How We Make Meal Planning Work For Us

16628612265_38443f958e_zYou wanna know a secret?

I don’t really like to cook.

Whew! Just admitting that makes me feel a lot better. You see, it’s not something I enjoy. I don’t find it relaxing or a creative outlet or anything like that. I just like to have a plan, have the directions I need, and the tools and ingredients on hand to create a meal that my family and I enjoy (and that doesn’t take too long).

Here are some of the requirements for meals at our home:

  • Easy preparation
  • Simple, fresh ingredients—nothing too experimental as far as tastes go
  • Enough for leftovers the next day

My New Year’s resolution for 2015 was to plan and make our meals six days a week. I have tried this before several ways, and they’ve worked to varying degrees, but none have been as successful as the last two months of my new “system.”

Instead of trying to plan meals to fit a certain specification, like Whole30 compliant meals, healthy, or themed meals, and instead of using a meal planning website like eMeals, which I’ve used somewhat successfully in the past, I went back to two basic questions: What do we like to eat?  What do we want to plan to eat this week?

It sounds elementary, and it really is. There’s nothing novel here, it’s just a simple process that works for our family.

Here’s what we do:

  1. Aaron and I sit down on Saturday or Sunday afternoon and decide on six or seven dinner main courses that we want. We pull recipes from the following sources:
    • I use my Pinterest board to store potential ideas
    • A spreadsheet of our favorite/most requested meals
    • Our previous What To Eat sheets
    • Favorite recipes from cards and cookbooks
  2. I try to include one new recipe and one meatless recipe for our main courses per week.
  3. I write down each dinner main course on the back of the last week’s What To Eat sheet. This helps me organize what day we’ll eat it and any side dishes we’ll have. It also helps me think through any other engagements we have that week, so I don’t have to plan for nights we won’t be eating at home.
  4. Then, I add the semi-finalized meals to the new week’s What To Eat sheet.
  5. I take each day’s menu and check our pantry, fridge, and freezer to see what ingredients we have on hand and what ingredients we’ll need to purchase. We go meal-by-meal and add those missing ingredients to our shared AnyList app. I can’t say enough about AnyList—we use this app daily. I love that you can add multiple users to a list (for instance, you can yell to your husband in the other room to add wipes to the grocery list if you’re changing a diaper and realize you’re low on wipe supply).
  6. We also add our weekly staples to our AnyList. For our family, staples are lunch food (turkey, bread, cheese); dairy (milk, whole milk, half and half); breakfast food/cereal; spices and other bulk ingredients we’re low on; and a couple of cans or boxes of food to store in case of emergency. I don’t plan breakfasts or lunches unless we’re having guests or an event. We have a routine for weekly lunches that works for us, and so I keep it simple!
  7. Grocery shop for the week in one trip. We use the envelope system, so it’s helpful to us to get all of our groceries at once instead of going every couple of days.

Things I’ve Learned

  • Slow cooker meals are a lifesaver for us. We use the slow cooker at least once a week—usually at least twice.
  • Having the recipes readily accessible makes me feel less stressed when it’s time to do prep work. I’ve realized that most of the stress around cooking comes from being ill-equipped or missing ingredients. I don’t have that problem as much any more.
  • We “assign” meals to certain days on our What To Eat sheet, but we don’t necessarily follow that order. We switch up what we eat based on what kind of day it’s been for us at work, what the weather is like, etc. This gives us freedom without risking any food spoilage or waste.
  • We have to finish everything on our list before we plan different meals.

Room For Improvement

  • Save money.
    While just creating and adhering to a meal plan has saved us a lot of headache, irritation, guesswork, and money, I know I could be more frugal with how I plan meals. I’d like to be able to plan based on sales and specials at our grocery stores—I don’t have the time to do that just yet, but it’s something I’d like to work on. The savings were the major benefit of eMeals; however, I didn’t like the menus, and I ended up feeling “blah” about cooking every meal time.
  • Purchase our meat from a butcher.
    Any suggestions for good meat markets or butchers in the area?
  • Build our ICE (in case of emergency) pantry and provisions.
  • Integrate more veggies into our diet.
    Part of our meal planning is to assign a vegetable component to each meal to make sure we’re getting the nutrition we should be. I know we could be adding and substituting more than we are currently, so I’m constantly thinking about how we can do that.
  • Stock up on freezer meals.

Are you an expert chef and meal planner, or are you like me—just trying to keep things together and provide nutritious, stress-free meals for your family? I’d love to know any tips or tricks you use, or any of your favorite recipe sources. Leave a comment!

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