Let’s talk meal plans, people. What is meal planning, you ask? For me, it means planning out the week’s meals, as the name suggests. I used to like cooking whatever I felt like eating on a particular day, but that strategy is just too hard with two working parents and two children. I’m lucky to have my mom as a babysitter, so she can help get things started (or cook the whole dinner), but I do feel guilty leaving it all up to her. Enter meal planning. Meal planning and prep has allowed me to cook almost every weeknight, which is something I enjoy doing. At this point, my only hobby is cooking (and blogging about cooking), so this is something I choose to put time into. Here’s why I think meal planning is great:
- I know what I’m going to eat each night. In a world in which I have relatively little control, this makes me feel better 🙂
- I am less likely to make a last minute unhealthy decision about dinner, e.g. order out pizza, go to Shake Shack (my preferred dinner every night of the week), etc.
- I save money each week (probably $100) by planning out my menu.
- I save time by shopping for food only twice per week. Why not just one shopping trip? Because I go to the farmer’s market in addition to ordering groceries through Amazon Fresh.
- I eat better. My dinners and leftover lunches are now the big picture. For example, if I’m going to eat red meat this week (I am), I will plan to stick to vegetarian or plant-heavy meals during the rest of the week. Essentially, the average “healthiness” of my meals is better when I plan ahead.
- I avoid decision fatigue, which is related to the first two points above. I make hundreds of decisions each day. What will my kids eat for breakfast? What am I going to wear to work? Which nasal spray am I going to recommend to this patient? The list goes on and on. By the time I get home from work, after making a lot of important work-related decisions (and some non-work trivial decisions), the last thing I want to do is make more decisions. Resultantly, I tend to make bad dinner choices. I’ll cook what’s easiest, or what I want to eat the most (something with a lot of cheese), or something that takes too long to cook and makes everyone grumpy. I don’t do that anymore.
- I can prep each meal ahead of time, which saves on time. If I know that I’m going to eat tacos, I can cut up all the veggies the night before. This means that I can eat more interesting meals on weeknights, because I’ve cut out 15-20 minutes of game-day prep.
- Meal planning and prep makes it easy for my husband to help with cooking. My husband is actually a great cook, though he wouldn’t say so. By planning ahead, I can ask him to start cooking certain parts of the meal before I get home, and he can easily do it. He is perfectly capable of preparing a meal from scratch, but this takes some of the pressure off of him when he’s also trying to deal with two crazy kids.
I bet I could think of a few more reasons that meal prep works, but I’ve made my point. Maybe you’re on board, but you don’t know how to get started. Here’s how I do it without spending too much time.
- Choose your meal planning day
- During the summer, I start on Thursday. Why, you ask? In the summer, I love going to the farmer’s market. Love. I plan my whole week around Thursday afternoons, which is the farmer’s market day. It has something to do with the fact that for 8 months out of the year, there is no fresh produce in Massachusetts. So, for me, meal prep starts on Thursday. I go to the market, and I see what looks good. I talk to the vendors. I ask about things that I’ve never cooked, get ideas, and then I step back and think about what I want. This step can be VERY overwhelming; I’m wearing a baby on me, I might have my 3 year old in tow, people are pushy (physically, they are pushing me out of the way to get their food), and I’m standing in the heat of the 3:00 PM sun trying to figure out what I can make with pea shoots, or arugula, or basil. Sometimes, I just buy something, and figure it out later. This week, I did that with a bunch of things. I also saw cabbage, and thought that cabbage dolma sounded good, and bought other veggies to make that (peppers, tomatoes, onions). It takes practice and a some cooking skills, but I’ve gotten better about it. If you don’t like the farmer’s market, that’s fine. You can skip this whole step.
- Most of my meal prep occurs on the weekend, usually Sunday. I sit down with my erasable glass board because I’m old-school like that, and I draw a vertical line down the whole thing. On the left, I write down what I want to make. On the right, I write down what I need to buy to make that meal.
- Inventory your fridge, and try to use things that will otherwise go bad
- I hate wasting food, though sadly I do it all the time. I try to start my meal plan with meals that use about-to-go-bad foods. That usually means things in the fridge, but sometimes I check the freezer or pantry to use up those items, too.
- Use what’s in season
- You don’t have to go to the farmer’s market to use what’s in season. Almost everything tastes better when it’s been freshly and locally grown. You can check online to see what’s growing in your neck of the woods, and you can try to plan meals that use those ingredients.
- Use common ingredients
- I look at the ingredients I’ve written down on my shopping list, especially the ingredients that won’t get used up in one meal (like cilantro). I think about what else I want to eat that week that uses that ingredient, and then write down that meal and associated shopping list.
- Timing is everything
- Not all meals are intended for weeknights. If the meal is complicated, and requires a lot of game-day prep, I plan to make it on one of my days off. If you don’t have a day off, you should not plan to make a super complicated dinner after work. It will never happen, and you’ll never want to meal plan again. Make it on a weekend.
- I look at the calendar. Does it make sense? I switch meals into different days based on scheduling, leftovers, and prep.
- Example: as mentioned, I’m going to make dolma this week, and I bought cabbage for this purpose. I need the big, outer cabbage leaves to roll up the meat mixture. I know I’ll have leftover cabbage, and want to use it in cabbage slaw for my shrimp tacos. I originally had my shrimp tacos planned the day before the dolma, so I switched them. That way, I can use the outer leaves to make dolma on Tuesday, and I will have the rest of the cabbage left to chop up for my shrimp tacos the next day, with some further leftover cabbage for my curry noodle bowls the day after. I also have my longest prep meals scheduled on my days off.
- Look at the big picture
- When it comes to food groups, I try to strike a balance in the overall weekly plan. Lately, we’ve been eating about 3 vegetarian meals per week, so I often try to come up with more vegetable-based meals to balance out the meat, poultry, and fish we are eating the rest of the week. Even if you eat an animal protein every day, no one wants to eat 5 similar dishes in one week. Take a step back and check your menu for variety. I go on Pinterest and search for ingredients I want to use, or vegetarian meals, or whatever I feel like, to help get more creative. This takes some time, and it’s kind of a pain. It gets easier with practice.
- Prep ahead as much as possible
- My groceries are often delivered on Monday. On Monday night, before the week has completely drained me, I figure out what I can chop up and prep for the week’s meals. I do as much of it as I can before I lose interest and watch TV. This usually results in about 15-20 minutes of washing, chopping, and marinating, which easily saves me that amount of time PER MEAL during the week.
- Stay flexible
- It’s impossible to always stick to the plan. Sometimes, I forget ingredients, or get home really late, or just really don’t feel like eating something. It’s nice to have a backup plan for those situations–something frozen that can be defrosted easily, or pasta, or something else easy.
As if you needed a bonus to meal planning, this strategy saves us a lot of money. Lately, I’ve been buying my groceries through Amazon Fresh. I basically go on Amazon, choose my groceries, and then choose a time to have them delivered to my house. They have almost everything, including some local foods (meat, fish, etc). I’m lucky that this is available in my town. If you don’t have this option, you can try Instacart, which is a similar grocery delivery service. I buy exactly what I need to make each meal. I also buy any snacks, breakfast foods, and fridge/pantry staples. that are needed for the rest of the week. Amazon Fresh has pretty competitive prices, but more importantly, has kept me from impulse-buying. I spend less than $100 per week on Amazon Fresh for a family of two adults and two little kids. We throw in an occasional Costco or Trader Joe’s shopping trip to get some special bulk items or snacks, since Amazon Fresh doesn’t have everything. Also, as mentioned above, I go to the farmer’s market most weeks. That brings my weekly shopping total up to maybe $130 per week, on average, for four of us. We save by not eating much meat, which is a health-related decision. We order or go out on weekends, which is not factored into the grocery budget. However, we still see the savings when we factor in a lower grocery budget and lower eating-out budget because we don’t eat out on weeknights.
Maybe you’ve read this and thought, “This lady is is crazy. There’s no way I will ever be able to prep and cook any meals on weeknights. She has so much time on her hands, but I don’t.” In some ways, you’re correct. I’m lucky to work three days per week. It’s not like I’m sitting around, twiddling my thumbs on my days off, though. I’m out with my kids, doing stuff. I’m lucky to get 30 minutes total to spend cooking dinner, but it’s often interrupted into multiple 5 minute segments. And that’s just on my days off. I’m also a doctor. When I work, I work hard. On my work days, I get home between 6:15-6:30. My husband is always home before me, and he will start to prepare whatever meal I’ve planned. My mom also helps get things started, or completely cooks the meal, if we’re both late. If you get home at that time (or later), and don’t have anyone to help you get started with your meals, then maybe meal planning every night of the week isn’t for you. You could try to do it just once a week, and if it goes well, take it from there.
I hope this post has been helpful. As you can see, this has really paid off for me. I’m already recycling meals, but I plan to recycle entire plans soon. If you want to step up your meal planning game, you can make Pinterest boards to help with your plans. You could even use a more advanced method of planning, like an online tool, or even meal plan all your meals (breakfast, lunch, snacks, whatever).
Please share your tips for meal planning, pics of your meal plans, and any other comments you have!