O is for Organization: How To Start Meal Planning When It Doesn’t Come Easily
This post may contain affiliate links; find my full disclosure here.
Ah! The dreaded question … What’s for dinner? Before we had kids, this question was never an issue for me and my husband. We could figure out dinner on a whim. Get some take out? Go out to eat? Stop at the store for something to throw on the grill? Or just do our own thing with whatever groceries or leftovers we had on hand. Dinner was never really that big of a deal. But after our family started to grow, we couldn’t rely on that spontaneity any longer. For one thing, it was too expensive. And for another thing, it took too much time when the priority was to get through dinner and move on to our bedtime routine at a decent time. I knew planning ahead for meals would help with the dreaded “what’s for dinner” question, but I really struggled with how to actually do it effectively. My current meal planning abilities are far from perfect, but I have learned some tricks and tips along the way to make the process feel less daunting and more doable. My hope is that by sharing what I have learned about meal planning, I will help you gain the motivation you need to start planning your menu ahead of time too. Here we go:
Write It Down
I used to dread sitting down with my grocery list, recipe books and food ads and trying to come up with some sort of a weekly plan for meals. Ugh! It was just so overwhelming. At some point during this struggle, I either read or was told to just start by writing down what we actually ate for dinner every night on my calendar or a sheet of paper. I thought to myself, “Yeah, I can probably at least manage that!”. So that was how I started. I put a magnetic notepad on the fridge and started jotting down what we ate for dinner each night – this included eating out, take out, leftovers or even just cereal (we all have those days, right?). Truly I wrote down honestly whatever it was we ate that day. After a few weeks, I already had the beginnings of a meal plan.
As I studied my notes, I realized a couple of things. First, we were eating out way too much and that was costing us a lot of money that we could be using for other things. Second, if I could even start by planning one or two meals each week, it would save us time and money immediately. Third, if I took some control over meal planning, we would probably eat a healthier diet overall. This was enough motivation for me to move on to the next phase of meal planning.
I liked this habit of writing down what we ate so much, that I continue to do it on a regular basis. It is awesome to flip back through my notes to get ideas for meals that we have made in the past and forgotten about or that had not been “in season” for awhile. I use a magnetic note pad that has enough room to jot down two weeks worth of dinners. I save the completed pages in a binder clip along with my cookbooks to refer back to when I sit down to do my weekly meal planning. Here are links to a few cute magnetic notepads similar to mine: polka dots, lady bugs, live-laugh-love, zebra print and flowers. This magnetic notepad would also work and has a grocery list in addition to the calendar squares.
I also just found this awesome magnetic dry erase calendar at the dollar store. Hello? A dollar? How can you go wrong? Instead of saving the pages of notes and ideas, I take a picture of the completed menu board with my smart phone each month for future reference. It saves paper and time… And did I mention it was only a buck?!?
Make A List
Once I found my rhythm with just writing down what we actually ate for dinner each night, the next step I took was to start keeping a list of meals. On a sheet of notebook paper, I made some basic headings – chicken, beef, pork, pasta, vegetarian, etc. Next I started writing down all of the recipes and meals I could make in each category. For example: baked chicken breasts, marinated chicken on the grill, grocery store rotisserie chicken, chicken stir fry, chicken fajitas, chicken noodle soup – you get the idea. I left room under each category so that I could continue to add recipes and ideas. You could also make seasonal lists. We grill a ton in the spring and summer and do more crock pot and oven baked meals in the fall and winter. I keep this list in a plastic page protector by my cookbooks as well so that it is easy to reference and easy to add new ideas. Referring to this list is helpful when you find a good sale on something that you aren’t sure how to use and for generating ideas when you get stuck with planning your weekly menu.
Try Something New
After getting the hang of planning one or two meals each week, it was much easier to expand the number of nights we had a dinner plan for from there. Once we were used to eating at home more and having a plan, I was excited to try some new recipes and meals. Recipes are everywhere these days… websites, cookbooks, Pinterest, Facebook, apps, on flyers and handouts in the grocery store, you name it. And don’t forget you can always borrow cookbooks and recipes from friends, family and your local library. Options for new meals are endless and do not need to complicated or time-consuming. My goal is to try a new recipe every week. This doesn’t always happen, but some new meals are better than no new meals, right? We honestly assess the recipe the night we try it and decide if it is a keeper or not. If it is a keeper, it gets added to the list of menu ideas.
Ask For Ideas
I am often inspired with great meal ideas by others. Don’t be afraid to ask your friends, colleagues and neighbors for some of their favorite recipes and dinner ideas. I was recently introduced to a frozen mandarin chicken meal sold at Trader Joe’s by a girlfriend who told me it is one of her favorite easy week night meals. We tried it a few weeks ago by adding some veggies and serving it over rice. It was a hit and was added it to the “keeper” list for sure. Even throwing a post on Facebook asking “What’s for dinner tonight?” once in awhile might generate some more menu planning ideas.
Find A Routine
I have found a meal planning routine that works best for me. I sit down on the weekend and brainstorm meal ideas for the whole week (Sunday through the following Saturday). I keep them on a sticky note to refer to throughout the week. From there I look at the food ads to check for good sales and make a grocery list at the same time. My grocery list covers everything we need to make the meals I have jotted down as well as basic breakfast, lunch and snack items. If I can do this task uninterrupted (which is rare), it only takes me about 15-20 minutes and I have a plan for the whole week including a shopping list.
The second part of having a routine is noticing what are some of your favorite, regular meals that you could eat every or every other week without getting tired of them. For us, we have a steak and seafood night once a week. My husband grills himself a steak, I prepare a seafood dish for myself (a piece of fish, crab cakes or shrimp usually) and we share a starch, a veggie and a salad. The kids can share our entrees or have some chicken fingers as their entree. This works perfectly for us as my husband gets his regular steak fix, I get my seafood and we are all happy. We also eat spaghetti and meatballs and tacos with Spanish rice on a regular basis. Sundays are leftover nights quite often when I know there is food from the previous week that needs to be eaten up. When I sit down to start my meal planning each week, I already have 2-3 meals to plug in right off the bat. The more regularly you do your meal planning, the easier it becomes. No, really, it does!
Embrace Progress, Not Perfection
I know this sounds all fine and dandy and perfectly planned and organized, but the truth is it is far from perfect. Some weeks we stick to all the meals according to plan and other weeks we get off course. Evening activities, a sick family member, not “feeling like” what is on the menu, forgetting to thaw the meat for that night’s meal or just getting tired and lazy are things that throw us off track. Sometimes it means rearranging the menu for the week and sometimes it means moving 1-2 of the planned meals to the following week’s menu. I have had plenty of times where I have had to write “fast food” or “macaroni and cheese (again)” on the meal calendar. I have moments were I feel frustrated and guilty about these lapses as I really do want to feed my family home cooked, healthy meals. But I can also be realistic and recognize that if we have an off week, we can always get back on track the next week. Just remember, we are striving for progress here, not perfection. If you have a rough week, offer yourself some grace and forgiveness and try again the next week. You can do it!
What do you think of these tips and tricks? Are they practical? Do any of them sound do-able or feel like a place to start being a better meal planner? What meal planning tricks do you use? I would love to hear from you in the comments. I vow to continue working on my meal planning and trying new recipes. My future goals include making more freezer meals and doing a better job of buying staples when they are on sale or in bulk to save money. I am proud of how far I have come. I hope that you feel inspired and encouraged that you can start on your own meal planning journey too. Best wishes on making your own marvelous menus, my friends!
My posts are partying at these fun Link Parties and Blog Hops!