How many times a week do you start pulling your hair out at 5:15 realizing your husband is almost home, and your children are almost hungry, and you are hours from knowing what to eat, let alone having a meal on the table? This was my life daily – DAILY – before meal planning became a reality. I’d heard of it, I mean we probably all have. I ignored it, thinking it would be a “waste of time” simply because it would take time. I know. With these tips for how to plan and prepare family dinners, you can take away the stress of dinner time and create something sensational for the whole family!
I love a good meal plan. Well, frankly I just love a good plan. But I was not born this way. I have spent the majority of my life flying by the seat of my pants (and if I’m being totally honest, I still often do). But, I’ve finally gotten to the point where I can’t afford to do that – financially and because I just don’t have time! Creating and implementing home solutions has become a necessity in my life! (And if you are like me and feel overwhelmed by everything calling for your attention? Don’t miss this post with 10 simple cleaning tips to simplify your schedule!)
If you’ve ever thought spending the time once at the beginning of the week would be a waste of time, read on. You’ll be convinced, once and for all, that you really have no other option.
This will be the first of many posts relating to meal planning. I can’t wait to get into the nitty-gritty in later posts. But first, lets cover the basics. Meal planning. The what, the why, the when, the how.
What is a Meal Plan?
Kay, it’s pretty intuitive. Here’s a great definition from Kitchn: “What it is: Meal planning is asking the what’s for dinner question once for the whole week, instead of every night, and then shopping for and prepping the ingredients before cooking.”
Basically, you are spending a chunk of time at the beginning of the week deciding exactly what recipes you will eat on which days.
You will look up each recipe and make it accessible for when it comes around later that week.
You will make one shopping list, so that when you start the recipes, you are ready to do what needs to be done.
And finally, you will make notes about prep. For example, thawing meat, marinating chicken, or baking bread ahead of time. The more prep work you can do, the easier your life will be when the moment for cooking comes around. Thawing chicken for a casserole at 5:45 p.m. is no joke, and will turn your hair gray. (Unless you have an instant pot. But we can talk about that over and over and over again in other posts.)
Why bother?! If you really had that question bouncing around in your head, then you are in the right place. I could talk all day about the why behind meal planning, because it’s changed how I feel about my life in the kitchen. I won’t talk all day though…there’s not a chance you’d stick around for that. But let me give you 2 reasons: time and money. Good enough?
When you meal plan, you will save time. I promise!
It will allow you to know exactly what needs to be done each day. You can plan accordingly, whether it’s pulling out meat to thaw, locating spices, and using expiring ingredients. Not to mention (but I will) that you are going to save yourself the time and headache of 5 separate shopping trips that always come up when you fail to plan. If you have the freedom and ability to flip through recipes casually each day, then run to the store to make what you need, and sit at the sink as you thaw your chicken in hot water – meal planning might not be fore you. But for the rest of us who are dying to do other things, meal planning seems to be the only option.
Did you know that every time you head into the store, you will spend money on unplanned things? This means if you go to the store every day for that one ingredient you forgot to plan for, you will spend extra money on something you didn’t really need at all. Time Magazine shared a study that found “you’re more likely to spend money on unplanned splurges as your shopping trip progresses, even if you’re really just intending to buy the stuff you came for in the first place.” Imagine how this affects your budget over the course of a week of running to the store for odds and ends.
In addition, when you plan your meals, you are more likely to note those veggies that are about to turn bad, and to plan meals around expiring canned goods. Using food that you already have in your refrigerator and pantry is a surefire way to save money! (For more ideas to save money, see this post on spending smart!)
When should I do a meal plan
Okay, so let’s get detailed. The when of the meal plan. Once a week is ideal. Just plan out a solid 15-30 minute chunk of time at the beginning of your week (I love Sundays). This allows me to have a list all ready to go Monday morning. I have built a shopping trip into my schedule Monday mornings. By doing my list on Sunday, I have time to go through the day and add forgotten items to my list.
Make sure that you plan through the next Sunday. Remember your next shopping trip isn’t until the following Monday, so you don’t want to come up short at the end of the week.
One more tip that has really helped me is to plan one extra meal past the next time you will meal plan/shop. How many times does your “built in” shopping trip get thrown out the window when your child throws a tantrum? You don’t want to come up short. So, try planning Monday dinner through the following Monday’s dinner. This will allow you to relax if it takes you until Tuesday to get to the store.
How’s this going to work?
It’s an simple enough task – determine how many meals you will need, find the recipes, see what ingredients you already have, and make a shopping list.
Count the Dinners: Make sure that you are noting which meals can be used as leftovers. Realistically and ideally you won’t need 7 meals in your meal plan. Note how many servings a casserole makes, and consider how many people are eating. Try to have two meals spill over into the next day to free up some extra time on busier days.
Find the Recipes: This is the fun part! Get into your recipe books, start scrolling online (Yummly is a favorite source), check out your favorite blog’s recipes ;). Think of fun recipes that your family will love, throw in old family favorites, but be willing to venture out.
Check for Ingredients: This can be done as you are finding recipes. You will save money by using ingredients you already have. If you have a whole head of lettuce, make sure you plan a couple of salads. Always check for spices, as well. I have had a tendency to skip over this. Don’t assume you have enough of every spice, take the time to check. (Check out our guide to buying, organizing, and storing spices!)
Shopping List: I love having a running shopping list going. This is so helpful when I run out of things like milk, spices, or sugar in the middle of the week. When you make your weekly list, you can just add those ingredients in. This is a key to your meal planning. When I have ingredients on hand, I am far more likely to actually turn out the dinner I planned.
Prepare Where You Can
Meal prep and meal planning go hand in hand. When you make your meal plan, note those things that can be done ahead of time – and do them. Pull out your meat the night before, make your dressings before your kids wake up, and get your meat marinating sooner than 15 minutes before you pop it on the grill. Ideally, plan in a couple of hours every day for whatever prep you can do.
As much as you can, prepare in the morning. There is nothing worse than rushing your kids home from activities at 6:30 at night and racing to start a dinner from scratch. In fact, you’ll probably end up eating fast food more than you’d like if you haven’t done at least some prep work. The more you have completed ahead of time, the less stressed you will feel when it comes down to the wire. Having the ability quickly assemble precut veggies into a salad, or throwing the prepared lasagna in the oven is a gamechanger.
Random Tips for a Good Meal Plan
- Make a freezer meal at least once a week simply by doubling one recipe – you’ll thank yourself later.
- Don’t plan to cook on the days that you know you won’t cook. Be honest with yourself if you are going to eat out on Friday night.
- If you are trying not to eat out as much, meal plan! We have a history of eating out every single Saturday because I don’t know what to make for dinner. The weeks that I have a meal plan in place, and have done at least some prep work, are the weeks that we eat at home, just like we wanted to.
- Think of meals that are realistic for you to make, for both your budget and schedule. I love to cook, but my stage of life and limited grocery budget take away my imagination quite a bit. I can’t cook a 6 course meal every night without taking away from our family too much. Remember, every meal includes buying ingredients, prep time, cook time, and clean up time. If you want to do a special meal, do it on a day your husband can take the kids and give you a free and easy kitchen.
- That being said, don’t shrink away from creativity. Just keep your schedule and budget in mind when planning it out, or you might be in for sticker shock at the grocery store the first time you decide to make lamb curry.
- Cook with kids when you can. But you don’t always have to – because it’s quite a bit harder and more distracting. And messier. Plan for it to be an activity. And then plan time to cook alone where possible. This is such a fun and cute video, and is pretty much exactly how it goes in our home (I’m talking to you, Henry).
Make Cooking Fun Again
I remember the days before I had kids. There was just so much free time, I could afford (time-wise and money-wise) to head to the store daily if I needed to. I loved experimenting in the kitchen, and never really thought I needed a meal plan.
With two busy toddlers at my feet all day, dinner simply doesn’t happen without a meal plan. Start simple and see how this revolutionizes your kitchen. Get back to the fun of cooking, when you take away everything that makes it stressful. With a meal plan, when it is time to cook, all you have to do is simply cook!
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