Meal Planning 101

I love meal planning. Both the process and the result. There’s nothing I like doing more on a Saturday morning than curling up on the couch with a cup of coffee, Pinterest, and a stack of cookbooks and food magazines and planning out the upcoming week’s meals. (I’m aware that makes me sound like a total nerd, and I’m definitely ok with that).

I’m finally at a point where I’m consistent with meal planning, but when I first decided to start planning our weekly meals, I didn’t do any research or ask anyone else how they did it. I just jumped in. Through lots of trial and error, I’ve finally found a method of meal planning that works for me and J, and I thought I’d share a few trips and tricks.

#1: Budget, budget, budget

Even though its the least fun part of the process, before you start planning out a large grocery list, you have to get a handle on how much you are comfortable spending. Seafood or top end meat cuts once a week might sound fantastic, but realistically, you may need to plan more for a chicken and pasta budget than a sirloin and shrimp budget. And there’s nothing wrong with that! Being on a budget doesn’t mean you only get bland, boring food.

#2: Multitask ingredients 

When I first started meal planning, one of the problems I repeatedly ran into was that I would get really excited about a recipe with an unusual ingredient, buy that ingredient, make the dish, and then end up wasting the rest of that ingredient. One ingredient in particular that would end up going bad for us is avocados – I don’t really care for them, but J loves them. I’d buy a couple, thinking that I’d use them all in one recipe, then I’d only end up using a half of one and the rest would go bad and get thrown out.

Now, if I pick out a recipe that has avocados or something unusual that I don’t use on a regular basis, I’m careful to include at least one other recipe for that week that includes that ingredient. For example, this week I’m planning on baked salmon topped with an onion and avocado mix. Because I’m buying the avocados, I specifically planned on making guacamole to go with chicken fajitas that I have planned for another night.

And when you’re coming up with ways to stretch ingredients, don’t forget that you don’t have to restrict your meal plans to dinner! If you need avocados for dinner one night, you can work avocados into a lunch salad or a breakfast quiche on a different day!

#3: Don’t forget the leftovers

When planning a week’s worth of meals, I used to get so excited about all the possibilities that I would plan huge meals every night of the week and end up with heaps and heaps of leftovers that sat in the back of the fridge, forgotten, until I had no clean tupperware and the food had gone bad. Check the serving sizes on your recipes – if you want to make a crockpot full of soup, you probably won’t need to plan a new meal for the next day.

I try to make the larger, more involved meals on the weekends so we have leftovers on a Monday or another hectic weekday. But even if I’m not planning a particularly large meal one week, I still leave at least one day without a plan, because we inevitably end up with leftovers, or end up going out to dinner, or get home from work late, ect.

#4: Keep stocked with staples

In our house, there are a few constants: block cheese, crackers, lettuce, frozen steamer packages of veggies, ground beef, and eggs are the big ones. I love planning out our meals, but sometimes I don’t have the time or energy to whip up an entree and healthy sides and lunches and snacks all in one day. So I’ll focus on making a beautiful piece of fish or a steak and let a side salad suffice. As long as I can get some form of veggie on the plate, I consider it a win.

The other benefit of always having easy, simple, tried and true foods on hand is for those wonderful occasions when you bomb a recipe. It happens! No matter how often you cook, if you’re experimenting, you will end up with a dud, whether its something that you burned or something that turned out just the way it was supposed to but you end up hating it. When you have one of those nights, its great to be able to just zap some frozen sweet corn in the microwave to serve as a side, or to throw together some quick, basic burgers. So find a handful of ingredients that your family loves that you know you can work with in a pinch, and keep stocked.

#5: Be a flexible shopper, but not too flexible

Having a solid plan on your way into the grocery store can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you have a very specific list to keep you and your budget on track, but on the other hand, unless you exhaustively search for coupons and deals prior to every grocery store trip, you’re probably going to run into an unexpected good deal once in a while, and that good deal won’t beautifully jive with your existing plan.

When I first started meal planning and ran into an unexpected good deal at the store, I could never resist, no matter how obscure the ingredient was. Huge tub of red pepper hummus on sale? Sure, I’ll buy it, even though we’ve never had hummus before and other than chips, I have no idea what to do with it! I quickly learned that just because something is a great deal doesn’t mean it will be a great deal for me, if that great deal ends up going bad in the back of my fridge.

Now, I use a five second rule – if I see something on sale that isn’t on my list (assuming its not one of my trusty staples), I won’t buy it unless I can come up with at least two ideas for that ingredient in five seconds. For some things, this is really easy. If shrimp is on sale, I’m grabbing it and I will adjust my meal plans accordingly. If its a soft cheese or eggplant, for example, and I think I’d need to put some time and effort into using it, I’ll pass.

#6: Get creative with your produce

For a while, we were in a vegetable rut. I like to serve a vegetable with every dinner, but I was getting so bored with steamed broccoli and baked asparagus, which were my two main veggie sides. So I started paying more attention to my produce aisle. Once I started looking, I was actually pretty amazed at the varieties of vegetables I could find – and I don’t even shop at a fancy or organic grocery store. We’re rural enough that my only shopping option within a 30 minute radius is Walmart.

If you have skeptical eaters in your house (*ahem* a husband), start with something close to a veggie you know they like. J likes green onions, so I tried leeks. Then leeks lead to parsnips. Parsnips were a no, but leeks worked. So I tried bok choy. Now we eat all sorts of veggies that I never thought would sound appealing – turnips, cabbage, brussel sprouts, kale. Just keep those staples on hand for those occasions where your experimentation is met with wrinkled noses.

#7: Don’t be afraid of canned goods

I like to serve and eat fresh food. I aim for healthy and flavorful. But for certain things, like beans or diced tomatoes, canned is the way to go. Store brand canned black beans are less than a dollar, can be thrown into any recipe with no more effort than cranking a can opener, and serve as an excellent, healthy filler in most meals. I love to make my own tomato sauce when I have the time, but if I’m making a baked pasta dish and want to get it in the oven with minimal fuss, I crack open a jar of Classico. In some instances, longevity and price are going to win out over the time and expense of fresh or homemade, especially if you’re focusing on perfecting a main dish and don’t want to fuss too much over sides.

#8: Have fun!

Enjoy yourself! The whole point of planning out meals for the week ahead is to make cooking a relaxing, enjoyable, creative process. Whether you’re trying to keep your family healthy, trying to save time and money, or just simply want to play with your menu, meal planning can help you on your way. Happy cooking!

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