How I meal plan

27 May 2020

I wrote about how we meal plan back in 2013, and though many things in our life have changed since then (two new babies, new house, now COVID), the bones of our meal planning process remain the same. There are a few tweaks and changes that have fine-tuned this weekly rhythm over the years, though, so I thought it was time for an update!

If you’re new to the idea of meal planning, it might feel really intimidating or complicated. Maybe you’re worried it will take your whole Saturday. I get it! Even though I’ve been meal planning for years, there’s still a part of me that resists sitting down and doing it each week. But, this simple process saves me SO much time, energy, and money that it is completely worth it!! In contrast, on the weeks where we fly by the seat of our pants (maybe if we’ve been traveling the weekend before), I’m basically pulling my hair out by Tuesday. If that’s you every week, I think you’ll love this post!

Let’s go!

When I meal plan:

Though I’m not perfect at it, I try to sit down and plan our meals for the week on Friday evening, after the kids are in bed. With COVID, I aim to go to the grocery store pretty much first thing Saturday morning, so making our grocery list the night before ensures I’m not scrambling in the morning.

For me, planning our meals on the weekend, and as early in the weekend as possible, is crucial. As mentioned above, once the week starts churning it’s hard for me to find time to do it AND go shopping, which really throws off our whole rhythm. And if for some reason I wait until Sunday to do it, it adds to the “Sunday scaries” and I’m more likely to feel grumpy about the task. Getting it accomplished early in the weekend works best for us!

The basics of meal planning:

I plan one week at a time – usually Saturday-Friday – using my simple meal planning tracker (download a copy here!). In our current conditions, we’re typically cooking six nights a week and getting takeout on Friday or Saturday.

My first step in meal planning is always to check my calendar, to see if there are any days we’ll be dining out (dinner at a friend’s house, an event, a late bike ride, or a day where we’re running around and don’t have time to cook), or whether we’re expecting any guests. These days, there’s not much to check :)

With those accounted for, I start filling in meals for the other nights:
— I’ll ask John, and sometimes June, whether they have any requests.
— I’ll check the weather, to see if we’re expecting cold and rain or warmth and sun – it affects the kind of food I want to eat!
— I’ll consider the leftover situation, as we balance meals that leave enough for the next day’s lunches and not having too much food.
— I’ll check the fridge to see if there are any leftover ingredients we could use up (maybe plain Greek yogurt or extra rice).
— Finally, I’ll try to balance cheaper versus more expensive recipes and vegetable versus meat-centric.

Something that helps me in all of this? Consulting our record of past meals. I have multiple years of those meal planning tracker sheets in the back of my recipe binder, which is not only a neat historical record, but handy for coming up with fresh ideas when I’m stumped!

Mostly, though, I flip through my recipe binder to see what looks good. On a normal week, we’ll make 4-5 familiar recipes and 1-2 new ones, which for us is a good balance of keeping things fresh and not making things unnecessarily complicated. I collect recipes to try on this Pinterest board, while every family favorite recipe in our binder that’s available on the internet can be found in this board! More on my recipe binder here.

How we decide what to eat when:

Once we have our meals planned, they go on the meal planning doc. On Sunday, I loosely assign our meals to days of the week on our kitchen whiteboard, though we’re very open to flexing it based on whether we’re in need of leftovers and what we’re in the mood for that morning. Our easily-visible whiteboard is an easy way to keep John and I on the same page, too.

How I grocery shop:

With our meals set, I make a grocery list. As you all know, I recently upgraded to a custom model, which has been well worth the hour-and-a-half it took me to design! Organizing my shopping by aisle helps me zip through the store and get back to my favorite people. Though we used to do more hopping around from store to store before kids, I now consider any slight increase I pay in price by doing all my shopping at Publix well worth the time I gain back by going to a store 5 minutes from my house where I am very familiar with the layout and can get everything I need in one fell swoop. Plus, it truly is a pleasure to shop there – the people are so nice, the store, bright and clean, and I can clip coupons digitally!

The one exception? We have a Costco membership, and make a trip there about once a quarter to stock up on paper towels, toilet paper, unsweetened applesauce, applesauce pouches, butter, bar soap, the Costco version of LaCroix, chicken breasts, marinara sauce, etc. If we had a second freezer, I’m sure we’d be able to take more advantage of the bulk meat, but as it is, one pack of chicken basically fills the available space in our freezer.

Some of you have asked why I don’t go the grocery delivery route. There are a number of reasons:

— I generally don’t mind grocery shopping, so it’s not really something I’m looking to avoid in the first place.
— I’m not in the regular rhythm of it, so picking and choosing from the online dashboard seems to take me more time than just going to the store.
— I like to pick out my own produce.
— The one time I did try it, I felt like I was fielding questions from the shopper by text the whole half hour she was there, so it wasn’t like I had uninterrupted time with my family anyway.
— I am kind of weird, and generally prefer the slow and analog route
— And I am cheap, and don’t like to pay extra or have the need to tip :)

From door to door, it takes me about 40-45 minutes to shop on a Saturday morning!

Of course, as I’m making my grocery list, I check the pantry and fridge to see if we already have any of the ingredients needed. I check our freezer whiteboard to see if there’s anything in there that’s on the list. And I check our Alexa shopping list, where we add items we need to restock throughout the week. (I’m just waiting for the day June says, “Alexa, add marshmallows to my shopping list,” ha!)

I thought I’d end with a sample weekly menu, from earlier in May:

Saturday: chicken tikka masala with frozen peas added, jasmati rice, and naan
Sunday: taco soup, mini cornbread muffins (from a box mix), and green salads for the grown-ups
Monday: Marcella’s bolognese, tagliatelle, green salads/roasted broccoli for kiddos, and frozen cheesy garlic bread (this was the new recipe for the week, and it was added to the binder!)
Tuesday: three-pepper pizza (Publix dough with marinara sauce, mozzarella, and chopped poblano, red bell pepper, and pepperoncinis) and green salads
Wednesday: hot dogs, baked beans, cucumber and tomato salad, and chips
Thursday: kale chickpea pasta
Friday: takeout :)

In meal planning, as with so many other things, what works for one person may not work for another. While I salute those of you who throw dishes together from what’s in your pantry, or plan a month of meals at a time, or stop at the store every day on your way home from work, this is the rhythm that has worked well for our family over the last many years. I hope you you’ll find an idea or two in this post that might work for yours!

Thanks for sticking with me through this massive post, friends!! In addition to any meal planning thoughts you might like to share, I’m curious whether you’d be interested in me sharing some of our weekly meal plans on a weekly basis? Janssen shares hers every week, which I don’t think I could commit to, but I do enjoy reading hers and getting ideas! Maybe one week out of every month? Let me know what you think!

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May 27, 2020 10:16 am

Hi Em! Sometimes I love how similar our approaches are! Kindred spirits indeed :-) I usually meal plan on Sunday and shop on Monday. Right now I’m mostly using Kroger click list, since they are waiving the 5 dollar fee during the pandemic. But I agree with all your reasons why not to do delivery. There is something about picking your own produce ;-) And to me it doesn’t save enough time usually.
I‘d love to hear weekly meal plans of yours, even if it’s just once a month. I’m always looking for new ideas! Right now I’m cooking my way through Half Baked Harvest‘s Super Simple cook book!

May 27, 2020 10:54 am

Love this post! I love these types of practical, truly “dig in to the dirt” type posts!!! They are so helpful and tactical. As a girl 5 or 10 years behind you in life but who also strives for a beautiful and practical life….they are especially helpful to me!! I think a monthly post or a monthly round up of your winner dinners in a few different categories (vegetarian, quick and easy, on the go) etc, would be wonderful!!

Sara Meador
May 27, 2020 12:30 pm

I love reading how others approach meal planning! Thank you for sharing! And I’d love to read periodic meal plans to get recipe ideas. We tried the Kale Chickpea Pasta a few weeks ago and it was a hit in our house. Love gathering ideas like that.

May 27, 2020 2:13 pm

I loooooved this post! I’m also a weekly meal planner although a little more techy about it — I use a Google Sheet with a tab for each week, and do Walmart pickup on Saturdays. We have had to supplement with a mid-week run to the grocery store here and there when Walmart’s out of something (especially right now with various shortages) but overall I love it. We also use a dry erase calendar on our fridge to keep track of meals — I use it to quickly look back at what we’ve already eaten for dinner this month, and my husband uses it to keep from accidentally eating something that was supposed to be for a recipe, ha!

I would love a monthly post of meal plans and/or faves from the month — I’m excited to try the sun-dried tomato chicken and orzo on your Pinterest board!

May 27, 2020 9:32 pm

Sorry, can’t pay attention to this post because I’m too distracted by that line-up of June’s school pictures on your fridge!!!

But really :) While we meal plan in very similar ways, my biggest takeaways here are that 1. you meal plan on the same day every week (I somehow don’t, but really should!), and 2. I’m under the impression that you go to the store by yourself? I honestly feel silly that it has never occurred to me to do that!

The more meals you share, the better…I always love your recipe recommendations! Maybe just on IG Stories weekly, if not here?

May 28, 2020 9:15 am

Thanks for sharing this, it’s very helpful and interesting! I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as I have more time working from home and because we are generally trying to go to the grocery store a lot less. I want to be more organized with meals when I have to go back into work. One thing I’ve tried that has been fun and helpful is doing a big shopping stock up trip once every 3/4 weeks and then using a food subscription (Imperfect Foods) for weekly produce and select items. I’d never done a food subscription before, and was a little unsure what the quality would be but we’ve really loved it! Also a plus, the company’s mission is to help eliminate food waste and carbon emissions – and it gives you a tally on how much you have saved!

May 28, 2020 10:01 am

I’m so glad you also check the weather while you meal plan — I’ve never seen any other meal planning posts mention that, but I am obsessive about doing so. I feel like it has such a big impact on what I want to eat! Plus, since we’re in grilling season, I don’t want to plan several grilled meals when we have multiple days of rain. Tanner mans the grill and that just feels mean. :)

Kelly Strawberry
May 28, 2020 11:16 am

I’d love to see your weekly meal plan on occasion! I committed last week to clearing out the food in our freezer/pantry before going to the grocery store again, so it’s been a creative week for us and I’m shocked at the random assortment of things we had that have just been piling up. It has been great to be forced to try some new recipes (what do I do with frozen chicken thighs?), feels less wasteful, and I can make a fresh start and attempt to avoid this going forward w/ more intentional planning. :)

May 29, 2020 9:05 am

I love these posts! They’re so practical and helpful. I remember you use to do quarterly meals and I thought that was so fun and I pull from that all the time. Thanks for continuing to share this personal snippets of daily life. :)

May 29, 2020 10:43 am

Thank you for this helpful and insightful post! I just ordered a binder and dividers because I find it annoying to always be checking recipes from my phone while cooking – which is not convenient with messy cooking hands at times! I have loved your recipe recommendations over the years, many of which are staples in our repertoire, so I would enjoy reading your weekly meal plans when you are able to share.

Megan Harrington
May 29, 2020 1:44 pm

We still go by e-meals occasionally! Your organization is something I wish I had in me with this sort of system!! At the beginning of this shelter in place situation, we were trying to plan two weeks out, but that got to be pretty difficult for us, so Steven makes our grocery runs once a week. We used to do it every 3-4 days! Now we’ve gotten into a grove of usually allocating Thursdays to do the grocery run. We do love some aldi, so he gets the bulk of our groceries there and then we’ll pop into (used to be Earthfare, but they closed:'( ) The Pig or Bi-Lo around the corner from us if we still need something. I do like to hit up Trader Joe’s about once a month for some specific items. We plan, but it’s usually a combo of paroozing emeals, pinterest, and blogs or recent things I’ve seen on instagram. We have some standby classics and usually we have Fiesta Friday and do some sort of pasta dish once a week. I did just recently overhaul our entire pantry and put everything into containers and bins, so it’s been a very nice hack to be able to just glance in and see what’s running low!! — I also added a lazy susan in a bottom cabinet full of snacks and kid plates/cups for LS! GAME changer. Mind you, I’ll still occasionally find her trying to climb up on the counter for something ;)

May 29, 2020 2:58 pm

Lol to “I am cheap” and “I am kind of weird”!! I am RIGHT there with you! I would add “I am also a control freak” so I prefer to shop for myself, too :). The only thing that I do not do the same as you is keep a record of past meals. Usually, we are able to come up with the meals but there are times that I am stumped and this sort of thing would come in handy!

May 31, 2020 1:36 pm

Just made a shopping list for our Wegmans runs. We often buy our cleaning and personal care items from Target, along with some grocery brands not carried at Wegmans (or if the Target price is better). But for the most part the bulk of our grocery shopping is done at Wegmans. I did some items by aisle/section and some by item type (grouping those middle aisles together into categories that go together). I quickly converted our current “traditional” handwritten list over and it was so quick and easy. Can’t wait to try this out in the store.

August 18, 2020 8:59 am

Love this! I’ve been doing meal planning like this for a really long time (like, really long :-) and in the past five years made the switch to digital planning which has been another big time saver. I use the “notes” app on my phone to plan out the weekly meals after consulting the pantry/fridge, calendar and then go though my saved pins on Pinterest. I use the “Out of Milk” app, to make my list- it’s free, and I can make different lists (Grocery, Costco, Trader Joe’s, beach trip, cabin, etc.) which is super helpful!
I mainly try to cook two large meals on Sunday and Tuesday with leftovers for two nights, Saturday is generally a crock pot or soup meal, Thursday night is “breakfast night” and Friday nights are easy- like super nachos, pizza or egg rolls/rice/veggies. Of course that changes each week depending on guests or activities :-) Thanks again for sharing what you do, it’s nice to know we’re in good company!

August 18, 2020 6:22 pm

I found you through a powersheets email! This is the best explanation of meal planning I have found by far… I dread meal planning, grocery shopping, etc. and this post actually made me excited to get a better system together to make it more enjoyable! Thanks Em!