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Learning how to meal plan is the one question I seem to get over and over again. And even though I’ve done blog posts before on the basics, it has been awhile so I’m doing a little update now. I started meal planning years ago as a way to try and save my sanity. You can read more about how I began HERE.
When I used to teach my meal planning workshops, I always started out with the WHYS of meal planning. It’s important to understand why you should meal plan to help you get started!
Why Meal Plan?
To save money! When you have a plan, you know what you need and you (hopefully) buy just what you need for that week’s menu. Without a plan, you’re more likely to make impulse buys and that means spending more money! You can also work leftovers into the plan which will save you even more money.
To save time—in the kitchen and at the store. How many times have you opened the refrigerator or pantry and stared blankly into them trying to figure out what you have on hand to make for dinner? Or are you one to wander aimlessly at the grocery store hoping that going up and down the aisles will inspire you to think of what you need or want to buy? And if you bring your kids shopping with you (which I DO like to do—read here why) all that wandering can mean you might walk out with something you forgot and something you did not mean to buy.
Staring and wandering wastes time. Don’t do it! Have a plan and you’ll be more efficient on both fronts. Plus, you’re more likely to be able to just make one trip to the grocery store because you can buy all that you need.
Eat Healthier and More ConsciouslyMeal planning helps you be a conscious cook. You’re less likely to make impulse buys and can think about what you are making and serving your family. Will that be less-processed, organic, local, more budget friendly? The choice is yours, but when you have a plan, YOU can decide.
When the end of the day comes and you realize you’re hungry and it’s time to make dinner for your family, you’ll feel better knowing that you’ve got a plan! Maybe that means a quick and easy recipe, having something ready to go in the slowcooker or pulling something from the freezer, but just knowing ahead of time what’s for dinner equals less stress. Or maybe it’s in the morning…having a breakfast plan means you won’t have to feel bad about serving cereal day after day after day and can mix things up a bit with some variety in your plan.
What Tools Do You Need?
There are a number of things I gather to help make the meal planning process go more smoothly. They are:
A Calendar/Planner: A paper calendar/planner, computer calendar or whatever works for you is it. Discover what I like about my current family planner in the post and video HERE. If you use a computer calendar (such as Google calendar), I suggest you print it out for the month as it’s easier to see and write on it as you are planning.
Recipes! These will come from a variety of sources. I like to have my laptop handy so I can check my website’s Recipe Index, Pinterest boards, or other online recipe boxes. I also pull out my family recipe box, magazines, cookbooks or recipe clippings I’ve collected. Of course I’m not pulling them ALL, just a few that I maybe haven’t used in awhile to give me some inspiration. You might recall, I have quite a collection!
Shopping List printout
Years ago I came up with a grocery store list that was customized to the grocery store I shop at most often (this blog post that talks about it is REALLY old—I need to do an update! But it will give you an idea of what I’m talking about). It is so handy because everything is organized by aisle so I can get in and out of the store more quickly. I also keep copies of it inside the door of my pantry so that anyone in our family can add something to the list when we run out of an item. Of course having a printed out list is not necessary. But I do suggest you go into the store with some sort of list for sure! It will help you stay on task and avoid those impulse buys!
Grocery Store Flyers and Coupons
Using the flyers that come in the mail or newspaper for your local grocery stores helps with meal planning goal number one—to save money! You can look through the ads to see what is on sale and plan accordingly. I don’t use coupons too much, but if you do, have them handy so you can add up even more savings and include those items in your meal plan. Why don’t I used coupons? I prefer to buy store brands which for me, saves me more than coupons do. Plus, the coupons available are often for items our family does not really eat.
Meal Planning Binder
I developed a meal planning binder years ago to collect all things meal planning related. Really many of the things I’ve already mentioned here. It is kind of an evolving thing and while it’s not necessary, it is handy when you’re getting started to have a place to keep all your meal planning tools together in one place.
Freezer Inventory List
If you’re not keeping an inventory of what you have in the freezer (or pantry or refrigerator even!), you need to start now. Once you’ve got your inventory, pull it out when you’re ready to meal plan so you can use up what’s in the freezer. Maybe you got a really good deal on ground beef and need to use some of it up. Check the inventory! Or maybe you made a double batch of that lasagna last time you made it. Check the inventory and use it up! You can download my free Freezer Inventory sheet by CLICKING HERE to help you get started.
Making the Menu Plan!
Schedule a time to meal plan. Just like exercise, meal planning doesn’t just “happen”. You have to set a time to get it done. But with practice, you should be able to get a week’s menu plan done in less than 15 minutes and you’ll be oh so much happier for it. I personally like to meal plan on Sundays and shop on Mondays. Schedule your planning day based on the day you like to shop. That might mean every Thursday to shop on Friday or Saturday or maybe every other week when the paycheck comes in. I usually put on a favorite television show and sit down after the kids are in bed. I can have all my meal planning tools laid out and enjoy a favorite show at the same time as being productive. Win-win!
Plan Your Meals to the Calendar
Now comes the fun part. It’s kind of like a puzzle. Look at what activities you and your family have going on for the week. Is one day an extra crazy day with lots of evening activities? Make that a slow cooker meal kind of day! Maybe another day is not so busy and you can try out a new recipe. Or how about those days that you’re just too worn out at the end of the day but want to avoid the drive through? A meal pulled from the freezer (made ahead) is perfect to just heat, serve and eat!
Write It Down
So now you’ve got an idea of what you want to make you’ve got to write it down. That might be in your planner or on your calendar or added to your computer calendar. That way when each day comes, you can refer to the plan you’ve already made and see what you need to make or do to get dinner on the table more easily. As you are going through the
Now Go Forth and Meal Plan!
I hope some of these ideas will help you get started meal planning. And remember, as with anything new, it takes practice and dedication. Over time, it will become easier for you to get a meal plan together and you’ll wonder why it took you so long to get started! As always I’m available to answer your questions. Just leave a comment below and I’ll get back to you!
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Thanks, this is really helpful! I’ve never been good with meal planning. I don’t have any children to plan for, but I still need to get things in order. Thanks again!
Meal Plan Mom (Brenda)
Thanks! That’s a misnomer that meal planning is just for families with children. Even if you’re on your own, doing a little meal planning will help you stretch your food so that you get the most for your money! I hope you’ll give it a try.
I’m still a novice at menu planning, but my shopping list printout saves me so much time, and now I always remember to buy baking powder when we run out.
Meal Plan Mom (Brenda)
You gotta start somewhere is what I say! I agree, the printout shopping list is an amazing timesaver. Who’d have thought?
This is a great resource. I’ll be sharing it.
Meal Plan Mom (Brenda)
Thanks–glad you found it helpful!
I really need to get back into doing this. I used to do a monthly calendar and shop only once maybe twice a week if necessary and it did save a lot of time, money, and stress. I’ve gotten away from it and I find myself going crazy at times. It can be an overwhelming thing to get into especially if you try and do everything but your tips are great and I would suggest someone picking just one to start and give it a try. After reading your post I’m going to be proactive about it and pull out my calendar, thanks!
Valentina @ The Baking Fairy
These tips are great! I love meal planning and I would be so lost without it. I just plan a week at a time though 🙂 I lucked out at Target a couple of months ago and found a dry-erase weekly planner in their dollar section. It makes meal planning so easy, and it sticks to the fridge so everyone can see what’s coming. I should probably start keeping inventory of my freezer, too… something to work on next!
Meal Plan Mom (Brenda)
Glad you found them helpful! I love browsing the Target dollar section–they often have some great items for the kitchen! If you’re ready to get your freezer organized, check out my post on that and download the inventory list to help you get started! Here’s the link: https://www.mealplanningmagic.com/2012/11/organize-your-freezer-in-5-easy-steps.html Good luck!
Thank you so much for writing this!! I am inspired!!! I have my planner ready and my freezer list printed! My first freezer meal (chicken pot pie 🙂 is ready to be stored away! I wish I would have started this years ago! I have a newborn and will be heading back to work soon so I am thrilled to start freezing ahead meals for that busy time! (and of course, to save money and sanity!)
Meal Plan Mom (Brenda)
I am so glad you found these tips helpful Heather! And thank you for taking the time to let me know. Freezer meals are still a lifesaver for me even though my kids are preteen and teenager age now! Best of luck to you and please reach out to me if you have any questions.
Just now reading this, I love meal planning and the planning is kind of just as fun as cooking. I recently got a chalk board looking designed dry erase calendar that is magnetic and on my fridge, I had a notepad at one time which was fine when I used a pencil to write items in but I found out some days I end up not having time to make that certain item or there is something cheaper or quicker I can whip up so I push that initial meal idea a day or so so its easy now for me to just erase it and push it up a day, plus the markers are a cool neon color the board came with and super fun looking! This is coming from the nut though that took time to write down and note every single recipe she had in her pinterest boards so I can actually try them instead of them sitting there and forgetting about them and crossing them off after I go and eventually just storing them in one of my recipe boxes. LOL its just so fun for me to plan and see what I have next. I absolutely LOVE your idea for the binder of keeping everything together and also the inventory list, I am going to try these two methods to add to my meal planning as well. Love your blog and these posts!! Glad I found it!
Meal Plan Mom (Brenda)
Thanks Lindsey for your feedback! I’m glad you have found my posts helpful!
Hannah @ FamilyFoodFreezer
Brenda you have a site full of great content for meal planning!! Love it!
Thank you Hannah!