If you’ve ever stopped to think about it, we plan and eat about 1,095 meals every year. That’s a lot of decisions! But what if you could narrow that down to 52? When meals aren’t planned, chances are high that we’ll eat something more expensive and less healthy. Weekly meal planning is a great way to get organized, eat healthier, avoid wasting food, and save money. While it takes a few minutes of planning each week, the results are worth it. By creating a master menu to choose from and seeing what inexpensive ingredients are on hand, it’s easy to plan your way to savings.
Create a Master Menu
The first step is to make a list of potential meals, like your very own custom menu. Oftentimes when we’re trying to decide what to have for dinner, we fall into the same old rut. Having an evolving list of choices helps mix things up and make sure we’re eating a variety of foods. Whether you create your list on paper, on your computer, or using a meal planning app, get input from others in your family so everyone’s preferences are considered. Divide your list into dinners (subdivided into poultry, pork, fish, beef, vegetarian, etc.), side dishes, desserts, and lunches and breakfasts if you’ll be planning those out too. As you find new recipes your family likes, be sure to add those to your menu.
What’s on Sale
Each week, as you prepare your grocery shopping list, notice what’s on sale in your store circulars. If you’ve been tracking prices, you’ll know whether the sale is a good deal and worth stocking up (if you have the storage space). When you’re ready to actually plan your weekly meals, these are the items that will form the basis of your meals. Pay special attention to perishable sale items, such as produce and dairy.
What’s in the Pantry/Fridge/Freezer
Once you’ve got a handle on what sale items you’ll be buying this week, it’s time to look around the kitchen and see what’s already there. First thing to check is leftovers that need to be used up and any perishable items that need to be used by a certain date. While those items get the priority, you’ll also want to look at what’s on your shelves or in your freezer to see what other ingredients (or even pre-made meals) you have on hand.
Now that you’re armed with your menu and your list of available and soon-to-be-purchased ingredients, you’re ready to sit down and start making a plan for the week. Check to see which meals on your menu match up to the ingredients you want to use. If you want to find some new recipes, you can either search using your main ingredients, or try a site like supercook.com which suggest recipes to you based on the ingredients on hand. Once you have a list of meals, now is the time to double-check that you have all the ingredients on your list or in your kitchen.
Plan a variety of recipes for the week, including a few easy standards and some more involved ones. Choose a variety of different proteins and include meatless dishes. Depending on your schedule and/or budget, you may want to schedule a night just for leftovers, or for take-out. And it never hurts to have a pre-made meal in the freezer just in case things don’t go as planned.
If you want to keep things flexible, you can wait to decide which meals will be on which day. But if your family has a busy schedule to plan around or you’d prefer to be more organized, you can go ahead and assign each day’s meals in advance. There are plenty of templates available online for your plan, or you can simply write it on the calendar or post it on the fridge where the whole family can see.
After you go grocery shopping, you may have a stockpile of a particular ingredient, such as chicken. Split up the packages into a dinner’s portion in the fridge if you will be using it in the next day or two, and package the rest in meal portions to freeze.
Each night do a mini-meal planning: take a moment to consider which meals you’ll have for the next day and what you’ll need for them. Double-check if your schedule has changed and meals need to be switched around. If anything needs to be defrosted, take it out of the freezer to thaw. If any ingredients need advance preparation, for example soaking beans (dry beans cost less and have less salt than canned), get those ready. If you need particular pots or utensils, make sure they’re clean and ready. And if you’ll need a reminder during the day to start a slow cooker meal or marinate ingredients in advance, set up a reminder on your phone or computer, or simply leave yourself a low-tech sticky note.
Meal planning doesn’t need to be difficult, and there are a number of ways you can do it depending on your preferences. By checking what’s on sale and what’s already in your kitchen before you make your plan, you will save money and time, and avoid wasting food. The hardest part is to just get started, so start planning today.