If I didn’t meal plan at least a little, I think we’d survive on eggs. And maybe yogurt. And that’s it.
Meal planning is vital for me to be able to use what I’ve purchased, thaw meat on time, vary our recipes, do day-before prep like soaking dry beans, and even get up the gumption to start a recipe on time, rather than wandering into the kitchen at 5:45 saying, "Ummmmmm…."
If I ate convenience foods, that plan might work. I could toss some frozen chicken nuggets and fries or pre-packaged boxed dinner on the stove and make it by 6:15 or so. But with real ingredients that need to be washed, cut, cooked, seasoned, etc…oy. You gotta have a plan.
Over the five years of Kitchen Stewardship’s existence, I’ve probably tackled the subject of meal planning dozens of times. So why am I coming back to it today? First, for all those who are struggling with keeping a consistent schedule for their meals, I feel the need to pop in every few months with some encouragement.
Second, I had this great list of meal planning tips from readers on Facebook that just had to be shared in a larger, more permanent platform.
And third, I’ve been using Plan to Eat’s software this year after holding fast to my paper-and-pencil method, and I thought I’d share some of my experiences.
This post is sponsored by Plan to Eat because they know the vital importance of meal planning – but all opinions are my own.
The Wisdom of the KS Community
I’m always encouraged by the deep wisdom and practical tips that the ladies (and 2% men, hee hee!) in the KS community share when I ask questions about their real food experience.
The consensus about meal planning is that the very best advice is to
JUST DO IT
After that simple step one, here’s some more concrete advice from the trenches:
Do what works for YOU, be it weekly, bi-weekly, monthly, etc. Plan 1 meal a day or 3. Stick to it like it’s written in stone or be uber-flexible. Never assume there should be a "one size fits all" plan. Also? Don’t assume that what works now will work in another season. Meal planning can work for ANYONE. You just have to figure out the style that works for YOU, at this time.
Do it when you’re hungry.
Prep ahead-when you bring home the groceries-seperate the meat and either cook ahead and season with ground meats or marinate the breasts, chops etc and then freeze. Cut veggies and fruits for the week for lunches snacks etc. Shop at home first through the pantry, freezer and fridge and make a list with only the necessary items needed.
"I made a six week plan of our favorite meals (dinners only, for now) and put it on my Cozi calendar, repeating. I change/rearrange things as I go, but for the next four months I never have to be stumped when it’s time to fix dinner."
Write down all of the meals that your family likes-- so you KNOW you have a good pool of meals to pull from. And think about how meals fit together. If you’re going to roast chicken, roast two and make soup later in the week. That kind of thing.
If you can’t plan multiple days in a row, at least have a clear plan before lunchtime (at the very latest).
Don’t buy anything you don’t already have a plan for. I was bad about buying fresh produce, but ended up throwing a lot of it away. Now, I have specific dishes in mind when I buy things, and I only buy enough for that week’s meals. I also buy meat on markdown and fill my freezer.
Keep a well stocked pantry. That allows you to make any modifications and last minute changes easily.
Hang that baby on the wall or fridge. Less questions!
I follow a basic plan of pasta on Monday, Chicken on Tues, fish on Wed, soup/stew on Thurs, pizza on Fri, and some sort of a roast on Sat, leftovers on Sunday. It’s always subject to change, but that’s the basic idea. We have our favorites, or I search Pinterest for new recipes. (Note from Katie: I have some boards that might help you like slow cooker meals, grain-free and gluten-free meals, and meatless meals for Lent.)
In the notes on my iPhone I keep a list of all the meals we like as well as ALL the ingredients needed to make that meal. Now if I need a list I just cut & paste to myself or my husband. When I find new recipes, I just add it to the list.
Double family favorites and freeze the second half for when life gets hectic! (Some strategies to get that done…)
Leave room for flexibility within your meal plan. A too rigid plan can be even more stressful!
We only go shopping every other week, so I do meal planning two weeks at a time. It’s all about planning ahead! (If you want to start shopping every other week but wonder what to do about fresh salads since lettuce doesn’t always last that long, I got you covered.)
I shop the advertiser for best meal deals and I have a list tapped to the inside of a cabinet door of the quick favorites to pick from when I just can’t seem to think or need to go shopping.
What I’ve Been up to with Plan to Eat
Plan to Eat, an online meal planning software that allows you to plan 100% of your own favorite recipes and auto-generates a shopping list, has been a KS sponsor for a long time. I’ve always been really honest about the fact that although the system impressed me, I just couldn’t bring myself to do one. more. thing. on the computer. I clung to my paper/pen technique for years!
This January, I finally had a smart phone and a little tablet, and I decided to recycle my paper calendar and switch "cold turkey" over to digital. (It’s going okay – the benefits probably equal the deficits, but I wish I knew more efficient strategies. Keeping my phone near me to hear the reminders would probably help!)
In the spirit of going digital, I realized it was time to give PTE a shot as well.
Here’s What I’ve Loved
- I don’t have to bother with printing new recipes I find online or figuring out where they are when it’s time to cook. I just have to find my tablet and get going. That’s nice!
- Many people worry that starting a new system like this means they’ll have to spend too much time inputting recipes and "getting set up." I found that you can really get started right away, and it doesn’t take much more time at all. I tried to use some new recipes the first few weeks from the KS group, which I had a lot of fun browsing, and any recipes online (or that are at least typed up already) only take about 30 seconds to import. If you just input the ones you need for the week, it doesn’t feel like a big investment at all. Don’t think you have to sit down on day one and input the top 50 of your family’s favorite recipes! Just go one week at a time.
- If I had a favorite recipe that wasn’t on the computer, sometimes I didn’t bother typing it in. I’d just make a "note" on that day with the name of the recipe, and as long as it was something that used only pantry staples, it was fine that the ingredients didn’t auto-post to my shopping list, and it saved me valuable time.
- When I am on my phone, it automatically goes to the shopping list, which makes me feel cool. Like, "Hello, Plan to Eat, I see you know I’m at the grocery store, and I appreciate you being ready for me!" It’s some very intuitive software and will make you think it’s very smart!
Kinks I Still Need to Work Out
- The grocery list gets a little overwhelming – looking at all the ingredients from a week’s worth of food is a lot of line items! There’s a cool feature where you can tell the system what’s in your pantry and it won’t include those items on the shopping list, but I just haven’t taken the time to bother with it. My own fault; I know that would make the shopping list less crazy.
- I need to set my tablet to leave the screen on longer. It’s driving me nuts to have to turn it back on and unlock it every time I need to look at a new ingredient! But again – my fault for just not finding that setting yet. Sometimes the simplest things can be put off for so long, right?
- I wish there was a way to have "things that need to be made" outside of meals that would somehow stay on your list until you crossed them off. Currently if I want to make granola or dressings or something, I put that recipe in the "snacks" field for a day. But if I don’t get around to making the recipe, I have to remember to manually slide the recipe over to another day. The plus side is that it’s quicker and less messy to do that than my old paper-and-pencil system with all the crossing out and rewriting on a new day.
- I always thought I’d love the ability to save a week-long meal plan and reuse it…but it turns out that my meals are do dependent on what I have going on that week on the schedule and what food I have on hand. I haven’t been able to repeat a week yet, but I’m thinking I should make an effort to try a repeating breakfast plan at least. THAT could be done, but again – I just haven’t figured out which one to "save" so I can just quickly input it into another week.
I’m happy to answer any questions you have about the mechanics of Plan to Eat, now that I’ve dug into it a bit! If you’re curious, I recommend giving the 30-day trial a go, and don’t worry about the front end work. Just take one day (or week) at a time, the same as you need to do to make meal planning work in reality, whether you use a computer or not.
What’s the hardest part about meal planning for you? Did any of these tips give you hope?
If you missed the last Monday Mission, click here.
Disclosure: This post is sponsored by Plan to Eat. See my full disclosure statement here.