Why should I Meal Plan?
Meal planning is one of the most important habits you have develop to have a healthy relationship with food. I have coached over 1,000 clients through a Whole30 and that is a habit again and again that comes up as essential. What is meal planning? Meal planning is is simply the act of thinking ahead for what meals you want to make for a given period of time (1 week, 2 weeks, 1 month) and writing them down. Traditionally you write down the ingredient you need into a grocery list and do grocery shopping to support the plan as well.
Here are 3 reasons why you should meal plan:
- It set you up for success with a plan for food for the next week. Making the decision outside of the dinner-time moment of healthy/affordable/(insert goal here) food you can make it easier to stick with it, as that decision is already made.
- It saves time in the end – No 5pm wondering and stress of what to make for dinner in the moment. It also saves time with no last minute grocery store trips.
- It saves money by creating your grocery list. And, in the words of budget guru Dave Ramsey, “A list can make or break a budget.” Having a meal plan and accompanying grocery list ensures you buy what you need and will eat what you buy. Meal planning = less food waste and less unplanned fast food or quick pricey dinner options.
But, as someone who has meal planned weekly for years, it doesn’t have to be complicated! Here is how I meal plan for the week for my large family of 7.
How I Meal Plan
I picked a day of the week that worked for my schedule to regularly meal plan (by attaching meal planning to a day, I’m more likely to do it weekly), which for me is Saturday mornings. I sit down with a plain old piece of white or lined paper and fold it in half to divide it into two columns. On one column, I list the meals we are going to be eating for the week; on the other column, I list the ingredients needed for those meals, usually divided by the grocery store I know from experience will have the best price on each item. I also try to list my grocery list by area of the store (so all the produce items are together at the top since I start in the produce section) to make my grocery trips more efficient. I typically shop at 2-3 stores each week to save money and get the best deals. My regulars are Winco and Sam’s Club, with a smattering of Walmart and my local natural food store or Grocery Outlet.
Each week, I pick out about 5 dinner recipes, plus 2-3 breakfast and lunch items. This will be enough for a week of meals, as some nights are leftover nights (which avoids food waste and saves money!) or something on the fly. I don’t assign the meals to a specific day, as I prefer the flexibility to decide that throughout the week. If you prefer to do that, just double-check your calendar and be realistic about how busy that day is and how much time you have in the kitchen to cook! For example, I know in basketball season I only have 30 minutes max to get dinner on the table after work, so I either plan a slow cooker meal or a 30-minute meal. (Note: Did you know more than half the meals in my Whole Food for Your Family cookbook can be made in 30 minutes or less? WOOT!)
BUDGET TIP: Shop your own pantry and refrigerator before you make your list and go to the store. What do you already have that you need to use up? Also, once your list is made, double-check the items you are buying. I put everything a recipe needs on the grocery list and then only cross it off if I can see it in the fridge or pantry (i.e. don’t assume you still have enough almond flour or milk – maybe it got used up when you didn’t realize it!). For more budget tips, see this blog post!
I will normally involve a kid or two to help me pick recipes because they are more likely to eat the meals they picked. Kids are naturally drawn to photos, so they like to sit down and flip through my cookbook collection and point out things that look good (this is exactly why every recipe in my own cookbook has photos!) Of course, sometimes when I ask them what I should make for the upcoming week, they just say, “Hot dogs” (insert eye roll here).
To try to build our family food vocabulary, I aim to try 2-3 new recipes per month. Also, to keep up with the demands of a large family, I double most meals and freeze any extras or serve the leftovers for lunch the next day.
So, to find a sustainable meal planning method, I recommend:
- Pick a regular date/time of the week to do it.
- Decide how many meals you need planned and how long you want to plan for (for me that was 5 dinners and 2-3 lunches + breakfasts for 1 week). Use cookbooks, Pinterest, Instagram, etc. for meal inspiration! Consider what you already have to use up when planning your meals.
- Make an accompanying shopping list.
I try to shop first thing in the morning because I hate crowds and lines. I also try to shop earlier in the day as it’s hot right now, and loading groceries into and out of the car in the heat makes me a bit grumpy.
My youngest son loves to come with me. He holds the list, tells me what I need next, and then crosses those items off the list as I toss them into the basket. Even my kids love checking things off a list! They are also great at letting me know when we are getting things that are not on the list, ha! Sometimes we’ll use this time to work on skills like price comparison; I teach them how to compare prices per ounce to get the best deal on items.
Once we’re home with the groceries, everyone pitches in to put them away. We have two fridges/freezers—one inside the kitchen, and the other in the garage. It’s hard to keep that many perishable items in one fridge for such a large family. The kids help me bring the groceries inside the house and I direct them to where it should be stored.
I never meal prep on the same day that I grocery shop, because the grocery shopping trip usually takes 3-4 hours of my day, and I’m wiped out. After I grocery shop, I go do something fun or restful with my family for the rest of the day.
How I Meal Prep
Meal prepping in the traditional 4-6 hour session on the weekends didn’t work for me. Instead of having a meal prep day, I have a meal prep rhythm that’s been incredibly sustainable for me to keep up with my large family without spending more time in the kitchen. You can read all about my meal prep method here!
Meal planning can be such a simple but valuable way to have a plan for meals for the upcoming week(s) and the groceries to support them. It saves time, saves money, and helps you have the tools to be successful in getting nourishing meals on the table for your family. It can look a lot of ways, but I hope sharing my approach has inspired you and that you build a sustainable meal planning method!
Want some FREE Whole30 meal plans, including a Meal Planning Template, a budget meal plan, and a meal plan aimed for families? See this post here!