How to Meal Plan for Those of Us Who Can’t Even

My family eats out. A lot. I really don’t like cooking. Or cleaning up. Plus, I’m terrible at planning. But since we’ve moved from an urban area to a small town, we’ve found that the healthy (or at least healthier) options that we used to rely on when we ate out are simply not available where we live. This means that we need to eat in more than we’re used to—you know, four whole nights a week now. Because I’m finding even that much cooking overwhelming, I decided to give meal planning a shot. It sounds simple enough: plan your meals ahead of time. It turns out I needed more direction than that, though, so here it is: How to Meal Plan for Those of Us Who Can’t Even.

Set Themes and Find Favorites

  • Every recipe I pin is some form of burrito: soup made with ingredients that go in burritos, quesadillas, casseroles made of burrito ingredients, salads with burrito ingredients, tacos, actual burritos—it’s a gift. If you struggle with variety or even with coming up with ideas for dinner, try assigning a theme (like Meatless Monday, Taco Tuesday, Pizza Friday, or even soup day or bowl day) to narrow your focus and help you find inspiration. It’s really amazing how much variety there is within a certain theme. I mean, seriously, look at what you can do if you have a burrito night every week…
  • Variety is the spice of life and all, but you don’t have to make something new every single night. My husband makes a wicked gumbo and we have that every few weeks. It’s dinner one night and leftovers later in the week. Growing up, his family had spaghetti every Saturday; we don’t do it that often, but we have spaghetti a couple times a month, since it’s something the whole family likes.

Organization is Key

  • If you cook from recipes (not everyone I know does), have a system for organizing them. It doesn’t matter if your system is Pinterest, a meal planning app with a recipe storage system, or an online recipe box, or if you just like to pick a cookbook and cook your way through it. You’re going to have a hard time planning—especially if you want to try something new or expand your menu options—if you’re hunting for that one recipe you saw somewhere a couple weeks ago that had something to do with pork.
  • It’s important to know what you have on hand. Not that you have to have your pantry and refrigerator memorized or anything, but you do need to be aware of the ingredients you already have so that you’re not wasting food you’ve already paid for or buying extra ingredients you don’t need. (Guilty on both counts.)
  • Planning your meals ahead also means shopping ahead. I’ve always preferred to “market,” or go to the grocery store a few times a week. It usually keeps me from wasting produce and other fresh ingredients. But on days when I couldn’t make it to the store, it meant I didn’t have anything on hand for dinner which lead to eating out. In order to stick to my meal plan, I have a nice, thorough grocery list based on my recipes (and whatever other “staple” foods I need like fruit for lunches and snacks, and bread for breakfast, etc.) and I make one focused shopping trip every week.

Pay Attention to the Recipe

  • How much does your recipe yield? Do you need to double it to feed the whole family? Do you want enough to have leftovers for lunches or another meal later in the week?
  • Can you “reuse” ingredients? If you make shredded BBQ chicken in the slow cooker on Monday, on Thursday, you can use leftover chicken in a casserole. (I have a recipe for this and it’s delicious.)
  • How much time to prep and cook does the recipe take? Do you actually have the time to make the recipe on the day you want to eat it? What can be prepped ahead of time, and how far ahead of time can it be prepped?

Commit

  • I post my weekly menu in the kitchen so that my family knows when we’re eating out, when we’re eating in, and what’s for dinner. It keeps me committed to both planning and the plan.

It’s Not Just for Dinner

  • Since my husband takes care of his own lunch, I eat at home, and I only have one kid to feed, I’ve not found a need to meal plan for meals other than dinner; however, many people find it helpful to do so. Even if you’re only planning on serving peanut butter (or sun butter, if you have a school-aged kid) and jelly sandwiches, you need to be sure you have enough of the ingredients on hand to get you through from one grocery trip to the next.
  • Meal planning for breakfast can be a way to get out of a cereal or bagel rut, too. If you plan breakfasts (especially things like steel-cut oatmeal, breakfast bars, healthy muffin options, or egg dishes that you can make ahead and reheat/eat in the morning), you may find it easier to make more filling, nutritious, and healthy choices to start your day.

Cheat

  • I subscribe to the Cool Mom Eats newsletter which provides me with a weekly meal plan that includes links to five meals each week. There’s a good variety and not all of it is up my alley, but it’s a great jumping off point and I have found some amazing recipes there. Google can provide links to tons more folks who take the planning out of meal planning.
  • There are food subscription services like Hello Fresh, Plated, Freshly, and Blue Apron. This is probably not the way to go if you’re looking to save money by meal planning, but it’s a tool to help you eat healthier—and at home! Blue Apron and Hello Fresh make their recipes available for free online, too. (PS, Baby Gizmo reviewed Blue Apron—check it out!)
  • If shopping is the hard part for you, check out Let’s Dish. It’s a meal-prep storefront where you can go and prep your meals—they provide a menu and all the ingredients. You can also get pre-made meals and delivery.
  • You might also want to see if your local grocery store offers delivery or pick-up options. Those are great!

As my cheats demonstrate, I’m not too proud to admit that I’m not an expert at this, so please share with us any meal-planning tips that work for you. I’d love to hear what those of you who’ve been doing this for a while have to share with those of us who are newer to the meal-planning game!

(If you like the meal planner pictured above, you can find it on Amazon.)

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Christina lives in Northern Virginia with her husband, daughter, and two English Springer Spaniels. Before becoming a reluctant stay-at-home mom, she worked in a variety of customer-service-oriented jobs while dreaming of living in the lap of luxury as a housewife. Unfortunately, having a child threw a wrench in Christina's plan to do nothing but eat bonbons while lounging in the Jacuzzi reading all day. Now, she spends her time looking for fun activities and crafts for her daughter and easy-to-prepare meals for her family, while trying not to land the kid in therapy when she grows up. Christina volunteers at several different places, and her particular passion is for her role as a sexuality educator. She loves to read, and to learn about--and share--new products and resources.

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