The Art and Hacks of Meal Planning

meal planning hacks and tips

The more I speak with people (and read the survey results – THANK YOU and they’re still open if you haven’t taken it), the more I realize meal planning is like wearing sunscreen on our ears: we know it’s the right thing to do, but often forget or don’t take the time.

don't forget sunscreen

Don’t forget the sunscreen!

Pre-children, I created a weekly list and grocery shopped on Sunday. That list had four dinners’ worth of meals.  Most items listed came from boxes (think prepared pasta and Shake n’ Bake). It included one-half gallon of milk and apples.  Occasionally I threw in a head of fresh broccoli.  

My grocery budget the first several years of marriage was $45 a week.  Not a TRIP, you guys – a WEEK.

Let’s just say everything has expanded since then.  The items on the list, the multiple gallons of milk, the green produce and (cough, spit, gag) that budget.

I’m convinced the one action item we can take to setting ourselves up for success is meal planning.

So why is it so hard to do?

  • It’s overwhelming.  So many dinners!  And lunches!  And they want breakfast, too! Will it ever end? (No, as long as they live at home.)
  • Our schedules are nuts.  Some nights we are home for dinner, other nights we barely have time to greet one kid home before whisking another off to practice.
  • Who wants to spend precious weekend time sifting through their Pinterest Board, wondering what in the world made that look good two months ago, and then making an organized list?

The reality is, though, if we invest a little time once a week, we save time wandering through the store on our way home from work or volleyball practice, trying to figure out what’s for dinner that night.  And I know I don’t need to tell you this, but you’ll save money as well.  Limiting your trips to once or twice a week limits impulse buys.  I’ve also found I save money utilizing my store’s curbside pickup.  

At the risk of sounding like I know more than I do, here are a couple hacks I’ve utilized throughout the years.  

Have an individual meal goal

Several years ago, I enlisted the help of a sports nutritionist.  The most helpful thing I learned from her was with each meal, ask myself: What’s my protein? What’s my veggie? What’s my carb?

These obviously vary, depending on the meal. But they’re a great start in helping us balance meals out.  Get creative!  Protein doesn’t have to come from an animal, and veggies can be prepared in many ways.  Strive for high-quality carbs: fruits, whole grains, and root vegetables like sweet and red potatoes.  

shrimp veggie salad

Shrimp & Roasted Veggie Salad. Non-high-quality carb in the margarita.

Keep a running list through the week.  

This can be something as simple as a notepad on your kitchen counter.  Many grocery stores now have apps to document your list.  Encourage your people to utilize your system, or at a minimum tell or text you when you’re out of something.  Nothing gets the day off worse than realizing we are out of milk because NOBODY TOLD ME WHEN I WENT TO THE STORE YESTERDAY!!!

Develop target categories

Staring at an empty calendar is paralyzing.  Instead of thinking “I have to come up with seven whole meals this week,” narrow your focus.

Weekly category ideas:  

Meat (ex: 2 chicken, 1 beef, 1 fish, 1 meatless)

Cuisine (ex: Mexican, Italian, Mediterranean, American)

Ingredient (ex: lentils, creative cauliflower dish, items in your fridge or pantry that need to be consumed)

Texture (ex: crunchy salads, sipping broth-based soup, soft whole-wheat pasta, chewy meats)

Days of the Week (ex: Taco Tuesday, Breakfast for Dinner Wednesday, Make- Your- Own Pizza Friday, Crock-Pot Saturday)

(Enter your email to receive a printable version of these tips and more here.)  

Plan by expiration date

Nearly every Sunday, I prepare steelhead trout.  If you are a subscriber to this blog, you received one of my family’s favorite recipes in the last newsletter.  I just don’t trust fish more than a day old.  Chicken lasts a day or so more and beef can be pushed a teensy bit longer than that.  One drawback to planning an entire week is food safety, so freeze items if you’ll be cooking them later in the week.

Two-week repeat

I got this idea from Tsh Oxenreider of TheArtofSimple.net, back when it was Simple Mom.  Plan two weeks’ worth of meals.  Repeat.  I’m willing to bet most families will not complain about having the same meal twice in one month.  If you hear grumbling, invite them to plan for the next two weeks.  That’ll keep ‘em quiet.

The other benefit to this is you can double many recipes and freeze them, so when it’s time for the repeat, it’s already done.  Winning!!

Long-cook prep day

Choose a day to spend quality time in the kitchen. Sunday is my day. Prepare a meal that takes a little longer to make.  Spend some time prepping for the week: chop veggies for snacks or create a large salad that you can effortlessly enjoy for lunch.  Hold the dressing on the salads, leave any meat off, and it will last a solid five days.

red peppers snacking

I try and keep sliced peppers and hummus on hand for easy snacking.

Leftover day

If you find yourself throwing out large amounts of suspicious items from your fridge, it may be time to utilize our human garbage disposals. Thursdays are good for this. Fair warning: no one will like Leftover day.  It creates a copious amount of Tupperware in your dishwasher.  Almost nothing tastes as good reheated as it does fresh. But it does reduce wasted food, saves money, and makes those fresh meals more appreciated.

Grace day

Oh you know I had to add grace in here somewhere. Give yourself a break once a week!  The past two months we’ve ordered Papa Murphy’s pizza almost every Friday night.  We all look forward to it.

(A quick plug for this bake-at-home pizza chain: the ingredients are fresh, food quality is excellent and MAN it tastes good!  My people have decided it’s their favorite.  Plus, the one by my house has the most welcoming owners and staff.  I just love supporting them.)

I order more than we need for dinner and BAM! Saturday lunch is served.  

Freezer Meals

I’m a big fan of the freezer and will provide ideas on utilizing that in another post.  Until then, buy yourself some freezable individual containers and load up leftovers in them.  Just make sure you label.  More than once I’ve convinced myself I would remember, only to be surprised when it thawed.

In the meantime, I’ve created a printout with these thoughts and one of my dinner plans.  Yes, that means you won’t have to think at all about dinners for the next week!  What’s on it?  Simple, easily prepared meals with real ingredients you know where they came from. Most can be tailored for your own dietary needs. Click here so you can download it!

Now it’s your turn:  What did I miss?  What works well for you?  I’d love to hear from you below, or back in the Graced Health Facebook page.

one week meal plan and meal planning tips and tacks

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