The idea of meal planning has run in cycles over the past few years. About three or four years ago I was very much into the idea of meal planning, and freezer cooking. I planned out meals three months in advance and would make up many of the meals ahead of time and stash them in the freezer. At this time I only had four people to cook for, but two of them were little people with very little opinion on the meals I prepared. A lot has changed since then.
We now have four children, and I am also now a full time stay at home mom. You would think that I have it all together by now in the meal planning department. This is absolutely not true at all. It seems that dinnertime sneaks up on me a lot these days and the question of the hour is, “What’s for dinner?”
I am going to try my best during the month of July to start meal planning again. Here are some tips to help make the meal planning process less difficult, and will help save you time, money, and aggravation. When I plan my meals I try to use as many things that I have on hand as possible. I don’t tend to like to have to make unplanned trips to the grocery store. Though there have been occasions that I realized midway through making a recipe that I was missing a key ingredient.
Dinner time tends to be a busy time at our house. The act of actually thinking about what to make for dinner is sometimes too much of a mental task, especially when I have a baby crawling around or a toddler streaking through the house. Sometimes even the best laid plans still fall through, but the intent was there, and the kids still get fed. However, without a plan the variety of meals tends to dwindle back to one or two items. I don’t know about you, but I can only eat so much spaghetti, and sandwiches. Here are some tips to simplify your meal planning process and help answering the question of, “What’s for dinner?” easier to answer.
Step 1: Take an inventory of your freezer and pantry
Use my free freezer inventory sheet to take an inventory of what you have on hand. You may want to write this down so it’s easier to remember when you are meal planning. (If there is not much in your freezer, you might not need to do this.) We have a side by side refrigerator freezer and a small standing freezer in our kitchen; therefore I likely will have a larger stock of items on hand than someone with just a small freezer. Looking in your freezer might just give you some ideas for meals. I had no idea how much bacon I had in my freezer before I took inventory.
You may want to do an inventory of your pantry as well. I tend to make more of a mental note of this because it is easier to open my cabinets and check these items than it is to get to the back of my freezer.
Step 2: Make of List Family Favorites and Other Meal Ideas
Gather the family around and have the family make suggestions of their favorite meals. Try to create a list of at least 20-25 meals. Later you can highlight the meals that can be made with the items you already have on hand. However don’t be limited to only proven favorites, try to pick one or two new recipes also. Don’t be afraid to be a little creative and change things up, especially if a new recipe uses up items you have in your freezer or pantry.
Step 3: Check your calendar.
Determine your busy nights, and write in special occasions like birthdays, and date nights that you are aware of.
Step 4: Write your meals on the calendar.
As you can see I used a regular notebook, but in the past I have done it on a Google Calendar so a reminder pops up on my phone. The best advice I can give to anyone is to keep your planning method simple or you will not stay with it. I only plan dinner because breakfast is usually cereal or toast, and lunch is typically sandwiches.
Make recipes that contain your items that you already have on hand a priority in your meal planning. For example if you have a lot of ground beef in your freezer you might want to plan on having tacos prior to something that you will need to purchase. I try to plan on using fresh produce before canned items, to cut down on waste. In addition, plan on having at least one leftover night, and possibly a sandwich or soup night (depending on the time of year). Plan these according to your schedule. Having a meal plan does not mean you will be cooking a four course meal every night. In fact you might find that planning ahead cuts down on the amount of cooking/ and shopping that you need to do.
Step 4 -Make a Grocery List
At the beginning of each week-add items that you need for your meal plan to your grocery list so you are not surprised when you need them. I write my list in a notebook, but there are some great apps you can use on your phone. Whichever works best for you? I try to be as consistent as possible in following through with my meal plan, but sometimes I am not in the mood for the item on the menu or schedules change. Therefore, I just switch the menu, even if we end up eating out.