Meal Planning 101
"Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going.” Jim Rohn
Planning and executing a week’s worth of meals that simultaneously take into consideration all of the various needs in any given household while also trying to keep them healthy, budget friendly and appealing is tough work, my friends. In my best Oprah-repeat-everything-twice-for-effect-voice:
It. is. tough. work.
The thing is, the time and effort you put into planning yields huge pay-offs; saving money, eating healthfully, feeling relaxed (instead of crazed) are just a few that come to mind. While being motivated certainly helps, personalizing your system and making it into a habit is what will ultimately keep you going (thank you, Jim Rohn).
Here are some tips to help you go from motivated, well-meaning meal-planner to confident, habitual meal-planner:
Keep your pantry, freezer & refrigerator organized. Organize by shelf (i.e-baking goods), by food (i.e.-dairy), keep oils and vinegar in one spot, etc. Whatever works for you. This way you can cross-reference what you have, what you need, and what is on sale. You also will avoid having five, partially-used bottles of rice-wine vinegar!
Chunk it out. Your time, that is. Not only for meal-planning but for shopping, prepping and organizing. When can you plan meals? Is your shopping day also your organizing/prepping day? What works for you? Sundays are usually the day in my house where I am hard-boiling some eggs, baking/grilling off some chicken, cutting/roasting vegetables or making a double-batch of whole grain waffles/pancakes to freeze for quick breakfasts. During the winter when days are short, I may even make an extra dish and freeze it for ‘one of those nights.’ The past two Sundays I have not been home and, believe me, I have felt crazed during the rest of the week!
Remember your shopping strategies. Shop the perimeter of the store for fresh produce, lean meats and dairy. Healthy whole grains can be found in the center aisles, but so is that box of Snack Well’s they’re counting on you to purchase! Take advantage of sales on your healthy staples and recipe ingredients. Better yet, shop at the Farmer’s Market or join a CSA and take advantage of local, seasonal produce!
Cook once, eat twice. I live by this rule whenever possible. Roasting chicken on Sunday? Have a chopped chicken salad on Monday night. Or shredded chicken tacos. Or chicken tetrazzini. You see where I’m going. Making brown rice for a stir fry? Make a double batch and keep in the fridge for your lunch or for another meal later in the week. Same goes for baked goods. How sweet is it when you realize you have an extra loaf of banana bread in the freezer? It’s like finding $5 in a pair of jeans. Bonus!
Have a ‘sure-thing”. There are certain things I always have on-hand (lemons, garlic, olive oil, greens, frozen shrimp, brown rice, tomato/marinara sauce, herbs/spices). I can always quickly make something with these ingredients. Limited to eggs, cheese, bread and frozen spinach? Try a frittata or make breakfast for dinner–this is always a hit in our house!
Have a go-to list of staples. Create a list on your computer of staples that you get each week. That way you can simply add to your list instead of starting from scratch. A friend of mine likes this ipod app that allows you to create and share lists, scan specific items into your list, and more.
Create a family recipe binder. This tool is critical for me. I have recipes from my family, my friends, magazines, online, etc. The recipes in the binder are tried and true ‘keepers’. I have a different file for recipes I’d like to try. Some people like to have their recipes on a computer or saved on a particular website. I have the recipes organized in clear sheet protectors so I can utilize both sides for recipe in a way that works for me (Breakfast, Sides, Chicken, etc.). You can organize your binder in a way that works for you.
Utilize a system. A blank calendar, an app for your phone, a meal-board like this one also pictured above–a friend posted and then replicated this beautiful and creative idea–this would not work for me but it looks like a great system.
Add a theme. “Fiesta Tuesday”, “Breakfast for Dinner”, “Wacky Wednesday”, “Mambo Italiano”. Themes are fun! Themes help you plan! If you have kids, let them create a theme/come up with a name!
Get kids involved! Create a list or menu and post it. Allow your child to plan the menu one day/week (they will be more likely to eat it!) Grow, shop, cook with your child. Not only are you giving them a life-skill, but including them in the process also means they are more likely to eat what they have helped plan.
Utilize your/invest in a deep freezer, even a small one. Not only will you save money by purchasing some items in bulk , but freezing local and seasonal produce (berries, tomatoes, peaches) allows you to enjoy them year-round. I just made a batch of muffins from the blueberries we picked last summer. Worried about BPA? Freeze some local Roma tomatoes (wash, dry and freeze whole; store flat in the freezer in a Zip-loc bag) and use instead of canned tomatoes.
Have a plan. Make lunches the night before (heck, one of my friends makes three days’ worth of lunches!), utilize a crock-pot, have go-to recipes to utilize ‘left-overs’, have a recipe swap for new ideas, plan to try new recipes on less hectic nights.
Trust yourself. Planning is all well and good but life happens. When you suddenly find yourself in the throes of ‘one of those nights’ unprepared, take a quick look in your pantry. Chances are, you probably have some items on hand that will make a tasty meal. Trust yourself to create something without a plan. Yes, sometimes what you make will suck, but other times you will do a big ol’ fist pump because you have created something to add into your ‘rotation.’ You can always plug the ingredients you have on-hand to one of my favorite websites,www.epicurious.com , for ideas.
Keep trying. Planning meals takes time and effort. It requires us to make time to plan, time to shop, time to organize, prep, and cook. Keep plugging away to find a system that works for you! Start slowly (plan 3 nights) and work your way up to having the week planned (enjoying one night out can be part of your plan!).
Please add any meal-planning strategies that you use and find most helpful–we are tremendous resources for one another!