Meal Planning 101 | Blog to Taste

Monday, February 2, 2015

Meal Planning 101

I'm kicking off a new mini feature where I will share some of my tried and true money saving tips related to food. Grocery shopping is one of my least favorite things to do and eats up a huge part of my family's budget. A budget I keep trying to tighten and a chore I keep trying to get out of. So how do I make myself do it? By creating a system that works for me, makes things easier and saves money. 

Enter meal planning. This is absolutely the first and best thing you can do for your budget. If you are anything like me, as in you want to grocery shop as little as possible and hate throwing away food (wasted food = dollar dollar bills y'all), you will want to start taking your meal planning seriously. Meal planning, and the app I used to do it- Paprika, have seriously changed my life for the better. And the longer I keep up my good habits, the easier they get! Today I am focusing on the basics of meal planning, and I will write another post about all the Paprika specifics.

How does meal planning save you money?
Meal planning saves you money because you go to the grocery store with a plan, so you are only buying the food you will actually use for your meals for the next week (or two, as I am trying to move to bi-monthly grocery shopping). Never go grocery shopping without a list is something every home budgeting expert will tell you and it is so true. When you go to the store without a list, who know what you are liable to bring home! 17 boxes of Ritz crackers? Yeah, that may have happened to me before. Meal planning also saves you time, because you don't have to stand around in your kitchen thinking "what's for dinner" or "what can I cook out of what I have left in my fridge". Was I the only person who felt like they spent half their life doing that? We all know that time is money, so save your time, save your money. And then spend it on a Kitchenaid stand mixer, or a nice DSLR camera. Oh, I digress.

How often do you meal plan?
I meal plan in a major way about once a month. I block out an hour or so, Sunday works well for me, but that really depends on what day I am doing the shopping. I just switched from planning once a week, the day before I did the shopping. I wanted to cut down the time spent each week, so now I plan out a month or so ahead, and then each week, the day before I shop, I fine tune my week and it takes a lot less time. Also this method works better for my budget. I like to go to the large discount grocery store only once a month, and then to my local specialty grocer for better produce and health food items that I cannot get at the other for the rest of the month. In the future I am going to work couponing into this plan, but I've got to give that a little time.

What do you mean by fine tuning your week?
I fine tune my weeks to my family's needs and wants. If my husband requests a meal, i'll work that into the menu. If we make plans that are going to take up out of the house on an evening, or something comes up that will zap my time, I adjust for easier dinners. If i have left over foor from the week before, or a dinner i didn't cook, I'll carry that over. 

How many times do you cook per week?
I cook every night. But, I only plan four meals a week, and then we eat leftovers the other days, and once every few weeks have take-out. I am so thankful for leftovers, and lucky that my family is OK with eating them. I don't always serve the leftovers as the same meal twice, but I will if I need! If I can, I will waylay one meal into another. Good examples of this are meatloaf one night can turn into meatloaf sandwiches the next night. Shredded beef tacos can turn into enchiladas the next night. You catch my drift. Because of this I double recipes often and keep my eyes out for recipes that easily turn into many meals. Recipes that turn into other meals can often be found be searching "cook once, eat all week".

Where do you start the process?
I create a system to make it easier on myself. I come up with different styles of meals for each night, and then I repeat that week system throughout the month. My system is pretty much one easy meal, either something made ahead from the freezer, or something in the crock pot. I plan that for the busiest night of the week, or in our case, Mondays, because I like to be lazy on Monday. The other categories I use a lot are: slow cooker (recipes I cook in a crock), sandwiches (pulled pork, ruebens, french dips, grilled cheese), ethnic food (indian, mexican, french, greek, chinese) and roasted meat (chicken, pork roast, pot roast, ribs). The roasted meat is usually the most complex recipe of the week, and I like to save that for my Saturday afternoon/eve. My family doesn't go out and do a lot on the weekends, so I feel like cooking a big fancy feast kind of makes it feel like real weekend. Sandwiches are usually my go-to for Friday night, it's the start of the weekend, and I want to feel like it's a weekend to me too, even if I still have to hold up my end of the chores. Sandwiches aren't the best for leftovers either, so it's a good one for friday, because I look forward to cooking on saturday all week. 

Dinner category ideas:
  • one pot meals
  • crock pot
  • casseroles
  • sandwiches
  • freezer meals
  • ethnic cuisines (french, indian, mexican, chinese, greek, italian etc)
  • soup
  • breakfast for dinner
  • comfort food

Freezer meal ideas:
(stock up your freezer!)
  • enchiladas
  • lasagna
  • casseroles
  • meatloaf
  • spaghetti sauce
  • chili

Cook once eat all week ideas:
  • Ham: traditional ham dinner, ham and pineapple kabobs, ham and cheese quiche, ham fried rice, ham sandwiches
  • Mexican Pork Roast: Tacos, burritos, enchiladas, chili rellanos, pulled pork sandwiches
  • Roasted Chicken: traditional chicken dinner, chicken salad sandwiches, chicken wraps, chicken noodle soup, chicken pot pie

What if I don't like to stick to a menu?
One of the things I hear a lot when I talk to my friends about meal planning is that it is too restrictive for them. They never know what might come up in their day to day lives that would derail their plan, and what happens if they don't feel like eating what they put on the menu. I'm always surprised to hear this, of course I tweak my weekly menus according to real life. And i switch out meals for others as often as I want. But I rest assured knowing that I have all that I need to make food for the week, wether I cook Wednesdays meal on Monday or vice versa. Meal planning, OK, pretty much anything in life does not need to be all or nothing, if you fall off track for a few days or weeks, you can always get back up and try again!

Do you have any more questions about meal planning? I'd be happy to answer one if you leave it int he comments.