Along with color-coding my closet and bookshelves, meal planning is one of my (seemingly unattainable) life goals. The idea of having a weekly plan of dinners is so appealing to me that I often browse Instagram and Pinterest looking for an easy blueprint for meal planning. But it’s also intimidating. For some reason, I think it’s an elusive talent reserved for the celebrity chefs and organizational mavens of the world. The truth is meal planning is especially for regular people like you and me, and it couldn’t be easier.
What Are Your Meal-Planning Goals?
Before you start meal planning, you should decide on your goals. Meal planning can accomplish many things, from cost savings to cutting down on food waste. But it’s difficult to accomplish all of them at once. Decide on your top two or three reasons as these will help drive your recipe choices.
Common reasons for meal-planning
- Introduce some variety into your meals
- Save money
- Eat healthier
- Cut down on food waste
- Save time and reduce stress while planning dinner
Once you decide on your meal planning goals, this easy, three-step process is a great place to start. Allow yourself enough time to make a list, shop, and prep your food. Many meal-planning resources suggest starting the process on the weekend, preferably Friday night. This gives you enough time over the weekend to make a list (Friday), shop (Saturday), and prep (Sunday). If it’s unrealistic for you to start on Friday night (hello? decompression time!), at least aim for a weekend day when you have more time on your hands then you would mid-week.
The 3 Easy Steps to Meal Planning
1. Choose your recipes.
Before you start picking your recipes, be realistic about your family’s schedule that week. If you have a work event one night, or one of your children has soccer practice another, make sure you keep it quick and easy on those nights. Also, schedule takeout one night if you want to! Meal planning is flexible and allows for nights off.
No-brainer rules for picking the right recipes
- Pick meals that give you leftovers. Two for the price (and time) of one!
- Choose (mostly) recipes you know, as well as one new one. Start with a few recipes you know and love. Then, if you want to branch out, try adding a new recipe each week. Don’t overcomplicate things by planning four new recipes a week.
- Maximize your ingredients: Start by looking at what you already have. If you start with what’s in your fridge and pantry, you’ll save money and avoid wasting food. If I have to buy new ingredients, I also like to use them more than once. For example, my husband makes a fair amount of Indian dishes, many of which call for plain yogurt. When I can, I try to plan another recipe that uses yogurt, so I don’t end up throwing out the rest.
- Only make things that you like to eat. It might sound obvious, but make sure you are making things you actually like. If a recipe has 12,000 five-star reviews but contains mushrooms — which you hate — it’s not going to work for you.
2. Compile your list and shop.
Before you make your grocery list, make a master ingredient list. This can be accomplished by going through your recipes for the week and making a list of all the ingredients you need. Then, take that list and compare it with what’s in your kitchen. Cross off anything you already have. Once that list is pared down, you can start your grocery list. It’s helpful to organize your list by sections of the grocery store, e.g. produce, meats, dairy, etc. This ensures you don’t miss anything and makes for a quicker shopping trip.
3. Prep your food.
Set aside an hour or two to prep for the week. If your weeks are anything like mine, they get busy fast. The best way to ensure you cook what you planned is by prepping ahead of time. Although some steps cannot be completed ahead of time, prep days are perfect for chopping veggies, cooking chicken, or washing lettuce and herbs. You can also use your prep day for batch cooking. For example, cooking up chicken that you can then use throughout the week in tacos, salads, or soups.
Beware of the Hangry Beast: The Nutritional Benefits of Meal Planning
My husband will be the first to tell you: I often get hangry. I can’t help it. I need to get food in me — fast. And usually that food is whatever is easiest (read: unhealthy). When you don’t have a plan for what to eat, more often than not, you’ll turn to easy, unhealthy choices like packaged snacks and fast food. This is one of the most beneficial parts of meal planning. In addition to saving you time and money, it helps you eat healthier because you:
- Prepare more meals at home. Cooking more meals at home is healthier because you know exactly what you’re eating and what is going into your body. You eat fewer calories, chemical additives, and less added sugar and unhealthy fats.
- Eat less junk food. If you have a plan for dinner every night, you avoid the 5 p.m. munchies. Planning your meals increases your chances of getting real food on your table every night and you’re less likely to go for packaged and takeout foods.
- Have a stocked kitchen. With an arsenal of ingredients, it’s easier to create meals from whole, real foods. Meal planning is creating convenient meals ahead of time, without the unhealthy preservatives and over-processing of foods.
So even though I may never color code my closest or bookshelves, I am confident that I can meal plan with just a little up-front effort. And if that gets me eating healthier, well that’s just an added bonus in my (cook)book.
By Sarah Bishop, Independence Blue Cross