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!
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!