Meal planning. Not the sexiest topic, I know. But really, the key to happiness—at least my happiness—is a nicely thought out weekly meal plan.
Many of you who know me personally know that I am spreadsheet fanatic. I live and die by my spreadsheets, so of course I have one for weekly dinners. This is the best system that’s worked for me, and if you like it, I’ve made a free downloadable template for you to try!
When you stick to a meal plan, there’s no buying a head of lettuce just because it’s on sale only to watch it wilt into mush because you never got around to making salad. Here’s all the things a good meal plan will do: 1) save time (because you already know what’s for dinner each week and don’t have to stand at the fridge, mouth agape, going “Uhhhhhhhhhhhh” at 6:30 p.m.), 2) save money (because you buy only what’s on the list and everything on the list has a use), and 3) save your sanity (see No. 1).
The very first thing I do, before I even consider food, is think about our weekly plans. Chris and I have a dinner with friends each Tuesday, so that has a permanent spot on the calendar. This upcoming weekend we are hosting some guests and going to a concert, so I don’t know if we’ll be eating at home either Friday or Saturday. I make a mental note to plan easily freezable or simple meals for those days, in case we end up not using all the ingredients. Note on Friday and Saturday where the meals are “tacos” and “grilled veg”. I make these kind of shorthand notes to myself all the time; they signify that I’m planning on that type of meal that day, but might wing it or make something up in the end.
From there, I start with a quick perusal of the fridge, freezer, and “pantry”. I call it a “pantry” because it’s really two shelves in one cabinet in our tiny kitchen with dry goods crammed in on top of one another. I list anything useful under the Already Have column. Things like spices don’t get a mention here because I usually have a good mental idea of what we have on hand.
Then I think about my breakfasts for the week. I was never much of a breakfast eater until I had the brilliant idea to take it to work with me. I usually eat a hard-boiled egg, half an avocado, and a handful of fruit. If I need a snack in the afternoon, my new favorite thing is a few prunes dipped in peanut butter—it tastes like a pb&j without the bread. Turns out this week we need all of the above, so it is all added to the grocery list under Store.
Next up is to peruse the circular for our grocery store. Some people like to compare circulars and pick a different grocery week to week. Some people even like to go store-to-store to find the best deals. Not me in the slightest. We have a wonderful local Publix that may not have the absolute lowest prices, but has a great selection, clean and organized store, and friendly employees. The only time I go elsewhere is for specialty ingredients. Publix commercial over.
Wait, no, there’s more: publix.com has a neat feature where you can type in your ZIP code and it will give you the circular for your local store and let you save a custom grocery list. The list is organized by aisle so if you’re new in town you can easily find what you’re looking for without having to wander around learning the layout. This was a total lifesaver when we first moved to Atlanta.
Checking the circular takes around 10 minutes. I check off anything that looks good, we might need, or is just too good of a deal to pass up. For example, we are going camping during Memorial Day weekend and a weenie roast is part of the experience. I saw that hot dogs were on sale, so I put them on the list with the intention of sticking them in the freezer for later.
This is also where my system starts to break down a little: I have a good idea of what we need around the house at any given time (laundry detergent, milk, etc.) but I don’t have a list of needed items going throughout the week. I rely on my memory, which is usually jogged while looking through the ad, and asking Chris if he needs anything. So when I check the circular, stuff I know I’m going to buy goes in the Store list and stuff that might be nice to have or might factor into my meal selections goes in the On Special list.
I then think about what meals I want to make. Breakfasts are covered for me, as previously explained, and for Chris (breakfast bars). Lunches are also covered for me (leftovers) and for Chris (lunch meat and cheese). For dinner, I try to think of healthy, tasty, easy-ish recipes that we’ll both enjoy but allow me the freedom to experiment with new ingredients or techniques. It usually takes 30 minutes for me to use Pinterest, my stacks and stacks of food magazines, and my imagination to think up what we’d like to eat. I try to pick a good mix of meat and vegetarian dishes, with at least one fish dish and no more than one red meat meal. Wednesdays I have choir practice, so something quick or slow-cookery is essential on that day. I have a few other techniques, but I’m saving those for another post!
At the top of the daily column goes the name of the meal, followed by side dishes or notes to myself. At the bottom of the column goes the URL to the recipe or techniques I’m inspired by. In the middle go major notes such as our standing weekly dinner out or the arrival of guests.
I then go through the recipes and write down any ingredients we don’t already have on hand under the Store column. If anything from the On Special column is applicable, I move it over.
The final step is the craziest one: I rewrite my list in my planner. I know, it’s insane. But at the end of the day, I’m a pen and paper gal. I use five major headings: Deli, Produce, Meat, Dairy, and Grocery. I now have a good handle on where stuff is in the store, but for a while I wrote out my list by grocery aisle number. Writing stuff down and then crossing it off, ahh, what a joy.
(Note where my notebook got sprayed with the produce mister!)
That’s it! Do y’all have a meal planning system? Tell me about it! And tune in next week for Meal Planning 201: advanced dinner ideas!