Check out this meal planning system that will help you get simple healthy meals on the table all on budget!
Back in my days as a teacher, there are a few things I added to my weekly routine to keep my home life running smoothly (or at least to keep my sanity). In the early days when I was lucky to keep my head above water, I’d think about what we were going to eat for dinner when I arrived home from work or my son’s hockey practice. Needless to say, out came the hamburger helper, chicken pot pies, frozen meatballs or another less-than-healthy or desirable option. Yuck!
Eventually I grew tired of feeling frazzled at mealtime and eating food that lacked nutrition, variety and great taste. I also noticed that, although my pantry was full, there really wasn’t anything to eat. I had fallen into the “oh it’s on sale and I may need it someday” trap. At some point you end up with 13 cans of pineapple chunks!
I decided to finally do something about it and created a meal planning system. It took some tweaking to get it right, but eventually I was able to implement something that works for us.
In order for meal planning to work the best, you first need to spend some time getting your kitchen organized. If your pantry is stacked miles high with no rhyme or reason and you’re not sure what’s at the back of your fridge, you’re going to continue wasting money. Take the time to do it right. If you need some help with this, I wrote a post a few months ago called Organizing 101: The Pantry.
Although my schedule is more flexible now, I haven’t let meal planning fall by the wayside. It takes a small amount of time, but yields very big results. Once you see how easy it is to set up your own system and put it in to practice, you’ll find it hard to believe you haven’t been doing it all along. And, best of all, your family will enjoy well-balanced meals that don’t deplete your savings!
How I Meal Plan
1) Get Inspired
I started a file folder in my kitchen awhile ago to hold new recipes that catch my attention and that I plan on giving a try. I find some of these in magazines, others on blogs and occasionally I’m inspired by something I see on TV. Usually I can find the recipe on the show’s website and I simply print it off. Some of my favorite sources for recipes are:
- Canadian Living
- The Pioneer Woman
- Pinch of Yum
- Eating Well
- Pinterest Yummy & Healthier Eating
One day a week (usually Sunday afternoon), I sit down and plan out our supper/dinner meals for the coming week. We all have our go-to breakfast items and lunches are pretty standard around here, so I don’t find it necessary to plan too much for those. You can easily add those meals to your plan if needed.
First, I go through my folder of new recipes, selecting one or two at the most to try that week. I then pull some of our family favourites from an accordion folder I put together a while back. This is where I put recipes I’ve tried and liked, as well as recipes that have been handed down by family members or ones I’ve requested from friends (you know those dinner parties where the food was divine and you had to get that recipe)!
The categories in the folder are:
- Breakfast & Breads
- Appetizers & Soups
- Meats & Sauces, Mains
- Sides & Salads
via See Jane Work
I usually ask for some meal ideas from my family for the coming week (although they usually say “everything you make is good”- which I believe is their way of getting out of the process and back to watching Sunday’s football game).
I also take a look at what we have a surplus of in the fridge and pantry and often find recipes with those ingredients. For instance, coconut milk and rice noodles may inspire a curry soup or kidney beans and canned tomatoes could possibly lead to chili.
If we’re out of most items, I take a look through some of the current flyers or coupons I have and plan some meals around the deals I find, such as a sale on chicken breasts or salmon (which can typically be more costly options). I also like to use ingredients that are in season for best taste and nutritional value.
On any given week, I usually select:
- a pasta dish (whole grain or brown rice pasta)
- a roasted or grilled meat option with side
- a casserole, soup or stew
- pizza or toasted sandwich recipe
- mixed vegetable stir fry with chicken, beef or shrimp
- dinner salad, such as taco or asian chicken
I like to always keep fresh baby spinach, tomatoes, veggies, banana peppers, olives, pickles and frozen corn and peas on hand for easy side dishes or add-ons.
Most weekends we eat one dinner out (on either Friday or Saturday), giving me one night of planning and cooking off. Believe me, I love the break!
2) Plan it Out
Next, I take a look at our schedules and determine how busy our days are going to be over the course of the week. Quite often, our son has after-school activities or my husband has meetings.
On those days, I select the easy-throw-together recipes or ones that can be thrown into the slow cooker for the afternoon.
Another option is making a large portion of one meal to eat as leftovers for that next busy evening. For instance, I sometimes make a large portion of chicken chili and simply add a side salad the next day to keep the meal tasting fresh.
The tool I use to record my meal plan for the week comes from Project Girl. She also has one for planning breakfasts and lunches if you require that option.
After recording the meals for each evening, I then start on the grocery list. I always check the fridge, pantry and extra items stored in my basement before I create the list. That way I don’t end up with two bags of potatoes or something that will likely just spoil.
Note: I don’t recommend stock piling too much stuff. However, I do like to keep extra boxes of chicken stock, apple juice, and other items on sale that we use quite often.
Project Girl has created handy food categories on the same template, making shopping easy.
Once my list is complete, I cut the shopping portion of the planning sheet off and take it with me to the store (usually on Mondays).
Note: Throughout the week, I have a separate running grocery list where we record staple items we’re running low on, such as peanut butter and bread. I add those items to the meal planning shopping list, so that I’m only shopping with one list. On the back I write cleaning, health and beauty items, such as toothpaste and paper towels.
I take the list of that week’s meals (the other half of the sheet) and paper clip it to the top of all the recipes. As an option, you could write them on a small white board hanging in your kitchen or pantry.
Occasionally, the meal plan requires changes during the week. For instance, an unexpected meeting will sometimes come up or we’ll get invited to a friend’s place for dinner- yay! However, for the most part, I have found this planning system works well for us.
We rarely waste food (unless that new recipe turns out to be a total miss. In that case, my husband will still eat it). If you do find yourself in that situation, remember that eggs can easily be made into an omelette and waffles aren’t just for breakfast. Or, throw together a simple pasta with garlic, butter, herbs and frozen peas. Use your imagination!
Tell me, do you plan your meals for the week or deal with it day by day? Are you constantly stumped and tired of the whole process or do you feel quite organized and optimistic when it comes to meals? What do you find works best? Leave a comment below. I’d love to know!
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Enjoy your day!