While keeping house is the most consuming of all housewife duties, cooking and meal planning is, for many, one of the most daunting tasks, especially for new brides with little or no cooking experience. For many homes this can result in a food rut where the same meals are rotated each week. This is a problem, not just because it can make for boring food choices, but because preparing the same foods week after week can create dangerous nutritional holes. It doesn’t have to be that way. Read on for 5 steps to meal planning made easy. I suppose we could even call this meal planning for beginners, although there are plenty of seasoned housewives and moms who might pick up a tidbit or two here.
So . . . meal planning. It starts out as a simple concept. Shop for food and cook it. But with proverbs such as “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach” weighing on our minds, and new science telling us how important it is to feed our kids highly nutritious foods in their early years, all topped off with jammed packed schedules and little time to cook, meal planning can be very stressful. Today we’re going to try to take some of that stress away.
The process is actually fairly quick and painless if you have a system, and having and following a system will actually save you more than time. The key is to force yourself to repeat it at regular intervals (weekly or bi-weekly) until it becomes a habit. I promise that if you do, you will find that you save yourself stress, money and time!
No longer will you waste money on foods you bought but didn’t use. There will be no more extra trips to the super market throughout the week. Never will you have to experience the frustration of missing ingredients when you are half way through a recipe, and you will achieve all of that while taking advantage of coupons, sales, and bulk food pricing.
Here is one system that works well for the majority of people who try it. Give it a try and let us know how it works for you.
The day BEFORE you need to grocery shop, gather the following items: your calendar, the sale flyers for your grocery store, your family’s social schedule for the time period that you will be shopping for, a notebook, 3 colored pencils or markers and a pen. Doing this the day before gives you time to remember items you would have forgotten. Your brain will think on it all night while you sleep. I swear. It works. Alright, so step one:
(1) The very first step to getting organized for the week is to know what your week looks like. I suggest grabbing your family’s social calendar and using your colored markers to highlight at a glance which nights you have ample time to prepare food, which ones have less time, and which have almost no time at all. In the example to the right, you can see that I’ve marked the corners of some dates with colors. You choose which color stands for each kind of night on your calendar, and do the same. Choose a color for “plenty of time”, another for “less time” and a third for “no time to cook!”
(2) OK. So now you have a blueprint for what your week is going to look like. The next step is to find recipes that will fit into those categories. And where is the best place to start to look for those? Ideally you have a file of all of your favorite go to recipes, but don’t look there first. Always begin in your store sale flyer, of course. 🙂 Before you can know what to cook, you first want to know what’s on sale. Check the flyers and note what the best deals are on meats and produce. Why didn’t I say to look at the rest of the flyer? Because you can take away almost all the worry about getting enough nutrition for your family if you try to stay with a wide variety of whole foods most of the time, so always start formulating your recipes with whole food products– meat, fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, and whole grains (Not Minute Rice.) Stay away from boxed and canned foods. There’s nothing good for your kids in there. Nothing. It’s pure evil. Don’t even cut out the coupons anymore. You don’t need the temptation.
(3) OK… so you’ve noted what the good sales are. It’s time to choose recipes. Let me show you one example of a possible week. Let’s say for example that pot roast, ground beef, rotisserie chicken, and lots of great summer produce are on sale this week. And for my example, green days are days where I have plenty of time to cook, red means no time, and blue are less time days.
Here’s what I might do with that type of week. You will note that on Sunday I am going to make a nice pot roast dinner with wonderful boiled veggies. Monday I am going to make my famous chili recipe. Now I don’t use ground beef in my chili. I use chopped cauliflower instead, but you can use beef, turkey, or any other meat alternative. Whichever you choose, you will need to prep some extra and put it aside for Tuesday’s tacos. You won’t have time to cook on Tuesday, so this way you’ll have the “meat” prepared and seasoned and ready to go. It is the same when you get to the chopped tomatoes in the chili recipe, chop some and put them aside for Tuesday. Now all you will need to do on Tuesday is a quick re-heat of the meat, chop some lettuce and put everything out for your family to dig in. Easy peasy and super fast!
Moving on to Wednesday we are going to use a ton of that amazing produce to make a great stir fry dinner. You can get a great variety of nutrition into the family by including a weekly stir fry and rotating what vegetables you include. We use combinations of onion, mushroom, peppers, broccoli, carrots, celery, zucchini, squash, snap peas, snow peas, cabbage, cauliflower, spinach, green beans, and anything else we have hanging around. Sauté them all with just a little broth and a splash of soy sauce and viola. Fabulous. If you prefer, you can include some chicken, beef, tofu, or seafood too.
Thursday is a no time to cook day, so we are going to pick up a rotisserie chicken for that day and we’ll cook some sweet potatoes or white potatoes wrapped in foil and tossed in the slow cooker to roast all day long. By dinner time just slice some chicken, give everyone a potato and prep a small salad for all. Bam. 5 minutes and done.
Friday is Chef’s choice. We use this to use up leftovers or maybe make up something special. And Saturday we will use more of that amazing summer produce to make up our favorite veggie lasagna.
Also note that throughout the week for hubby’s lunches, we will use leftover pot roast for sandwiches, leftover chili, leftover stir fry, chicken salad sandwhiches from leftover rotisserie chicken, and veggie lasagna for lunches as well. If you plan lunches around your dinners, those will require no extra cash or time on your part. Just plan to make a bit more of them than you need for dinner alone.
Step 4. Gather your recipes and begin to create your shopping list. Do the same for breakfast and lunches. Once you’ve written everything you will need on your list (including items for household items, and personal items), go through your current inventory and scratch off anything that you already have. Don’t assume you have it. Eyeball it first. How many times have you gone for an ingredient only to find that there’s just a tiny bit left and you need a lot more? Never again.
Step 5. Reorganize your shopping list by aisle. And here’s the key. You are going to shop a bit differently this time. Most people enter a market and go aisle by aisle from one side of the store to the other. The problems with this method are that (a) all the refrigerator and frozen foods are on the outsides of the store and will get warm in your basket as you gather them and (b) all the crap food is in the center aisles of the store and you won’t be aware of how much you are getting if it’s buried in with all the produce and meats, etc. So, from now on, shop all the center aisles first. Then take a look at your cart. Is it full of crapola? Yes? Go put some back. Again, it’s pure evil.
After you’ve done that, now go do the outskirts of the store ending with your frozen food/refrigerator section so those items will remain colder longer. Check out.
Final Steps: Put the food away according to your calendar and put the calendar on the front of the fridge. If you aren’t cooking your steak until 5 days from now, throw it in the freezer and put a note on your calendar to take it out of the freezer 1-2 days before you need it. Don’t need that baby spinach till Wednesday? Put it behind the lettuce. Organize your fridge so you know where everything is and you’ll be more likely to use it! And seeing the calendar reminds you what to plan for the next day. It’s also rewarding for some to scratch off the items as you’ve made them. It helps reinforce those good feelings of knowing you did a great job of planning and implementing your new system.
Still not convinced it’s doable? Well maybe you prefer an app. There are some great meal planning apps. Some even categorize and store your recipes. Check out these top three: Cook Smarts (voted #1 by Lifehacker), Plan to Eat (meal planner and grocery list maker), and Paprika ( a recipe manager and more!)
Or maybe you are a brand new bride and you need something that you can start with completely from scratch. Cooking Light has a wonderful page where you chose what kind of meals you are looking for, such as “Quick and Easy” or “5 Ingredient”. You then drag and drop recipes into the week night planner and click print. It’ll even print the recipes for you. Check it out.
No matter which method you choose, I promise you will feel better just for having a system. Happy meal planning! Remember to find joy in the process.