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We all know that eating right is critical for physical, mental, and emotional health. We’ve all heard about the benefits of eating together as a family.
But we’re still all so bad at meal planning.
I’ve read A LOT of blogs that give “simple” meal planning advice, and most of it really is overwhelming and complicated. Some of the common ones are:
- Buy ingredients that you can mix-and-match to create complete meals.
- Create your meal plan around what’s on sale.
- Buy in bulk.
- Make dozens of freezer meals.
- Try at least one new meal each week.
I’ve tried those tips, and they don’t work for me. But then I figured out what does.
What I Don’t Do
I don’t keep a fully stocked pantry, buy in bulk, or freeze dozens of meals at once. I don’t have the physical space in my small kitchen, or the mental space in my head, to keep inventory of it all.
I’ve tried the pre-made weekly meal plans and shopping lists that didn’t fit my family’s lifestyle, tastes, or my cooking abilities. My husband is a picky eater, and my six-year-old daughter is allergic to eggs and most nuts, so many of the recipes don’t work for them. Or, if a recipe did work for their tastes and dietary needs, it would often be too difficult or time-consuming for my limited cooking abilities. I think these types of services work in the short run, but they are not sustainable long term.
I haven’t tried the subscription meal kits because they’re expensive and also create a lot of packaging waste.
When I was working on my meal planning guide (not currently available), I came up with some sales copy that read: “Give a mom a meal plan and you feed her family for a week. Teach her how to meal plan and you feed her family for a lifetime.”
I haven’t read those two sentences in a while, but I still believe in them 100 percent. And that’s the point of this post. I’m giving you five of my very best simple meal planning tips that you’ve probably never heard of before. These aren’t common ones you’ll read elsewhere, but ones that have made my life significantly easier.
Set Realistic Expectations and Habits
Before I get started, I need to mention two things about setting realistic expectations and making meal planning a habit. You need to start by making goals that you can actually achieve. Then when you reach them, make your next ones bigger. If you set your goals too high at the start, you might give up when you don’t hit your target.
You also need to set realistic expectations about the time and effort you need to put in to make meal planning successful. It takes some up front work, but it’s easy once it’s in place. Even then, it still requires some planning time each week. That might mean pushing something else to the bottom of your to-do list. It might mean asking for help, either with the planning itself or by watching your kids while you do it.
If you rarely make meals at home, or if you’re a one-dish wonder, don’t expect to cook seven hot dinners during the first week of meal planning. I don’t cook seven dinners a week…ever. Leftovers are my favorite meal (except for one someone else cooked).
Let’s say that you currently cook twice a week. Add in a third dinner and do that for a few weeks. Once that becomes a habit, add in a fourth meal. If you can’t seem to make four meals, drop back down to three. Try four again in a few weeks. Start with a small goal and make it a habit. When you do things over and over again, you get better at them. You get faster, the tasks become easier and – gasp! – you can do more.
Okay, time for the first tip…
1. Save your weekly meal plan and re-use it again.
The secret to remember is this: once you’ve created a meal plan for the week – what I call a menu – use it again! Why do we spend all this time making menus and shopping lists each week, only to throw them away when we’re finished? Then we start all over again the next week, doing the same thing. Make enough menus and you’ll have a large selection that you can rotate and not get bored.
Even if you don’t want to use the same exact menu, you can easily swap out a main dish or a side and still have more of a starting point than if you just started from scratch.
I like to refer to this as minimalist meal planning.
2. Shop at the same stores and organize your list by how you walk through the store.
Number two is a two-part secret, and it’s made my shopping so much faster. (Also, leaving the kids at home also makes shopping faster, too.)
Stores have different layouts, even ones in the same chain. We’re lucky where we live to have three Trader Joe’s within a few miles of our house, plus a bunch of regular grocery store chains. But I shop at the same Trader Joe’s, the same Costco, and the same Ralph’s.
I remember one time walking into the Trader Joe’s near my gym and freezing. I rarely go to that one, because parking is a nightmare. So when I walked in, I looked around and remembered that the layout is different from the normal one I go to. It took me so much longer to get just a few items because I zig zagged all over the store. And I know it’s a small store, but it was crowded and I smelled from the gym, and I just wanted to get out of there.
The second part of this tip is once you’ve decided on your stores, organize your shopping list by how you walk through each store.
I know what you’re thinking right now, “But Karen, stores change their layouts ALL the time.” No, actually they don’t. I’ve been organizing my shopping lists this way consistently for a year, and stores move things less often than you think. It seems like Costco does all the time, but it’s usually just a few items that they switch around. And even if it is a massive reorganization, the store’s not going to do it every week so just update your list for the next week.
A lot of people suggest grouping similar items together, like dairy, but that usually isn’t efficient. Milk and yogurt are kept several aisles apart at my Costco. Canned soup and canned tomatoes are in different aisles at my Ralph’s. Have you ever tried to backtrack through a grocery store on a Sunday with a three-year-old kid pushing one of the little carts? It’s awful.
Now before you try to organize, it’s helpful to create what I call store maps. Make a special trip to your stores and write down the flow of each one. Write what’s generally in each aisle so that you know how to sort your weekly shopping lists. Then create a digital document in whatever word processor or spreadsheet you use, like Google Docs or Microsoft Word or Excel, that you save and print for your binder (if you use one) to help you organize your shopping lists.
While this might seem like a lot of work, I promise it’s still better than wandering all over the store each time you go. Put in the work up front and it’ll save you a lot of time in the long run.
3. Cook from recipes.
Okay, this one you’ve heard of before! But you may not have heard my reasons why you should cook from recipes. First, if you buy based on the recipes you’ve selected, you’re less likely to throw away food at the end of the week because you actually know what you’re going to make.
According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the average American throws away more than 400 pounds of food per person per year. That means a family of four wastes approximately $1,800 per year!
I felt sick when I read those stats because we used to be part of the problem. It’s more than just wasting food and money, though. Think about the impact on the environment and the amount of water it takes to grow these foods. California, where I live, is coming off of a seven-year drought. California’s farms use about 80 percent of the state’s water supply, which means that we waste a lot of water when we throw away food.
Second, your spouse can help you cook. When Ryan’s home, I sometimes have him start or finish a meal. All he has to do is find the recipe in the simple meal planning app I use, or pull it out of the binder I keep in the kitchen. I know we have all the ingredients, and I don’t have to explain to him what he needs to do. If I was the only one who could cook because the recipes are in my head, I wouldn’t have any flexibility in the evenings to go to the gym, go out with friends, or work on this blog.
4. Use the Plan To Eat App.
This app has changed my life. I’ve tried various meal planning apps over the years, from the free ones to the paid ones that provide recipes and shopping lists. None of them worked just right for my family, so I gave up for a while and created my own manual meal planning system. But creating my own menus and shopping lists took time – a lot of time – so I looked again to see if there was something easier.
Then I found Plan To Eat, and it honestly blew my mind. I geeked out. I told my husband about it. I showed my in-laws. I shared it with my sister and with my friends.
Have I tried every meal planning app out there? No, I haven’t. But it’s like finding the person you want to marry or the right wedding dress: when you’ve found “The One,” you just know.
Plan To Eat allows me to organize my shopping list by store and then how I walk through the store. It also remembers where I’ve categorized each ingredient and will place them in the same store and category the next time they’re added to my shopping list. For example, let’s say that last week I added a can of black beans to my shopping list and sorted it to Ralph’s (store) and Ralph’s Aisle 3 (category). This week, I’m adding black beans to my shopping list again, and Plan To Eat will automatically place it in the same store and category without me having to re-sort it.
In addition to using Plan To Eat, I still like having hard copy recipes in a binder. I’m a bit of a messy cook and I’d rather not get food all over my phone. But I’ve actually found myself using my phone more and more now when I cook or bake. I guess you can teach an old dog new tricks!
Also, have your spouse download the app and log in to your account. He now has access to your shopping list if you need him to pick anything up. Plus, if your recipes are in Plan To Eat, he can help you cook!
5. Use just a few cooking methods and only choose recipes that fall into those categories.
This concept is that you designate specific cooking methods for each type of dish so that they don’t interfere with each other. This allows you to mix and match main dishes and side dishes and know that you’ll be able to cook them at the same time. For example, I only use the Instant Pot and slow cooker to cook the main dishes. I don’t use either one to make any side dishes because then I can’t mix and match my recipes. If I’m using the oven, everything goes in at 425 degrees, which allows me to bake chicken and roast vegetables at the same time.
Below are what our cooking stations look like.
– Main dish: cooked in the Instant Pot; cooked in a slow cooker; baked in the oven at 425 degrees; or grilled.
– Veggie side dish: roasted in the oven at 425 degrees; steamed on the stovetop; sliced raw veggies; or pre-made cold salad.
– Grain side dish: cooked on the stovetop; cooked in the microwave; or pre-made cold salad.
– Leftovers: warmed on the stovetop; or eaten cold.
Choose just a few cooking methods and you’ll master them much faster than if you tried to learn every single way there is to cook chicken. Once you’ve specified your methods, only choose recipes that fit into those categories. I know that I won’t cook chicken on the stove, so I never even look at recipes for it. This helps me easily narrow down the multitude of recipes available for me to try.
Bonus tip: Cut yourself some slack.
While I’m pretty good at meal planning now, I’m not perfect. Sometimes I don’t buy enough snacks to last the whole week. Sometimes I forget to pull meat out of the freezer to thaw. Other times I don’t start making dinner as early as I wanted to. That’s reality. That’s life. If I expected perfection, messing up would paralyze me.
I still have days and weeks where I barely cook at all. I’ll make the kids things like quesadillas and sliced raw veggies for dinner, and I’ll eat a salad. And I actually don’t feel guilty about it like I would’ve in the past. Then there are weeks where I feel like superwoman, and I make dinner, clean up, and get the kids to bed on time. It’s called balance.
There are also days when dinner just doesn’t work out as planned. Keep something in the freezer that you can easily heat up or eat a simple salad with a protein on top. Plan for leftovers, pick up takeout, or have cooked meals delivered to your door. Or even go out to dinner. The occasional unplanned meal out is totally fine.
Just try not to make it a habit of going out to eat because you didn’t plan. Let me do some math and show you why. One unplanned dinner out per week at $13 per person for a family of four for a whole year is more than $2700 every single year. What would you do with that extra money? I can think of many things right off the bat!
What simple meal planning tips have worked for you? Let me know in the comments!