I’m sure many of you menu plan. Maybe you have a very thought out system that you stick to well or maybe you have a basic “idea” of what you are going to have for meals before you go to the store and just grab what you think you need. I like knowing before I start something new why I should do it. As I was thinking about meal planning it occurred to me that sometimes we hear the benefits of doing something but they don’t really sink in. So I am going to give you some reasons why you shouldn’t meal plan.
Reason #1: You like the stress and chaos that occurs in your home while you try to figure out what to fix for dinner. It’s a great adrenaline rush right? It reminds me of that scene in The Princess Bride where Wesley is hooked up to the machine and The Count says, “I’ve just sucked 1 year of your life away.”
Reason #2: You like listening to your kids and spouse complain about being hungry or that they don’t like what you are cooking. All while your own stomach rumbles, and the clock keeps reminding you that there is only 20 minutes, oh now 19 minutes till you need to get everyone out the door for the night’s activity (whatever it is).
Reason #3: You love eating unhealthy fast food, multiple times a week. Squishy hamburgers and questionable chicken nuggets are what you always dreamed you would feed your family on a regular basis.
Reason #4: You love spending hours grocery shopping and coming home to realize that you are out of chicken and none of the stuff you got goes together to make a single meal.
Reason #5: You love spending $200 at the grocery store only to realize the next day that you have to go back because you are out of bread, and you somehow spend $200 again, when all you needed was a loaf of bread!
Reason #6: You don’t have anything you are saving for, or any fun ways you would like to spend the $100 you spent the last week on eating out because you had nothing to make for dinner.
Reason #7: Eating a home cooked meal at the dinner table with your family sounds like a terrible waste of time. Even though studies have proven that eating family meals together prevents substance abuse and depression. It’s also linked to higher GPA’s and self-esteem. On top of all that it’s been proven to lower obesity rates and eating disorders in teens. You are willing to take a chance with your kids.
Reason #8: Food ruts are awesome! You love the fact that you ate spaghetti two nights ago and you are eating it again tonight.
Reason #9: Prepackaged, processed, frozen in a box foods taste amazing to you. And they are always so filling.
Reason #10: You don’t want your kids to learn how to plan or cook. Their life will be so much better if they are not sure how to make a healthy meal and think that the best meals come from a box.
Reason #11: You don’t like helping others if a need for a meal arises. You also don’t like having people over for dinner on short notice because you can’t feed them microwaved hot dogs or frozen waffles.
So I am joking a little bit, but I think looking at the benefits of meal planning this way is a little more motivating than me saying It saves me time, money and stress.
I have a second freezer and I do “freezer meals”. I teach piano lessons most days (usually from 4-5:30) so having meals that are already prepped makes sense for my family. I try to maintain around 60-70 meals in my freezer. I joke that I sort of have a 3 month food supply. But it has come in handy, when life has thrown us curveballs and we find out that we have extra expenses. I know I can use what I already have and still feed my family well. I know not everyone has a second freezer so they can do this, but a lot of the things I do can still apply to you.
I start planning for the next month of meals during the last week of the month. I start by “shopping” in my own kitchen first. I make a list that looks like this: Show list. The Need to use list is items that may be reaching expiration or that I have a lot of. I coupon and shop sales which often means buying multiples of something. That method of shopping only works well if you actually use the food in a timely manner. As I am rummaging through my kitchen I also write down things that I notice I am almost out of. This is generally items that are considered staples. Like spices, salt, flour, sugar, eggs etc.
Next I start picking out recipes. I have seen lots of different ways people keep track of their tried and true recipes. Some people use cards that they rotate through, some people use websites and spreadsheets. About a year ago I decided to use Pinterest as my method. I created a private board, and just started adding the meals my family uses. I like using pinterest because it is available on my phone and I can plan/make lists even if I am waiting to pick up kids, or if I am outside with them while they are jumping on the trampoline or riding bikes. I use an app called Workflowy to make my menu list (it can be accessed on my desktop as well) So when I am ready to make up my shopping list I can quickly see what meals I have selected. I then usually make my shopping list on workflowy and access it on my phone when I go shopping. At the beginning of the month I do a bigger shopping trip. Usually Aldi. This trip includes everything needed to make the planned meals. Then the rest of the month I continue to shop sales, I usually go to Sprouts and one other store every Friday to get on sale produce and any items that are a good deal. And then the next month do it all over again. This works because I am always planning the next set of meals around the items I’ve been able to stock in my kitchen for a good price. The trip to Aldi then is just to fill in the gaps. I know lots of people who make all their meals that first week and then freeze them. I’ve found that is too overwhelming for me. So I pick out the meals that have items that will go bad the quickest, and make about a week’s worth of meals. Then throughout the month I work on the rest of them. I double almost every meal I make.
I have a friend that does something very similar but she does not have a second freezer, so she buys all her non-perishable items at the beginning of the month, plus the produce etc. for the meals for that week. Then her other shopping trips for the month are to pick up the perishable items for each week. That is a great way to do it for those of you who don’t have a lot of freezer space.
I keep a calendar dry erase board on my fridge.
- Top meals are the meals that have been in the freezer the longest. So I try to use them first.
- As we use a meal I erase it. As I make meals and freeze them I add them to the bottom of the list.
- We don’t necessarily eat the meals on the days they are planned for. Seeing all the meals I have available is the point of the calendar. Plans change, or maybe something sounds really great for dinner so meals often get switched around.
- I try to decide what we are eating at the latest by 10 am that day. That gives me time to thaw an item if needed, or get it in a crock pot etc.
For breakfast and lunch we have a list with ideas.
I just mark the items that we have all the ingredients for or that I have already prepped and have in the fridge/freezer. For example every couple of months I make a gigantic batch of “pizza rolls” bread with ham, sauce and cheese inside. Then I freeze them, and they are available for lunches.
The lists are nice because I got sick of always giving Aiden suggestions or getting whining about having nothing to eat. Now Aiden knows to look at the list and pick something out.
Sides, Fruits and Veggies
I keep a good supply of frozen veggies on hand. We have a veggie with every dinner. I make large batches of rolls and breadsticks and freeze them before cooking. Then just take out what we need for each meal and bake them. I also do large batches of rice, and make fried rice and Mexican rice and freeze it in meal size batches. They reheat well in the microwave. Fruit is something that I buy on a weekly basis, but we eat a lot. So I also keep a supply of frozen fruit and canned fruit and applesauce. We have some kind of fruit with every meal too.
I also make and freeze a few dessert items. Like cookie dough, fudge, pies and fruit crisps. These have saved me so many times when I have forgotten something I signed up for at church or Aiden’s school.
I keep lists of items I have in my freezer and food storage. When it is used we cross it off/remove a tally mark. It isn’t always 100% accurate but it helps me see at a glance what we are running low on and what to watch for in sales.
I have a few Top Tips
Keep your food portions correct and you will save money. Fruits and veggies are cheap, and filling, they are also very easy to prepare.
Have 4-5 “Quick meals” Everyone has those days/nights. Either you don’t feel well or some of your kids don’t, or its just been a crazy day. Having a few meals already to go that only take 20 minutes to get on the table saves you from throwing cold cereal at your family and saying good luck, or going through a drive through. I have copies of some of our favorite emergency meal recipes. There is also no shame in picking up a freezer pizza to have on hand. I usually keep an Aldi ready to bake pizza in my freezer.
When you are shopping stick to the outside edges of the store. That is generally where the fresh/non processed foods are. It will keep you from spending money you don’t need to spend and help you eat healthier. Aldi is the only store that doesn’t totally stick to this layout. They throw the chips and cookies at you first.
After grocery shopping cook some of your meat and freeze it so you can cut that step out of your meal prep. Plus having already cooked chicken makes a lot of easy healthy meals. I use my crockpot for cooking chicken. Then I throw it in my kitchen aid with the paddle attachment and I have shredded chicken in a couple of minutes. I bag it up and freeze it. It’s easy to toss Into soups or pasta dishes or thaw and have on salad.
I mentioned this already but “shop” your own kitchen first. Don’t waste food and money by not using what you already have.
Freeze a couple of meals in individual portions. Soup works well for this. Often the kids and I will eat somewhere (like a school function) etc. before my husband gets home and this way he can come home and reheat and have something healthy to eat. Or he knows he will be working late and he can take one to work with him and heat it up in the microwave. I know a lot of people would spend money otherwise buying a meal, but my husband just won’t eat! Which drives me crazy. So this way I know he gets fed.
A little planning when you have time to do it, is a lot better than trying to rush through it under pressure.
Make it a routine. Shop on the same day each week, plan on the same day each month/week. Habits make us happier. It’s a proven psychological fact. The Basal Ganglia is the part of our brain that controls routine. Guess what else it controls? The reward center of our brain, or the release of dopamine, which makes us feel happy. Making decisions is controlled by a different part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain also manages intense emotions and impulses, especially stress, guilt and fear. The more decisions we can move into the realm of routine the less stress we feel. For example having a set of tried and true recipes at my disposal helps. I’ve already made the decision to use the recipe, I’ve already decided it fits my criteria of being healthy, easy to make etc. And then I don’t have to think about it again.