What Is Meal Planning And How To Start

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Nothing is more satisfying than a great meal. Except maybe someone else making it for you and cleaning up after. Am I right? Let’s be honest here: being responsible for meals in your home is a chore, mentally and physically exhausting and thankless, most of the time. In an effort to relieve some of the pressure on me, I began meal planning back in January. And holy moly guys, it has been a game changer for me!

  • No more rushing to stores at the last minute to grab ingredients.
  • No more fast food just because I’m too exhausted to do anything else.
  • No more complaints from the peanut gallery about what I made for dinner.

And that was before the quarantine began…

If you would have told me last year to shop and meal plan for an entire month, I probably would have broke down crying. I could barely go two days without grocery shopping. How the heck would I go a week, let alone a month? Meal planning gave me the tools I needed to effortlessly plan, buy and stockpile everything I needed (no, I don’t mean toilet paper) so that I didn’t have to expose myself unnecessarily during the crisis.

If the thought of what’s for dinner tonight makes you feel stressed or anxious, maybe you should give meal planning a try too.

Let’s begin here:

What is meal planning?

Meal planning is just what it sounds like, a plan. A plan that makes your meal prep run more efficiently and smoothly by deciding what meals you will prepare everyday ahead of time.  And then shopping intentionally once for everything you need to fulfil your new plan.

Does that sound over-whelming? Don’t worry! I’ll break down the process for you further down.

First let’s get you committed to this new way of life:

Benefits of meal planning

1. Meal planning saves the time and mental energy you’d otherwise waste staring into the fridge deciding what to make, or aimlessly browsing the grocery store shelves, hoping for a flash of inspiration. No more getting to the end of a busy day and then having to pull together enough brainpower and ingredients to whip up something satisfying.

2. Meal planning makes healthier food choices automatic. The temptation to simply grab takeout is far less likely when you know you have something healthy, tasty, and easily accessible waiting for you at home.

3. Meal planning saves you money. When you plan ahead, you can shop around and take full advantage of sales and bulk prices. The impulse buying and overspending that go along with unplanned grocery shopping trips are naturally limited. And, of course, eating at home is nearly always cheaper than buying restaurant food!

And here is an unexpected benefit I discovered when I started to meal plan: no more complaining or arguing or saying, “I don’t want that, how about this.” Once my family discovered I was committed to meal planning, they knew what to expect every night. I hung the meal plan on the fridge for all to see. I was flexible in as far as much dinners could be switched around but that is as far as I strayed. Surprisingly, everyone adapted quickly.

What meal planning is not

  • Rigid-Your meal plan is not set in stone. I regularly switch meals around depending on how much time I have and what we feel like eating on a given night.
  • Eating in every night-In fact, I schedule in dinners out. It is a nice treat to look forward to!
  • New or complicated recipes-Meals should adapt to you and your family and not the other way around. If you are a soup and salad person or your family loves mac and cheese, so be it. Try something new if and when you want to.
  • Time-consuming-Meal planning and shopping in time blocks may seem like it takes longer because it is done in one go. But when you factor in all the little bits of time you used to spend going to the store or picking through your freezer trying to find something for dinner, you will find meal planning saves you time.
  • Over-whelming-Meal planning may take you awhile to master but if you start small, say planning 3 meals a week, you will soon master the process.

Meal planning mistakes to avoid

  1. Not adapting to your family’s tastes and likes-If they won’t eat it, what’s the point and you will just get upset and frustrated.
  2. Not planning around your busy schedule-Easy, pre-made meals or take-aways are best for dinner on nights when you don’t have time or are rushed.
  3. Forgetting to add snacks to your meal plan-Everyone needs a treat, whether that be cut up carrots or chocolate.

Meal planning tips for success

  • Start small-You don’t have to go all out all at once!
  • Be flexible-Build in flex and leftover days.
  • Post it-My meal plan is on my fridge so everyone can get on board.
  • Adapt-If something doesn’t work, feel free to pitch or adapt meals.
  • Keep a favourite recipe list-This is your go to recipe list and makes meal planning fast and easy.
  • Rotate meal plans-Once you have a month of weekly plans created, rotate them to save you even more time.
  • Have the right tools-If you have to pack lunches or store left-overs, make sure you have the right sized containers. And don’t underestimate the appeal of a nice recipe binder or meal planner binder that can make meal planning fun.
  • Keep a pantry and freezer inventory-Knowing what you have in stock will help you save money plus ensure that items never expire before you use them.
  • Make a staple list-These are items you always want to keep in stock, like salt or salsa. Review your inventory of these items when making your shopping list.
  • Add pre-packaged meals-No one says you can’t add these to your meal plan. These are great for packing lunches or for when someone must eat off schedule and dinner is not ready.

How to start meal planning

Once you figure this part out, you’ll be able to put your meal plans (almost) on autopilot. Keeping my old meal plans in a binder has helped me become faster at meal planning especially with rotating our favourite meals week to week. You may want to do that too.

1. Choose a plan that works for your life
First things first, you have to consider which types of meals appeal to you – to prepare as well as to eat!

Do you love coming home to the aroma of a crock pot full of simmering stew? Do you love the simplicity of frozen meals you can quickly toss in the oven to reheat? Casseroles, pot pies, chilli, soups, and lasagna are tasty examples of meals that will freeze well and yield multiple meals per batch. Another option is having veggies pre-chopped and meat pre-seasoned that you can whip up into a quick and simple stir-fry or a nice big salad at the end of the day.

If you are a take-out junkie like we were, find some copy cat recipes of your favourite restaurants.

Many people also find having theme nights helpful when it comes to meal planning. Meatless Mondays and Taco Tuesdays are just two examples.

2. Get it down on paper
Make a master list of meals and ingredients that you already know you and your family will enjoy. Try to come up with at least 10-20 meals so you can rotate them and avoid getting stuck eating the exact same things every week (unless you are a particularly picky eater and that is what will make you happy, of course).

You can add in a few intriguing new recipes you’ve wanted to try, but primarily sticking to things you already know and love (especially in the beginning) can make your new plan easier to implement. Keep in mind that writing out a meal plan doesn’t set it in stone! It’s your plan and you can make changes at any time if something’s just not working.

3. Take inventory of your storage supplies
Make sure you’ve got enough pieces of Tupperware or Pyrex to store your weekly meals and/or prepped ingredients. While you’re at it, take this opportunity to purge all of the pieces with missing lids!

Go through your list of meals and figure out which shapes and sizes you’ll need. Consider whether you’ll be mostly packaging food in single-serving portions, or storing larger amounts to heat up all at once for family dinners. Make sure all of the containers you want to use will reasonably fit in your refrigerator and freezer.

4. Come up with a simple schedule
Some meal planners like to assign a different type of meal for each day of the week, such as soup on Monday, taco salad on Tuesday, stir-fry on Wednesday, roasted chicken on Thursday, etc. Of course, you don’t have to keep a strict schedule – no one’s going to stop you from heating up the lasagna you’re craving on Monday or saving tacos for Friday instead!

5. Get the most mileage out of your cooking
Whenever possible, incorporate versatile foods that can do double or triple duty. Large batches of rice, beans, soups, etc. can be incorporated into multiple meals throughout the week. Try to get creative by carrying leftovers from dinner into lunches for the rest of the week. For example, you could roast a chicken for dinner one night, and use the leftover meat to make chicken salad or top your lunch salad the next day.

6. Look for inspiration
If you get stumped on what to cook (or end up in a rut as time goes on), take a look through the indexes of your favourite cookbooks or browse Google and Pinterest. You can search for recipes by type of meal, cooking method, or even for recipes that require a certain ingredient (or group of ingredients).

It is possible to save time by having someone else do the meal planning and shopping list-writing for you. There are tons of cut-and-paste meal plans out there – from entire meal planning cookbooks to thousands of sites all over the internet. If you happen across one that calls to you, by all means, give it a try! Just be sure you’re always keeping tip #1 in mind, and don’t be afraid to play around with the plan to make it your own.

7. Create your shopping list
Once you have your meal plan for the week complete, it is time to make your shopping list so that you only have to go shopping once. I go through my meal plan, day by day, and shop my fridge and cupboards first. Then I write down everything I need on my shopping list. 

Additional Tip: On my meal plan I list everything, and I mean everything, I need for each meal. So if we are having a burger and fries dinner, I list all the condiments we would need as well. This prompts me to check my supplies when I make my shopping list.

That’s it! You are ready for the week. That wasn’t so bad was it? 

Depending on the meals you have chosen, you may be cooking every night but I encourage you to go a step further and try to cook ahead once you have a knack for meal planning. That will make your meal plan really shine and save you tons of time.

Make your cooking day fun!
Meal planning typically involves setting aside a large chunk of time (anywhere from an hour or two to an entire afternoon) to do all of the necessary cooking, prep, and cleanup for the week to come. The more fun you can make this process – and less like a chore or a burden – the easier it will be to stick with your meal plan.

Try to make your kitchen time feel like “me” time to look forward to. Make a ritual out of putting on your favorite music, an audiobook, or a podcast and having some coffee, tea, or wine while you work. And once you’ve gotten all of the dishes clean, treat yourself to some relaxation time – knowing that you’re starting a new week with minimal cooking and dishes ahead!

Once you get into the swing of it, meal planning really will make your life easier – and it can even be kind of fun. So give it a try! Start with super simple meals the first week or two. Once you’ve got that down, you can get creative and experiment with adding new recipes to your rotation. Before long, your new meal planning routine will feel like second nature – saving you all kinds of time, money, and mental effort!

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