This is the conclusion of a four-part behind-the-scenes look at my meal planning tips and tricks. Quick recap of where we’ve been:
- Magically searchable recipe collection
- Indispensable go-to meal and snack list
- Pre-populated grocery list
- (And finally, to put it all to work for you…) Four basic (plus three bonus) steps to weekly meal planning.
The trick with meal planning is to figure out what works for you. I’ll share my approach, and give you my tools if you want to try them, but they’re all Word documents, not PDF’s, because I encourage you to customize them to meet your needs. A few considerations before we get to the routine…
What we’re not doing
When some people think “meal plan,” they envision the detailed instructions that come from commercial diet programs, dictating what and sometimes how much you’ll eat at every meal and snack. They can be enticing, but in reality, they’ll inevitably fail you. Your food preferences and schedule will rarely match someone else’s vision. Even if you do your own super-elaborate plan, detailing 21 meals and 7 (or 14!) different snacks, life will surely blow it up by throwing you a curveball.
I prefer to teach my clients to make their own meal plans and keep them simple and flexible. Trust me, it’s easier than you might think!
Establish a routine
The fewer decisions you have to make on the fly, the easier this will be. If you haven’t got a good meal planning routine yet, take a few minutes to think about what would work best for you:
- How often will you meal plan? How often will you shop? I used to plan and shop once a week, but the fridge was too full at the start and too empty by the end of the week. Plus I found it daunting to plan a whole week at once. And we usually ran out of something, requiring an unplanned trip to the store anyhow.
- What days of the week work best? Right now I do an online order for pickup on the weekend and a smaller shop Thursday afternoon. What days work best for you?
- Do you have the time and energy to cook every day? If not, what days work best? I cook every day, but only for supper. We usually use leftovers for lunch. And on the weekend I try to cook one or two extras – a grainy salad to supplement lunches, a big pot of chili with leftovers to freeze, or a batch of muffins for my little snackers. On the other hand, I have a colleague who cooks just 3-4 nights a week, when she’s not running between hockey rinks. She uses leftovers on the other nights, and makes something else for lunches.
- Do you want to have theme days? Choosing meals will be easier if you know you always have tacos on Tuesdays or pizza on Fridays. We do Meatless Mondays and fish on grocery day, so it’s fresh. I usually plan a stir-fry or pasta the night before my big shop, to use up whatever veggies are left.
Okay, enough with the preliminaries. Let’s get down to it.
The four basic (plus three bonus) steps to meal planning
Here’s what I do (now actually twice) each week:
- (Bonus) Review last week’s meal plan – This is optional, but it takes just a few minutes and helps you build up your cooking repertoire. Toss any recipe you didn’t like and make notes on ones you want to do again. If you have a “go-to” list (see part 2), you might want to add or remove items, until you’re happy with it.
- Check the calendar – This is critical. Will you be going out? Driving kids? Travelling? Working late? Make a note of anything that will disrupt your meal routine.
- Check your inventory – Also imperative. Do you have anything you want to use up? I usually jot those items on the back of my grocery list, so I can refer to them when deciding what to make. Are you out of any essentials? Add them to your grocery list. (See last week’s post for more on this.)
- (Bonus) Check the weather – It’s nice to know if you’ll have a heat wave or a rainy day, so you can plan appropriately.
- (Bonus) Ask your family for input – Also optional, but it’s a good way to get kids on board with what’s offered. If you have family members who can pitch in with the cooking, how about asking them what they’d like to make?
- Plan the meals – The big moment! A few tips.
- Plan up to 5 suppers per week, not more, even if you’ll eat at home every night. This will give you flexibility to use leftovers or change your plans. If you need to, you can cook a pantry meal on one of those unplanned nights (more about pantry meals in part 2).
- I actually write the meal plan using a checklist in Evernote, with links to the recipes (go back to part 1 for more on that). But most of my clients prefer paper, so I give them a Word version, which I’m offering as bonus content this week.
- Limit yourself to 1-2 new recipes per week, unless you have a lot of free time to play in the kitchen (hahaha).
- Don’t bother planning breakfasts, lunches, or snacks unless you have a special reason to. Just make sure you have the ingredients on hand for your go-to favourites (more on that in part 2), and use leftovers for lunch when you can.
- Make your grocery list – once you’ve selected 3-5 suppers and any other special meals or snacks you want to make, do a quick check through each recipe to make sure you have what you need. And double-check that you have your pantry essentials on hand, so you only have to go to the store once! See last week’s post for more.
That’s it! It usually takes me about 45 minutes, depending on how much fridge cleaning and recipe browsing I do. In a pinch, I can do it in about 15 minutes, cutting out the bonus steps, and relying on my go-to meal list: Quick calendar check, peek inside the fridge and pantry, choose 3-5 meals, check off what I need on the shopping list and… done! Everything else in this series can help you do it faster and better, but those are the essentials.