10 steps to easy meal planning7
Everyone knows that eating a home cooked meal prepared from fresh whole food ingredients is a lot more nutritious than eating fast food or a frozen TV dinner. But who has the time? How do you meal plan for a family? Eating healthy on a budget is made even more difficult by life’s everyday challenges – there’s figuring out what to eat everyday, buying the ingredients and then actually making it into food that your family wants to eat. With a little planning though, it is possible to prepare and eat nutritious foods for the majority of your meals!
Why do you want to meal plan? Meal planning makes it easier to get a handle on your food budget, reduce food waste and save time when you’re at your busiest.
1. Prioritize time to planning your meals
It takes time to transition to eating more healthy real foods and not having to rely on fast food or quick, processed microwavable meals. So the first step in planning your meals is to actually set aside an hour or two a week for planning and prepping food. Pick a time when you’re relaxed and ready to face the task at hand. Personally, I do the bulk of my planning on Thursdays. Why? Because that’s the day that the grocery flyers are delivered, and it’s the day before the grocery stores start their week’s specials. If I can, I try and squeeze in some grocery shopping on Fridays, but most of the time it’s done on the weekend.
Use a weekly meal planning sheet (pdf) to outline your breakfast, lunch, dinner and any snacks. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but it’s good to have a place where you can write it all down either pen to paper, jot meals down in Google calendar or you can go fancy and use meal planning apps like Pepperplate, Ziplist or SOS Cuisine (full version has a cost). It might take a few weeks of using a particular method to find what works best for you.
3. Keep a recipe file of the foods you enjoy eating
Have a system to store your recipes – whether it be a recipe box with index cards with your favorite recipes, or a 3-ring binder of print-outs from your favorite cooking sites or a folder in your browser that has all your recipes bookmarked, you’ll want a place that has all your favorite recipes on hand so that you can find them when you need them. Organize the recipes according to the type of food (mains, appetizer, breakfast ideas etc.), and make sure to group recipes that use similar ingredients together; for example: dishes that all use ground beef, egg-dishes, sweet potato dishes etc.
4. Evaluate what you have on hand
Didn’t use up all your produce from last week? Prioritize its use first. If it’s looking less than ideal, but still good, consider using it up in cooked dishes, or throw it into your stockpot and draw out the nutrients and add flavour to your slow-cooked bone broth. Got a freezer stocked full of meat? Skip shopping for meat this week and thaw some of what you’ve got! While you’re checking out your fridge and cupboards, make sure you’ve got enough of your usual staples (like oils, condiments, spices etc.)
5. Check your schedule
What is your family’s schedule like? Write in any pre-planned meals (e.g. dinners out at a friend or brunch at grandma’s, or any sort of special meals planned like ‘Pizza and Movie night’ or ‘Breakfast for Dinner’ or any special requests). If there are appointments, classes or other regular activities that take place, pencil those in and make sure that on those nights, dinner is quick and easy.
6. Save some money by going through the flyers and specials
Look through the grocery store flyers (many are available online, or go through them the old-fashioned way in your mail) and shop for produce and meat based on what’s seasonal and on sale. If there are many local grocers in the area, but you’d like to forgo making multiple stops, keep in mind that many major grocery chains will price-match current locally advertised prices –you’ll want to keep your flyers on hand or bookmark the flyers on your smart-phone when you price-match as stores will need to verify the date and item you’re matching. Many grocery stores will price match produce and meat, but if you’re unsure call your local store, or its head office to verify.
By going through the flyers regularly, you’ll also get a better sense of what typical prices are for foods you normally eat and which foods are in season (and typically available at a better price). What’s a good price for chicken? Apples? Or olive oil? Over time you’ll learn which foods your family loves so that you can stock up on favorites too when they are a good price.
7. Make a menu of simple meals and plan for leftovers to make meals easier
One of the biggest reasons people find eating healthy so daunting is not knowing what to eat instead of opening up a package of something. Meals don’t have to be fancy, complicated affairs – simple foods that are cooked and seasoned well are all you need. Aim to have a source of protein with every meal, a vegetable or two (preferably with one of those being leafy and/or non-starchy) and make sure you have a good fat (like butter or coconut oil) to cook and flavor your food. Not only does fat make food taste better, it’s necessary to help you absorb those fat-soluble vitamins (like vitamins A, D E and K).
To simplify things at our house, we plan dinners that are enough to give each member of the family at least two portions: enough food for dinner and enough leftover for lunch the next day (or more). If you can’t stand the repetitiveness of leftovers, you can batch cook or prepare ingredients instead – for example, if you’re already cooking chicken for tonight’s dinner, cook extra chicken and use the meat with different seasonings for wraps for lunch the next day.
8. Do one major grocery shop per week and stick to the list
Busy people need whatever efficiencies they can get, so if your fridge can handle it, do one big shopping trip per week to save yourself time from having to always run to the store. Sticking to the list means you’ll also be sticking to your food budget.
9. Cook, divide and conquer
Depending on how busy you are during the week, you may want to do some prep and cooking ahead of time. Washing, chopping and portioning out vegetables ahead of time is a huge time-saver for when you only have time to do a quick stir-fry on nights that you’ve got to head out.
The same vegetables are great for snacks and lunchboxes too. Pre-washing fruit (soaking apples, pears, berries etc. in dilute apple cider vinegar for 15 minutes, and then rinsing with water) means that they’re grab-and-go for later.
If there’s a night of the week that you’re less busy than others, dedicate some time to batch-cooking and baking. Special treats (like brownies, banana chips or apples chips) can be made ahead of time and stored or frozen for later. Whole meals can also be cooked ahead of time and frozen. Just remember to take them out to thaw ahead of time!
If you can’t get it all done yourself see about sharing the cooking responsibilities with members of your household. Designate a day of the week to specific people (be it your spouse, your roommate or your children), since many hands make light work. Remember before when I said to keep meals simple? Even the worst of cooks can usually handle simple! Sometimes, it’s just about cooking a protein (like browning some ground beef) and sautéing a mix of vegetables. For kids (or adults) who are new to cooking, meals can be as simple as having a taco night or salad bar night, where their job is to lay out ingredients and everyone assembles their own meal at dinnertime.
10. Keep at it and don’t stress over it
If you can’t stick to your set meal plan, don’t worry about it, and keep on keeping on. Life happens, and sometimes you’ve just got to go with what’s easiest. So if you end up not being able to put a home cooked meal on the table every night or even every other night, it’s no big deal but, if you want your family to eat healthier, it’s going to take time and effort to make it happen. The more you meal plan, the better you’ll get at figuring out just how much food your family eats in a given week.
Photo credit: 47:365 – On the menus by Nomadic Lass