If someone told me when I was 22 that in a few years I would be planning meals, I would have thought they were crazy. It just always seemed like something that only a stay-at-home mom with at least six kids would do. I’m sure meal planning is great for families, but it’s also fantastic for young couples. Meal planning has been one of the best financial and time-saving decisions I have made.
Reasons to Start Meal Planning:
1. It saves money. The first month I started planning meals, I guarantee that we saved at least $100. After working a long day, it’s easy to come home, haphazardly search the cupboards, proclaim that there is nothing to eat/make, and order Chinese food instead.
2. It saves time. Although I will admit planning the menu does take time, it takes less time as you get used to it, and it saves a lot of time throughout the week. I think my first few times took about an hour, but now that I have the hang of it, I use a lot of items from previous menus and planning takes about 15-20 minutes. Planning your menu saves time because you should always have what you need on hand when it’s time to prepare food, so it will save extra trips to the grocery store. Preparing meals ahead of time will also save tons of time cooking. Something else I never realized until I started planning meals was how much time I spent thinking about what to make. Sometimes it took me longer to decide what I was making than to actually make it! With a menu, you can come home, consult the menu and get started — no thinking required.
3. It is easier to eat healthy. It is so tempting sometimes to just stop and grab fast food on the way home so you don’t have to cook dinner. Planning a menu forces you to think about what you are putting into your body. You can plan a menu that is healthy and allows you to get the nutrients your body needs.
4. Learn new recipes! I usually try one new recipe each week. Sometimes they are awesome, other times, they are not so awesome. Trying new recipes will help build your recipe file and learn to create more delicious masterpieces!
How to Start: Step-by-Step
1. Start planning before you go grocery shopping. My husband and I usually go big on grocery shopping once per month. I plan my meals for the whole month, and we get everything we will need. I usually have to make a couple of trips throughout the week for things that spoil, that we use a lot of, or fresh fruits and vegetables that can’t be purchased that far in advance. Create your menu and grocery list at the same time.
2. Get your recipes! Read the ingredients on any recipes that you don’t know off-hand. Make your shopping list as you go through the ingredients. Check to see what you already have on hand to prevent over-buying. Don’t forget to check for things like butter and olive oil that are always necessary, but not necessarily something you think of. Double check your list so that you don’t forget anything!
Creating a Schedule:
1. Plan a cooking day! Obviously, you probably don’t have time to make pancakes on work days, but why not make extra to eat throughout the week when you do have time?
Think Ahead: Making extra food will help you save money and still eat delicious food during the week. On your days off, make extra pancakes and eggs for sandwiches, breakfast burritos, or muffins to eat throughout the week. You can also prepare meals for the slow cooker for busy nights.
2. Breakfast: When I make pancakes, I make about five extra. I put two in the refrigerator, and freeze the other three. I only refrigerate them for two days so that they are accessible for the mornings I work. Eggs can also be made ahead of time. I make a few extra and store them in a plastic container. Use the eggs within the next 3-4 days. I just take one out of the container, top it with a slice of sandwich meat (ham) and a slice of cheese and microwave for 30 seconds, and then place in a toasted English Muffin, bagel or toasted bread. Waffles and breakfast burritos are also easy to make in bulk for the rest of the week.
3. Bring your lunch! Want to save even more time and money? Bring your lunch to work or school. If you have access to a microwave, leftovers are always great! If you don’t, there are plenty of other options. Here are some items that are frequently on my menu:
Sandwich and soup
Soup and bread or chili and a cornbread muffin
No Microwave required: scone or muffin and tea
Wrap and tortilla chips
I usually include a snack too: trail mix, fresh fruit, and yogurt are all great options!
Think about how much you spend on lunches if you buy one everyday. Let’s say you spend $4 each day on lunches, which for most people is fairly inexpensive. That’s $20 each week for a five day work week, how about $70 per month, or $840 per year. I bet you would rather have that in your pocket, and you probably won’t miss waiting in those long lines for food!
4. Dinner: On your cooking day, prep meals for the slow cooker, and to throw together for cooking during the week. Remember to plan leftover days so all of your hard work doesn’t go to waste! You can cook anything that you want ahead of time. If you don’t cook ahead, remember to look a day ahead and thaw what you will need for the next day.
5. Snacks: Since you never know when you might want a snack, I just make sure I get a few options when I go grocery shopping. Try to use food you know you will have extra of. For example, if you are only using 3 stalks of celery for a soup, write celery and peanut butter down for a snack. I usually just write 3-5 options on the bottom of the menu for each week. Sometimes, we forget what we actually have for snacks, so writing it down helps to not waste food and make healthy choices.
6. I plan breakfast, lunch and dinner Sunday-Saturday for three weeks. I just write 3-5 ideas for snacks for each week so that when I want a snack, I have a few choices.
7. What if my plans change? Don’t worry if you have a change of plans. Just because you have a menu plan, it doesn’t mean you can’t go out with friends on short notice or grab a pizza on the way home. I shift items on my menu around all the time depending on what I have time for or because my own plans change.