I love eating a good meal. The amount of time that goes into preparing it though, not so much. Cooking dinner is already a chore in itself, but even more cumbersome when you throw a young kid and a full-time job in the mix. That’s where meal planning comes in, and this post is to show you some easy meal planning tips to make meal times around the house run a little smoother, faster, and more efficiently.
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What is meal planning?
First of all, for those who are not keen in the kitchen (yup, totally me as one who stresses out over preparing a simple meal. Like spaghetti.), let’s talk about what meal planning even is. It’s basically thinking of your meals ahead of time so that by the time 6:00pm rolls around each day, that is not the first moment (oops) you give thought to what’s for dinner.
Benefits of meal planning
Meal planning is hailed not only for taking out the stress of meal time as it creeps up every day, but also allowing you to plan for variety so you’re not eating said spaghetti every night.
It helps you to save money since you know beforehand what you need to buy so food is not going to waste. When you think about meals ahead of time, you’re more likely to plan for healthier meals and not resort to take out (another money saver too).
And the last big benefit is the amount of time you save can be spent on more precious things like spending time with your kids or, more realistically, getting through an entire episode (or two) of your fave show. <wink>
Meal planning mistakes to avoid
In theory, the concept of meal planning is glorious. Who doesn’t want to save time, money, headache for something that happens every day just by thinking ahead for it?
In actuality, especially in the beginning when you’re first trying it out, it can be overwhelming to come up with a meal planning system that indeed allows for all of the benefits mentioned above to come into play.
Some common issues that deter people from meal planning:
- Taking up too much time trying to incorporate variety in meals, or sacrificing variety to save the time in planning
- Not being able to keep track of what’s in the fridge and pantry and what needs to be picked up from the store
- Not having flexibility in meal planning
- Creating a meal plan but not being able to stick with it
Luckily, I have tips for all of these issues to make meal planning indeed as easy and wonderful as it really ought to be. Let’s get on with the list of easy meal planning tips.
1. Keep a well-stocked pantry
Making sure your house is stocked with staple ingredients will help you keep your sanity as you meal plan so you’re not buying out an entire store each week you visit the supermarket. Also, when you have the essentials, you can basically whip up any meal to your heart’s content. Get the free printable checklist. (via Finding Time to Fly)
2. Keep fridge and freezer inventory at your fingertips
It’s easy for food items to get lost in the back of the fridge or freezer, but with this smart system to log what’s in the icebox, you can make sure you use up ingredients before they go bad, thus saving you money. (via The Grant Life)
3. Go with a simple yet effective meal planning template
This free weekly meal planning template printable is easy to use and will keep you super organized. One common inconvenience I've come across with other menu planning sheets is not having a simple way to track duplicate ingredients in multiple recipes. This one lets you write the ingredient down once, then color in the amount you need. Brilliant! (via Munch Munch Yum)
4. Create a reusable meal planning system with plastic sheets and post its
Put meal planning sheets in protective sleeves. Write meals on post its. Keep them in a recipe “bank.” When planning your meals, place the post it in the appropriate meal of your weekly schedule. You can even color coordinate the post its by amount of prep time, type of meal, or what have you. Genius. Don't forget to grab the meal planning templates. (via Simple and Seasonal)
5. Have themed nights to keep variety in your meals
Slow Cooker Sundays, Meatless Mondays, Taco Tuesdays and 40+ other ideas to keep your meals interesting. Get the really practical meal planning sheet to help you exercise your creativity during meal time. (via Meal Planning Blueprints)
6. Take advantage of buying in bulk effectively
Instead of planning for your meals every week, use the same plan for two weeks in the row so you can get more bang for your buck at the supermarket or warehouses like Costco and Sam’s Club. (via Planning Inspired)
7. Use this trick to recycle meal plans
If you’re for more routine, then you can try and plan a 6-week menu and use that every 6 weeks. It’s long enough of a spread of time for a recipe to come back again. Read the post below for a few tips on how to exercise some flexibility with this method. (via Simple Lionheart Life)
8. Make meal planning part of your home décor
Okay, how cool is this chalkboard fridge? Both pretty and functional. Get instructions on how to recreate this masterpiece in your kitchen. (via Genevieve Gail)
9. Go for a loose structure to meal planning
Also another pretty way to display your planned meals for easy reference in the kitchen. List recipes on color coded index cards and leave them in the recipe “bank.” All you do is grab and clip to plan that week’s menu.
Bonus: Even your kids can help with this meal planning method (less work for you)! (via Sarah Potter Photography)
10. Use these pretty cheat sheets
Get a free meal planning checklist, cheat sheet of themed menu ideas, and pantry staples, along with an uberly extensive explanation on how to meal plan like a boss. (via Simple Made Pretty)
Bonus Tips for meal prep (first stage)
Save yourself some more time by getting more the legwork done before actual meal time comes.
1. Don't put away your groceries just yet when you return from the store
As soon as you get home from grocery shopping, wash, dry, and chop produce so it’s easier to just take what you need when it comes to the actual meal prep time. Read an efficient system to get this done below. (via Family Fresh Meals)
2. Batch your main cooking with freezer cooking
Take the next step with saving time on meal planning by trying freezer cooking. Do the heavy lifting of cooking when you have a chunk of time (and your partner and kids to possibly help) and freeze. When the actual meal time comes around, reheating your food will take a fraction of the time each night. Learn more about how to get started in 5 easy steps at Once a Month Meals.
Here are great food storage containers that are ideal and recommended for freezer cooking. They’re leakproof with airtight lids, microwave and oven safe, freezer friendly, portable, durable, and low cost.
3. Let someone else do the thinking and planning for you
Once a Month Meals is a membership site that allows you to pick and choose among all tried and true recipes for busy families. It takes meal planning to a whole other level by having you set up your meals for the entire month, prep and all, in ONE. DAY.
How it works is you choose the recipes or follow their menu packs. They’ll tell you exactly what you need from the grocery store, how to prep the food and freeze it, and then day of cooking instructions.
Give them a try. Download a free mini menu (just scroll to the bottom of the linked page) here and see if this may work meal planning wonders for you.
With any of these easy meal planning tips above, you’ll definitely save yourself time, money, and sanity by preparing for wholesome meals so that you can spend them on taking care of your family.