While researching how to meal plan, I found three major problems with every blog, article and how-to I found on meal planning and menu planning:
- They don't leave any flexibility to eat out;
- They do not take into consideration the time it takes to prep and cook; and,
- They leave you with way too many leftover herbs.
I've tried to create a plan with more flexibility, and less leftover parsley!
How to Meal Plan
1. Decide which meals you do not need to make.
You don't want to plan for any meals you'll be dining out, so take into consideration family members' schedules and knock off any meal that will be consumed outside of the home. Look over your calendar for the following:
Evening social events. If you're going to book club, will you eat dinner there? Will you snack there? If so you can either skip cooking all together, or plan a very small, simple dinner. I love to snack (hello, crackers and cheese) so I'd be happy with a simple salad pre-book club.
Business dinners. Clearly you or a member of your family will be eating out that night.
Meals out at restaurants. You won't be eating at home that night, and you may be able to use leftovers the following evening.
2. Establish breakfast, lunch and snack routines.
Most people eat the same exact thing for breakfast every day. I eat either rolled oats with peanut butter, or egg whites (yolks freak me out), depending on my mood.
Make things easier on yourself by following suit.
- Egg Recipes
- Quick Breakfast Recipes
Once you've narrowed your selections down for breakfast, add the ingredients you need for those recipes to your weekly shopping list.
Lunch usually varies a bit more than breakfast, but you want to try to narrow it down for the week as much as possible.
Try one of the following three plans:
Commit to eating dinner leftovers either 3 days a week, or every day in a smaller amount combined with another dish (like soup or salad).
Find 3-4 recipes you like and stick with those for the long haul. For example, my friend John bring a different sandwich to work every day, varying the ingredients but keeping the bread and condiments the same.
Another option is to combine: bring a soup or sandwich from home and buy a small salad or cup of soup at work so you feel like you're getting a bit of a treat.
3. Take inventory and keep a grocery list.
Inventory your refrigerator, pantry and cabinets. What do you have on hand you can use in a meal? Follow the process of elimination again: if you already have something on hand you don't even need to put it on your grocery list.
4. Choose recipes with similar ingredients, like vegetables and herbs.
I find the major fault in most menu plans is their insistence on using the same meat or fish over and over again, but a different herb seasoning for each recipe. It's much easier to buy meat or fish in a particular portion and very difficult to find a store where in you can buy just a small portion of an herb. It drives me nuts to use a pinch of parsley and then have the bag go bad in my crisper.
A better way to go is to choose recipes that call for the same herb. For example:
- Parsley meatballs
- Potatoes with Garlic and Parsley
- Garlic Parsley Bread Recipe
- Flounder with Parsley Sauce
So just in those four examples you get varying tastes and textures but will definitely use up an entire bushel of parsley.
Also, think about sticking to 1-2 main vegetables for the week. An an example, squash. A quick search on the Internet, and I can find recipes like Squash Mac and Cheese, Squash with Quinoa, Squash with short ribs, etc.
These recipes, once again, use the same seasonal ingredient but vary wildly in taste. How do you decide which herbs and vegetables to use? Let the seasons be your guide. Check out this interactive map from Epicurious to see what's in season and when, at your grocery store.
5. Schedule shopping, prep and cooking time.
Grab your calendar and decide when you'll run to the grocery store.
It's easier if you do the grocery shopping on the same day(s) each week. As we've discussed several times (here, here, here and here), following a regular routine is just easier on your brain. Then, start making notes on when to pull thing out of the freezer to defrost or when you're going to chop all the veggies for your stir-fry.
A great example of this type of planning is Erin Doland's meal plan on Simplifried which took into account the following:
- Morning prep like taking things out of the fridge to defrost.
- Evening prep like assembling the next day's lunch.
You can add this into your own plan, as well as your shopping trips.