After living fulltime in a RV for about three years, I have gotten extremely flexible, and possibly even a little lax in the kitchen. But, now that we are in a home again, I have been re-inspired. I don’t know if it is the extra space, the fact that I know the grocery store, or what; but my kitchen has been producing some seriously delicious and nutritious meals of late. And we all want that don’t we? Inspiration in the kitchen? Delectable meals to serve to others after a long day’s work? Meals that are nourishing to our bodies every day? Consistently coming together as a family around the table to share a meal? The goal is clear, it is the path to get there where we can get lost, or lose our motivation. But, there is a time honored tradition that every home manager, should have in their toolbelt to reach that goal…it’s called meal planning. It takes a little time and effort to get used to meal planning at first, but once you are in a rhythm, it will save your meals, your budget and keep you on track with your wellness. It is the tool to make meals a breeze, and we are going to learn how to get started using that tool today!
What is meal planning?
Meal planning is all about being intentional. It is about thinking through what your family will be eating for the week, and coming up with a plan to guide you through each meal. There are three general steps to meal planning…
- Set time aside each week to choose your meals for the week.
- Shop for the ingredients you will need for the week.
- Each day, check your plan and prepare your meals.
What meal planning is not.
Meal planning is not a paid subscription. It can be if you want the extra help, but you can easily create your own meal plans for free from recipes you already know how to cook. There are seasons in life, and if a paid subscription makes sense for the season you are in, then by all means use one.
Meal planning is not surfing pinterest for an hour and picking a new, involved recipe with an enticing photo to make for each night of the week. No one wants to be on that treadmill. It will burn you out, leave you with wasted ingredients that you only use for one dish, and take way too much time out of your day. It is fun to make something new, and it definitely keeps my creativity up in the kitchen, but 1-2 new recipes a week are plenty.
Meal planning is not a one size fits all exact process. There needs to be flexibility with it to meet your personal needs. One of the biggest problems I had with it at first, was the fact that everyone talking about it said to pick all your meals first (just like I listed above), then create your grocery list and go to the store. But I have some problems with that…
- I am picky about produce. Sometimes produce items look better or worse from week to week. I want flexibility to buy what is freshest at the time. Plus, I like to shop farm stands as much as possible, and I can’t be sure of what they will have ahead of time.
- Pricing and availability of meats play a role in what I purchase at the store. From week to week it changes, and I want to take advantage of deals, or what may be in stock.
- I have mentioned it before, but I don’t view recipes as set in stone. I rarely follow an actual recipe, so my cooking style does not perfectly fit with meal planning.
As you can see, the basic sequence of meal planning did not work well for me, so I avoided it for a long time. But, I have since learned that what I need to do is to be more flexible with my sequence. I now generally plan my meals for the week, then go grocery shopping. Once I have made my actual choices, then I refine my meal plan to reflect them. That sequence works great for me.
So, if you have tried meal planning and it just isn’t working for you, then take a step back and be more flexible with the process. A simple change may make all the difference. I do a week of meal planning, but a shorter or longer time may be better for your situation. I meal plan for three meals a day, but you may only need to do dinners. Be flexible. Make meal planning work for you.
The Benefits of Meal Planning
Save time. You do need to dedicate time each week to making your plan. It will be a chunk of time, and may take a little longer in the beginning, until you get used to making the plans. But, by dedicating the time to it, you are being intentional with each second you put in to it. By contrast, roaming the pantry, or staring at the fridge each day with the recurring question “What am I making for dinner?”, is not being intentional with your time and those wasted moments add up over the course of the week.
Plus, you will be grocery shopping once a week. That is it. No running to the store every few days trying to play catch up with meals.
Save money. This is accomplished in multiple ways. First, meal planning means we eat out less, which saves us money. Chris and I truly prefer to eat healthy meals at home, so the desire to eat out is usually more related to how well I have planned for our meal. If I don’t have a plan, it is easy to eat out instead.
Also, I save money on groceries with meal planning, since everything I buy is intentional and coincides with my meals. Additionally, by planning my meals out in advance, I can take advantage of using up my ingredients in multiple different meals, instead of ending up with uncoordinated meals and food going bad.
Eat healthier. What you put in your mouth each day makes a great impact on your health and that of the generations to come. Meal planning can make eating healthier so much more manageable. When I plan my meals, I think about how I want to nourish our bodies that week. Some weeks I want to focus on thyroid-supporting foods, other weeks I want to make sure I am eating extra cruciferous to help pull excess estrogens from my body. Making a weekly plan helps me to have a particular health focus and follow through with it.
I truly believe that one of the biggest mistakes we make with our perception of food is that we see it as our source of emotional comfort and enjoyment. If we can get that notion out of our minds, we can see food for what it truly is: our source of nourishment and energy. This understanding leads to better choices, and meal planning helps to take some of the emotion out of our eating and allows us to plan our week according to nourishment.
Learn more about my anti-inflammatory diet.
How to Get Started Meal Planning
It is important to start simple, so that you do not get overwhelmed by the transition to meal planning. Pick a day to start. I usually do my meal planning and grocery shopping on Thursdays, since I like to feel well-stocked going in to the weekend. Pick a day that works best for your schedule and get started with these simple steps…
Step 1. Print my free meal plan worksheet.
Step 2. Look at your calendar for the week. Identify days that you have a busier schedule and need simple, quick meals. Or days that you are eating out or eating with friends. Mark those on your meal plan, so you can plan accordingly.
Step 3. At the beginning, you can skip this step until you get the hang of meal planning. But, when you are ready, contemplate your health goals and identify additions to your meals for the week. Write down your goals in the health goals section.
Step 4. Pick your meals for the week. Start with your go-to meals that you know your family loves. Add simple meals or crockpot recipes for the nights you need a quick meal. Consider any items in your fridge and pantry that need to be used. Plan to have leftovers – it is the simplest way to have a healthy, quick lunch. Balance meals that need very fresh vegetables and fruits with meals that contain vegetables that can last in the fridge, such as cabbage, carrots, beets, etc.
Step 5. Plan any necessary prep or action steps. For example, I make notes to pull meat out of the freezer ahead of time, so I won’t be stuck with frozen meat when I am ready to cook it. You can prep a salad the night before, if you have a busy day. As you get better at meal planning, you can expand your prep. For instance, if I want to bake something for breakfast (like pumpkin oatmeal bars), I will make that the day ahead, so it is ready to go for breakfast. This also allows me to take advantage of having the oven on for supper, by baking the next morning’s breakfast simultaneously. Those kind of tricks are hard to pull off spontaneously, but with a plan, you can make it happen. And I love it when a plan comes together.
Step 6. Create a grocery list for the items you need. Check your pantry and fridge, so that you are not doubling up on items. I organize my grocery list by how I move through the store. For example, at Wegman’s I do produce first, then meat, then miscellaneous, then frozen. When we travel, I shop at Walmarts alot, and for those I do frozen first, meat, miscellaneous and end with produce. Having my list in order according to the store, saves me shopping time.
Step 7. Go to the grocery store/farmer’s market and purchase the necessary items. By going once a week, you will avoid wasted time at the grocery store. Plus, every time you enter the store, you will find temptation to buy things you don’t need. Limiting those exposures is important to staying on budget.
Step 8. Refine your meal plan & post it. If you are like me, then you need to refine your plan a little to reflect what you purchased. The kale may have been better looking than the broccoli, so make the switch. Now, post it in your kitchen where you can see it quickly.
Additional Tips for Meal Planning
It takes repetition.
The best way to get better at meal planning is to continue doing it. The more you do it, the easier it will become. You will get to a point where you don’t even think much about it, it just comes naturally.
Start where you are now.
Start now. And start small. Start with just dinners if you want. Or with three days at a time. Whatever works to get you started. Don’t wait thinking that next week will be easier, or that next week will be less busy. It won’t. Start meal planning now, and you will be saving time and money sooner.
Make sure to give yourself easier meals on the nights that you will need them. Set yourself up for success!
Have a back up plan.
I keep certain pantry items stocked, so that I have a few meals that I can throw together if need be. That way if our schedules changed, or if I try a new recipe and it goes badly (like the gluten-free waffles below), then I have some options on hand to salvage the meal without having to resort to takeout.
What Have Our Meals Looked Like Lately?
I cook three meals a day for two people. Since we both work at home, we are home for all three meals. Since we mostly eat real food, that means that I dedicate more time to preparing meals than some people. I have no problem with that, because it is worth it to me to have healthier meals.
Now, in full disclosure, I have come a long way. Before I was married, there were times when I would have cereal for dinner. Now, I have not had cereal at all in well over five years.
When I married Chris, meals became more important to me, because I was serving someone else, not just myself. So, I started to learn how to cook. Then, when I had health struggles over five years ago, I completely changed our diets, and we have not looked back since. So, yes, I cook three healthy meals a day for most days; but it took me a long time to get where I am now.
Early on, I went through a period of time where I just didn’t want to cook. It was not enjoyable to me, and it felt like a chore. I had to change my attitude. That was on me. But once I did, cooking became a joy. Now I see it as a way that I love my husband and a way that I contribute to our health. It took continually cooking and working on my attitude to get to this point, and, believe me, it was hard work. Probably about once a month, I feel that I need a night off, and on those nights, Chris will take me out for dinner. Also, I like to listen to audio books, so if I am struggling, I will put a book on while I cook. That is how I keep the healthy meals coming with a joyful attitude.
These meals are gluten-free, mostly dairy-free (I recently added butter back in to the diet), and white sugar-free.
A better gluten-free waffle recipe…