for 7 breakfasts.  At our house, we have a big breakfast on Mondays: Eggs, toast, bacon.  Tuesdays and Thursdays are hot cereal days: oatmeal, grits, or cream of wheat.  Wednesdays and Fridays are for cold cereal so we keep a couple of boxes in the house.  It is nice to be able to have Frosted Mini-Wheats some days and Maple Granola with Pecans other days.  Of course, there’s always Cap’n Crunch or Honey Nut Cheerios if you want them.  Saturdays and Sundays vary: sometimes we have waffles with fresh fruit or muffins or cinnamon rolls.  Sometimes we eat cold cereal.  Breakfast is served with juice and milk so those items need to go on the list, too.   My growing children drank a lot of milk and you will have to adjust your list accordingly.  So your breakfast list might include: Eggs, bacon, oatmeal, 2 boxes cold cereal, orange juice, milk.

Plan for 7 lunch meals:  In our house this means a pound of deli meat, and some cheese, a loaf of bread, a fruit and some snacks, like popcorn or chips Per person, you want to have 2 oz of meat per sandwich.  So for every 2 people you are feeding this way, you need 14 oz of meat.  Since a pound is 16 oz, I usually just get one pound of deli meat.  You can end of waiting a long time at the deli otherwise, while they figure out odd measurements.  A loaf of bread generally has 20 slices, so a loaf will take care of 10 sandwiches.  If you are eating sandwiches every day, plus having toast at breakfast you will need 2 loaves of bread.

Plan for 6 dinner meals and we’ll call the 7th night Leftover Night.  If your family usually eats every bit of food from every meal, plan to buy some frozen pizzas to give yourself a break on one night. Some people plan their easy night on their shopping day, but I like to use my leftover night to clean out the refrigerator before I go shopping again.  Now, grab the list that you made about your family’s favorite meals and choose 6 of them for the coming week. If you want to be really on top of things, check with your local store flyer to see what things are on sale this week and use that information to help you make your meal plan. Use those 6 dinner meals that you have chosen to make your shopping list.  Next choose vegetables that you are going to serve with your meal each night.  Sometimes I just grab 6 bags of frozen vegetables at the store and pull out one each night!  You can add potatoes, rice or pasta to each meal, especially if you have a growing family and need to make sure everyone gets full.  If you are feeling ambitious, look up specific side dishes to go with each meal: Cheesy Broccoli Bake, Green Bean Casserole, Sweet Potato Casserole with Pecan Topping, etc.

Manage Leftovers:  Any leftovers that will feed at least 2 servings, get put in a freezer bag, named, dated and put in the freezer.  You must do this next step:  Write down on a freezer inventory list that you just added this item to your freezer.   Otherwise, you will just throw it out in 3 months time!  Use these meals for “emergency” nights when you really don’t have time to cook.  Also, this will prevent you from eating the same thing for 3 nights in a row.

Try this plan for at least 2 weeks.  Make adjustments as needed. If you end up with too many leftovers; scale back and only plan 4 meals per week.  Get in the pattern of thinking ahead for meal planning and shopping for more than one meal at a time.  Let me know how it goes.  You can do it!

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