It can be a challenge to get a real food meal on the table for the family, night after night. We are all busy, and cooking takes time, and what the heck are you supposed to make anyways?
One of the best tools I have for feeding my family real food, on time and on budget (without losing my mind or spending all day in the kitchen) is the humble meal plan. It really is key, especially if you are dealing with a special diet. If you’ve never meal planned before you may wonder what it is, how to do it and why you’d want to. Here’s the quick and dirty details on the benefits of meal planning, and how I do mine.
Benefits of Meal Planning:
- Having a plan allows me to serve my kids a whole foods based diet; no scrambling at the last minute warming up processed food.
- I save money by planning my meals based on what’s on sale and using up what we have in the house.
- I always have everything I need to make dinner on hand.
- I let the kids pick an entree; they love being able to make a decision and looking forward to ‘their’ meal helps get them through ones that aren’t their favourite.
- We have less food waste because I shop with a purpose.
- Dinner time is less stressful, and we eat on time.
How To Do A Meal Plan
Most people start out doing a one week meal plan. Even if you start out with a Monday-Friday plan and wing it on the week-ends, you’ll still save time, money and energy. You can plan dinners only, or three meals a day depending on your needs and level of commitment. Here is my 3 step process, and what you’ll need to get started.
Tools: Meal Repertoire, Master Shopping List, Flyers, Notepad (electronic or paper. as you like)
Step 1: Inventory
This is a very informal process for me. I do a quick inventory of the cupboards and freezer. I make a note of what we have a lot of, so I can choose a meal that uses that ingredient. I also note what staples we are low on. I usually bake 2-3 times a week, so I check my baking supplies too. This is a very informal process, and I’ll often have the kids check while I sit and take notes. As I’m choosing my meals I’ll have them check to see if we have the ingredients.
Step 2: Select Meals
Using the information from the sale flyers, our inventory and our family schedule, I select meals from my Meal Repertoire. Wondering what that is? It’s just a fancy term for a great big list of things we like to eat for dinner. I have about fifty dinners on ours, which I keep in a spreadsheet; I also have a Pinterest board for dinner entrees. You could also use a recipe box, three ring binder, or a handwritten list, whatever works for you. From there, I simply copy and paste recipe names onto my meal plan, easy-peasy! The actual menu planning portion takes me no more than 5 minutes. I also check my calendar to see what we have going on; if I will be out of the house working or we have something scheduled in the evening, I will plan a slow cooker dinner. I also try to plan a cook-once-eat-twice scenario, such as cooking whole chickens one night and having something with leftover chicken the next night. You may also want to plan a “leftover night” at the end of the week to clean out the fridge and avoid waste (although here with four kids in our house it seems there are never any leftovers!).
Step 3: Prepare Shopping List
Using my Master Shopping List – a list of things we buy on a regular basis, which saves me from re-inventing the wheel every time – I make our shopping list. I remove anything that we don’t need this trip, and add any staples we are low on. Then I go through my menu and add the ingredients I need to buy. Since I know my grocery store very well, I can generally write this list in order of the aisles without even thinking about it.
And that’s it! The whole process takes me about half an hour start to finish, just enough time to savour a nice hot cup of coffee. It’s actually pretty relaxing, and it’s fun to get the kids involved.
Why You Might Want To Try A Two Week Meal Plan:
We no longer have enough fridge space to shop two weeks at a time, but for a smaller family that is an excellent option to try. Think that’s a little too Type A for you, too much work, or that you’ll never be able to pull it off? Here’s why you might want do two weeks at a time:
- It does not take twice as long to plan, shop or prep, which saves more valuable time
- You save even more money by making fewer trips to the grocery store
If you’re new to meal planning, there’s nothing wrong with starting a week at a time. However if you’ve been doing it for a while, I encourage you to try two weeks at a time and see if you can save even more time and money.
Bonus: Downloadable Meal Planning Template
I’m also sharing with you my meal planning worksheet. This sheet will help simplify your meal planning process and is flexible to accommodate your family’s needs. There is space to write any special notes, like kid’s extra-curriculars, dinner parties, etc. There is space for you to plan three meals a day, but feel free to adapt it to suit your own needs.