Welcome to Part 1 of my 4 – Part Series entitled: You’re Hungry Again? You Just Ate Yesterday: The never-ending challenges of feeding a family.
In this post I am going to try to demystify the process of meal planning for a family. So, here goes!
It never fails. I look up at the clock and it’s 4:00pm. My older kids have just gotten home from school, ravenously hungry, and I haven’t even thought about what to have for dinner. As a result, one of two things happens: I opt for something quick and easy (and typically not very healthy) like pizza, chicken nuggets, or macaroni and cheese OR I take the easy way out and hit the drive thru somewhere, which is even more unhealthy, plus ends up costing me more than cooking at home would have.
Not to mention the kids are getting “hangry” because they’re waiting for dinner, I’m mad at myself for not being more prepared, plus stressed out because I know I can’t afford to keep eating out all the time. This makes me short-tempered with the kids, the kids can sense my stress, so they start fighting with one another. Ultimately, it turns into downward spiral of yelling and regret, all because I ddidn’t have my act together enough to plan a dang meal!
Okay, so we’ve established that planning ahead is not a strength of mine, and I know it makes my life unnecessarily chaotic sometimes. I’m working on it.
One thing that is helping me get my act together though, is meal planning. Oh, don’t roll your eyes at me. I know what you’re thinking: sounds like a lot of work. Perhaps something that a “Type A” personality would do? Well it’s actually not! Just trust me, it doesn’t have to be difficult, and putting in just a few minutes each week to plan out your meals can not only help you save time and money, but eat healthier, and reduce your stress too. Believe me when I say, a “Type A” personality I am not, and if I can do it, so can you!
First things first:
What is Meal Planning?
Ok, great, so meal planning is this magical thing that is going to change your life forever, but what exactly is it? Well basically, meal planning is asking the question “What’s for dinner?” one time for the whole week, instead of every single night. It also means shopping for and prepping the ingredients ahead of time, rather than starting from zero for every single meal.
Why should I bother meal planning?
- Meal planning saves time. Before the start of each week, you will invest about 30 minutes of time planning for the following week. By putting in a little bit of time on the front end, you’ll be saving tons of time on the back end.
- Meal planning saves money. By having a plan, you will eliminate trips to the grocery store, and therefore be less likely to spend money on unnecessary items. Not to mention, you will be less likely to resort to eating out because you feel unprepared. You will also plan your meals around the items you already have on hand, so you will be less likely to have to throw food away.
- Meal planning saves your sanity. Imagine going home in the evening and knowing exactly what needs to happen in order to get dinner on the table. No more running to the grocery store after a long day or scrambling to come up with a last-minute idea in front of an open fridge door and poorly stocked pantry.
I’ll be honest, I’ve tried a lot of “systems” for meal planning. This is how it usually goes down: I’m browsing through Pinterest and get lured in by a very appealing set of Meal Planning Printables, that are so cute! And they are going to help me plan out my meals for an entire year! All you have to do is print out the printables, then laminate them, then buy a 3-ring binder to put them in, and then alphabetize all your recipes, and color code the recipes with different color recipe cards that you have written out in calligraphy, and then create a menu board display wall so you can hang up your super-organized meal plan for all the world to see!
Anyone else see the problem here? The purpose of meal planning is to SAVE time, and all those systems seem to do is create more work! This mom ain’t got time for that!! So, how about something a little more practical?
my WEEKLY Hot Mess Mom Meal Planning System!
It breaks down into 4 basic steps:
- Inventory the ingredients you have on hand.
- Select recipes that utilize those ingredients.
- Shop for the ingredients you still need.
- Prepare those ingredients.
Now would be a good time to download our set of Meal Planning Templates so you can follow along with what I’m about to explain. 😊 (I promise no color coding or alphabetizing – unless you’re into that kind of thing, then by all means, go nuts!)
In my opinion, planning your meals on a weekly basis is the best way to go about meal planning. A week is a nice, manageable length of time that won’t leave you feeling overwhelmed, and you can use each weekend to regroup and start prepping for the following week. I like to spread the planning process out over the course of a weekend as follows:
Step 1: Inventory the ingredients you have on hand (Friday Night)
Settle down, I’m not asking you to inventory the entire contents of your kitchen. Just do a quick look at some of the items you already have on hand. After the kids are in bed on Friday night, take a quick look through your fridge and pantry (Oh, like you have anything else happening on a Friday night? – Be real, you’re a mom, you no longer have a social life!). Are there any items that need to be used up? Maybe things you have stocked up on when there was a good sale? Make a note of those items that you already have on hand on the left hand side of the Grocery List Planner, like I have here:
As you can see, I did have quite a few items on hand (I pretty much always have a very well stocked pantry, which is the result of stocking up on things when they are on sale- a topic that I will cover in more detail in my post about How to Save Money on Groceries!). If your pantry isn’t as well stocked as mine, no worries! You just might have a little more to buy at the grocery store.
Step 2: Select recipes that utilize those ingredients (Friday Night)
Next, you will want to try to come up with recipes that use some of those ingredients that you already have on hand.
But even before you select the recipes, think about the upcoming week. What does your family’s schedule look like? Does everyone eat breakfast at home in the morning? Do you or your spouse work and need to pack a lunch for each day of the week? Do your kids eat lunch at school or bring one from home? Are there any athletic practices to work around? Piano recitals to think about?
This will help you determine which meals to plan for which days (I also like to plan a day to use up leftovers). For instance, if you know that on Tuesday you have to be at work late for a meeting, you could plan on cooking something in the Crock Pot that day, so it is ready when the rest of your family is having dinner without you.
When it comes to selecting recipes, it is extremely helpful to have a list of all your “go-to” recipes (I have included a sheet in my Meal Planning Template where you can write down your “go-to” recipes). Include things that are easy to make and you know everyone in your family will eat. These are the recipes that you will want to focus on as you plan your meals, especially at first. Nothing is more frustrating that putting time and energy into planning and cooking a bunch of meals that nobody will eat. You can add in a new recipe here and there, and if it ends up being a hit, you can add it to your list of “go-to” recipes. Here’s my list so far:
To further illustrate this plan in action, here is an example of my meal plan for the upcoming week:
Notice that I didn’t actually fill in each box for the breakfast, lunch, and snacks section. Instead, I just wrote down a few different options that I have on hand for those meals. Since these meals aren’t ones that my whole family sits down together to eat, it is just easier to leave it a bit more unstructured, while at the same time having a general idea of what the options are.
Now, once you have your recipes lined up, it’s time to make a list of all the ingredients that you don’t already have on hand. As an example, based on my meal plan above, here is the list of things I still needed to grab from the grocery store for this upcoming week.
Step 3: Shop for the Ingredients you Need (Saturday night)
Next, it’s time to hit the store. In my opinion, one of the best times to go grocery shopping is on Saturday night. The stores are way less busy than they would be during the day, which takes a lot of the stress out of going grocery shopping. Have you ever tried navigating Wal-Mart mid-afternoon on Saturday? I’d rather gauge my eyes out.
So, instead, maybe you could make it your weekly “me” time to hit up the grocery store after the kids have gone to bed on Saturday night. Or better yet, have your spouse put the kids into bed while you hit the store. 😊
Step 4: Prep ingredients (on Sunday)
You’re almost there! The final step in your meal planning routine is prepping your ingredients for the week. If you set aside an hour or so on a Sunday afternoon to do some washing, chopping and batch cooking (I am going to have a future post dedicated to batch cooking, so stay tuned for that!), you will be in great shape for the week ahead.
Final things to remember about meal planning:
- Don’t let the term “meal plan” scare you. Your plan can be anything you want it to be. You can even plan NOT to cook on certain nights. The important part is that you actually thought about it ahead of time.
- Meal plans can be as flexible as you want. Life happens, things come up, plans change. It’s not big deal. So what if you deviate a little from your plan. Roll with it.
- A well stocked pantry, fridge and freezer are your best friends when it comes to meal planning. (My Meal Planning Templates also include my list of pantry staples that everyone should have on hand. Download the templates HERE!))
Well, there you have it: A Hot Mess Mom’s Guide to Meal Planning. I hope you found this information helpful! While meal planning is not difficult, it can seem like extra work when you’re first getting started. But I promise, each week that you go through the process, you’ll learn how to customize the plan to fit your family’s needs. And when you figure out how much it’s going to transform your life, you can thank me later 😉
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series coming next week: What Should I Make for Dinner: Easy Weeknight Dinner Recipes for Your Family