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Grocery shopping. Meal planning. Gross, right?
Or maybe not.
Our lives are busy. Kids, work, activities, chores, bills, responsibilities. Some days it seems never ending.
Meal planning sounds like one more thing that gets added to an already overflowing to-do list.
If you’ve been putting off making some life changes, whether it’s learning a new skill, finally finishing that craft project, figuring out how to pay off debt, or maybe just finding time to work out, you have to learn to make the time for it.
Organization, systems, and routines are the key to making time for the things that really matter to you.
One of the sytems I consistently rely on to save time is meal planning.
Spending an hour planning meals for the week saves me time and effort during the week because I don’t have to think about what to eat. I already know. And with a little meal prep, I already have everything ready to go too!
If you’re ready to remove the source of so much frustration (also known as the “What’s for dinner conundrum”), read on for tips and tricks for meal planning success!
Meal Planning 101
Figure Out Your Priorities
You can have different reasons for wanting to give meal planning a shot. Decide what you want to get out of meal planning before you even start picking recipes or shopping for food.
Your goal might be to save money and you think planning out meals will mean less spent on groceries.
Or maybe you want to have some free time in the evenings to take a class, work on a hobby or a business idea, or be able to spend more quality time with your family and friends.
You could find that you’re cooking the same things repeatedly and want to mix things up a little with new recipes.
Those are just a few ideas to get your brain working.
Once you figure out the end result you’d like to see with meal planning keep it in mind as you move through the process. You’ll feel a lot more satisfied with the effort you put into meal planning if you’re also seeing the benefits you expected.
Make a List of Meal Your Family Likes
If there are meals you typically make often, start with those and put them on the list!
Including meals that your family loves and you know they will eat makes everyone happy. And if you have a stockpile of family favorite recipes you can rotate them in and out for weeks.
You also don’t have to have homemade meals every night. Go ahead and schedule a pizza and movie night for the family!
Think about meals that will give you leftovers to take to lunch the next day too. It’s like a double bonus! Plan, prep, and cook once and get 2 meals out of it!
Try New Things
And if all else fails, good old Google works too!
Take a look at your calendar to decide which types of meals work best on certain nights. If you know one of your kids has practice on a Wednesday, maybe that’s a good day to have a crockpot meal that will be ready when everyone gets home.
If there’s a night where you’ll all be home early, bust out one of your new recipes and make it an event.
Meal planning doesn’t mean you have to make plain, basic chow all the time. It just means you’re thinking ahead.
Experiment a little until you find what works for you.
Meal Planning on a Budget
If you’re on a budget or trying to cut food expenses, meal planning can be a real life-saver.
Be sure to check the weekly ads for coupons and deals. Many grocery stores like Meijer or Hy-Vee have customer loyalty programs that allow you to “stack” coupons for an even deeper discount.
Also, try shopping at Aldi if you have one nearby! For a breakdown on Aldi and what to buy there, check out my post on how to Save a Ton of Money by Shopping at Aldi.
When you’re on a tight budget it may feel like making healthy meals is out of reach. Not true! With careful planning and budgeting you can eat healthy and fresh meals.
Try cutting down on the protein too. It’s OK to buy cheaper cuts of meat or fish if that’s what you can afford. Make it stretch even further by cutting down the amount of protein in a recipe. If a recipe calls for a pound of ground beef, try using a half-pound instead.
Make a Grocery List
One of the biggest benefits of meal planning is how much easier your grocery shopping gets. Heading to the store with a plan and a list is going to reduce the amount of stuff you pick up that you probably don’t need.
Go through the recipes you’ve chosen and create a master list of everything you’ll need.
Before you head to the store, check your pantry and fridge and cross out anything you already have on hand.
In fact, it’s possible to create an entire meal plan based on what you have on hand. Check out How to Use Everything in Your Pantry Without Wasting Food.
OK, now you have your list of all the ingredients you’ll need to make meals for the week.
If you’re really smart about meal planning, you can choose meals with some common ingredients and buy in bulk. I wouldn’t go overboard on this because you don’t want to get bored with 3 chicken recipes in a row. Mix it up a little.
But if you do score a great deal on meat, freeze it to use for a future meal plan!
The important thing to remember when you’re grocery shopping is to stick to the list!
Don’t grab things that aren’t in your plan because it’s on sale or because you think you’ll use it. It will go on sale again so you’re better off waiting until it does and including it in your meal plan then.
Want to skip the store altogether? Check out the best online grocery delivery sites.
Prep Your Food
Cutting up vegetables or pre-cooking bacon are things you can do ahead of time and then throw in the fridge until you need them.
For more tips on food prep, read Weekly Food Prep: 7 Ideas to Make Your Life Instantly Better.
The amount of prep depends on what meals are on the list but that might be something to keep in mind when you’re planning.
Do as much of the prep as possible on a day when you have a few hours to spare. Chop up veggies and fruit. Cut cheese into cubes if you need to. Hard boil the eggs.
Oh, and invest in some good containers for food storage. It might take a little trial and error until you find what works (and what doesn’t work the way you thought it would). Been there, done that. Eventually, it’ll become second nature though.
I use these meal prep containers and love them. I like that they have lids and they stack nicely in the fridge and the freezer. And they’re great for taking lunches to work! The compartments keep the food from touching so if you’re prepping meals with different ingredients it works out great.
Cook Bacon in the Oven
If you’ve never tried this before, do it! .
Alex is the one who introduced me to this and I will never cook bacon in a skillet again.
It’s simple – line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Lay bacon on top of foil and cook at 350 degrees for about 15 minutes. Flip and cook for another 10-15 minutes or until it’s the desired doneness. I like crispy bacon so I leave it in for the full 30 minutes.
Post Your Meal Plan in Plain Sight
Buy a magnetic dry erase board for your fridge or DIY a cute chalkboard to hang in your kitchen. Even a pretty printable stuck to the fridge with a magnet will work.
Write down each day’s meals so that everyone in the house knows the plan.
And I get it. Stuff happens. Life likes to throw you a curveball once in a while. If something unexpected comes up, just erase the meal for that day. Or move things around a little. It’s not the end of the world.
Meal planning should be flexible to accommodate life’s little challenges.
Try Freezer Meals
If you don’t want to cook every night of the week, you might consider freezer cooking.
The same planning and shopping are involved, you would just prep entire meals ahead of time and then pop it in the freezer.
Freezer meals are great if you find that your schedule keeps changing. And freezer meals last longer than food in the fridge so you have some time to circle back and eat them.
Sample Meal Plan
If you need some inspiration to get you started, here’s an example of a plan for 7 days worth of meals – breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks too!
I haven’t yet ventured into the world of the Instant Pot but I’ll bet these recipes could be adapted to work.
Never again will the question “what’s for dinner” leave you looking like a deer caught in the headlights.
Now you can answer “check the board” or at least know in advance what it’s going to be. And your evenings are free again because you’ll have everything you need as soon as you walk in the door after work.
If you’re looking to carve out some “me time”, meal planning and prepping can give you some time back in your day.
And if you want to come up with your own meal plan for the week, I’ve got your back!
Click the image below to download this blank Weekly Mean Plan printable: Meal Plan Printable