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When I first moved to the States at 21 years old, I had never heard of meal planning before. However, something really concerning happened to me and I knew something needed to change.
12 years ago, I moved to the South to marry my American, single dad sweetheart. Even before we were married, I would come over and cook for her and his daughter.
Cooking has always been a passion of mine (well, before I had 4 kids) and what better way to show love than a homemade meal waiting.
So I sat out to the grocery store every time I cooked because I didn’t even think about meal planning ahead. I have been to American grocery stores before, but I never actually had to cook full meals.
Fail To Plan, Plan to Spend
I started seeing the receipts add up. When we got married and had to stick to a budget, those receipts were still hefty and I was incredulous that we still felt like we didn’t have anything to eat.
See, the big difference between American grocery stores and the ones I was used to in Hungary is the supply.
I thought I have seen fully packed stores before, but they were nothing compared to even that small town Piggly Wiggly.
Every time I went shopping for a meal, I saw things that “could be used” for another meal. But next time I visited the store again, I forgot what I already had at home and bought several more things.
I didn’t know about sales paper or how to cut down on ingredients in a recipe.
I didn’t know about meal planning so I always had to go to the store for this and that, always came home with a lot more and often still didn’t know what to cook.
I’m definitely not the only one with this problem, Hungarian or not. Over-buying can also be part of a shopaholic mindset, so a good budget and self-control can definitely help that.
But at that point and later on in our marriage as the mom of several kids, I learned that meal planning was the key to success.
Meal Planning To The Rescue
In this article, I want to show you all I learned about meal planning over the last 12 years and why I can’t live without it.
You will find answers to these questions:
- why bother with meal planning
- how meal planning helps you be a better parent
- getting started with meal planning
- adapt meal planning to your preferences
- what meal planning resources are out there
Let’s get to it!
Why Bother With Meal Planning?
Meal planning is a simple solution to several huge problems most families face nowadays. Why wouldn’t we want to make a single change and transform our lives with it?
Don’t believe meal planning is that powerful? Let me break it down to you so you can decide for yourself.
Meal Planning Saves Money
One of the most common problems is going way overboard with how much money we spend on food. The USDA has monthly reports on how much the average families spend on food.
Some families spend way more than that and of course, some spend less.
What makes a big difference in staying within budget is meal planning. When you know exactly what you have for the week and don’t make special trips to the store just to get this and that, your grocery budget becomes much more manageable.
Planning your meals around weekly sales, or make 1-2 meatless meals each week or rotate a few recipes with simple ingredients cuts down on expenses. Meal planning makes it easy to follow these kinds of guidelines.
Meal Planning Encourages Healthy Eating
How much easier it is to grab the take-out menu on a night when you have nothing planned to cook or no ingredients to cook from?
With the exception of a very few places, eating out will always be more expensive and less healthy than homemade meals. During my weight loss journey, I found, that cooking at home was a game-changer. I was in complete charge of what went into our food.
I am not talking about organic and fancy meals. Cooking at home helps cut down on sodium and saturated fat you have in your food. By adding the right ingredients, your food ends up being higher in fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
I have already strived to feed my family healthy, but I see the importance of it even more so now.
Meal Planning Saves Time
If you still aren’t convinced, let me remind you that when you cook according to a plan, you can prepare food for more meals ahead which cuts down on kitchen time. Fewer dishes to wash and more time spend on what’s important to you.
If you don’t eat leftovers and prefer to cook every day or at least 5-6 times a week, meal planning still saves a ton of time. Without a plan, you may have to run out to the grocery at 5pm when you realize your family needs dinner and you are missing several ingredients.
Meal Planning Saves Your Sanity
It adds to the evening frenzy to figure out what to cook. Do your kids ever ask the question “what’s for dinner tonight”? Do they ever whine you never cook their favorite?
I thought so.
Here’s the deal: when you meal plan, you know exactly what you’ll have each night so the whole family knows ahead of time. When you make your plan, you can ask for their input and schedule favorites so everybody gets a turn.
It is the most objective way to point out that indeed you consider their wishes, their meal is on the menu they just have to wait X days.
Have you ever heard of decision fatigue? It’s when you have to make so many decisions in a day that after a while you just can’t decide reasonably anymore. Likely, you still have important decisions to make but your brain is too tired to fight so you make mediocre choices.
This is where a plan can help you, once again.
Meal planning makes cooking and eating run like a well-oiled machine. You spend a little time each week planning (and maybe even prepping but that’s a topic for another article) and your mind isn’t burdened by having to make that decision for the rest of the week.
I really love that aspect.
Meal Planning Helps You Be A Better Parent
That’s a ridiculous claim, you say? Then think about this:
If meal planning saves you money, you are less stressed.
If meal planning encourages healthy family meals, you are giving your children something valuable for the rest of their lives. Not only are you planting healthy habits, but you also express your commitment to sitting down together as a family.
If meal planning saves time, maybe you can play a 10 minute UNO game or color a page with your kid since you don’t have to waste time figuring out what to eat.
And finally, if meal planning is a sanity saver, then you can feel confident to provide timely dinners while considering everybody’s favorites.
Again, your family wins. Doesn’t this easily make you a better parent?
How To Get Started Meal Planning
Now that I have (hopefully) convinced you to give meal planning a try, let’s talk about what you need to do to get started.
I like to keep things simple, otherwise, I get overwhelmed with the aforementioned decision fatigue. I have arrived at the conclusions below over many years of trying different methods to see what worked best.
Note, that this is best for me, not necessarily for you, so don’t be afraid to make tweaks as you learn more about how meal planning works.
Plan For A Week Ahead
The easiest way to get started is to look at your calendar and plan dinners for the week ahead.
Waaaay back when I was waaaaay too ambitious, I would plan for 2 weeks ahead because so many resources suggested it. I was proud of the fact that I only visited the grocery twice a month.
Except that it only worked in theory.
I still had to run out and buy fresh bread or milk or other things we ran out of. Plus, I was always super agitated to find produce looking less than stellar when I pulled it out of the fridge 10 days in.
This proves that what works for somebody else (looking at ya once a month cooks!) may not work for you.
Have A Master List Of Favorite Meals
I learned this concept from Maryann Jacobsen, who plans her meals monthly. She is a dietitian and has taught me a ton about effective meal planning. In her book, The Family Dinner Solution, she writes in-depth about how to create a master list.
I find this very important with kids because as moms we really don’t need to try new recipes every single day. That’s so exhausting. However, we also want to expose them to new flavors so they aren’t only eating nuggets and fries.
Maryann’s book taught me to have lots of favorite family meals on rotation. I can easily try new meals out for my lunch or serve it alongside food items my kids will definitely eat. (at my house that’s bread and fruit)
Have a 3-ring binder with only tried and true recipes in it. Add anything new your family approved, so your master list is continuously growing.
Once you have a master list, you can pick and choose what to cook on a given week. Knowing how to cook the familiar recipe and the fact that likely everybody will eat it puts your mind at ease. You can’t beat that!
Alternatively, you can put the individual meals into a longer-term meal planning format and rotate through until you get bored with it. This is the idea behind my FREE, 5-week meal plan I created to make meal planning as easy as possible for you.
Have A Flexible Plan For All Meals
It stresses me out to plan out exactly what we will eat every single minute of the day. I used to do that when the budget was tight and I actually didn’t have the freedom to go and buy another gallon of milk just cause we ran out. We had to use what we bought and not just eat what we felt like.
Even though I don’t have to plan everything out to strictly anymore, it helps me to have a flexible plan for breakfast and lunch. I bet you’ll find this helpful too.
First of all, this cuts down on arguments and whining because we have a plan and parents can always blame the plan. Kids will usually accept it.
Second, I don’t know about you but I seriously hate thinking about what’s for lunch or breakfast. I want to wake up and know what I planned so it’s one less thing on my mental list.
Third, the plan has to be flexible because some days won’t go according to normal and adjustments are necessary.
A flexible plan for breakfast looks like this:
Monday, Wednesday, Friday: toast, eggs, fruit or oatmeal
Tue, Thur: Cereal
For lunch, we eat leftovers when we have it. If not, then plan simple sandwiches, quesadillas, soup or occasionally eating out.
For snacks, I always buy a big box of goldfish, popcorn to pop, yogurt and a variety of fruits to last us over the week (and often longer).
Have A Weekly Planning Day
A weekly planning day is when you actually sit down and figure out your meal plan for the coming week. You may have a monthly rotation or you may just pull out the favorite recipes book.
This is the time to consider any special occasions and consult your calendar. Based on the happenings of the week, you can create your meal plan.
For example, if you’re gonna be out of town for a day or two, you’ll only plan 4-5 meals instead of 7. Or, if there’s a birthday coming up, you automatically know that night will be burgers or whatever your family cooks for birthdays.
If you downloaded my 5-week meal plan rotation (or made your own), you can still revisit the exact week ahead to tweak if necessary. Since you have 5 weeks worth of different meals already organized, you don’t have to remember what you cooked last week in order to provide variety and include everybody’s favorite.
You know everything will eventually come back into the rotation.
The weekly planning day is when I make my grocery list (which by the way is included with my FREE meal plan download!) and consult the sales paper to see what fruits, veggies, breakfast items and other necessities are on sale.
Another really good option to make your planning easier is to give a theme to each day and stick with recipes that follow the theme. This is what I have done in my free 5-week plan. Here are some ideas to get you started finding a theme for your dinners:
-Try Something New
-Soup and Stew
and the list goes on.
Always Have A Back-up Plan
In reality, you will have some changes to your meal plans so having a back-up plan is a smart idea. (if all else fails, you can always have breakfast for dinner)
These items can be as simple as a can of tomato soup, cheese, bread in the freezer, ready-made chicken strips, tortillas in freezer, frozen fruit, carrots, eggs and a salad mix. Out of these ingredients, several quick filling meals come together:
Tomato soup and grilled cheese with carrots
Cheese omelets with a side salad
Grilled chicken salad or wrap and a smoothie
On a night I used a back-up meal, I simple re-plan that night’s uncooked meal for another. Sometimes I just shift everything with a day but other times I move the missed meal to the end of the week.
Ideally, I will still cook it since I have had the ingredients for it. If it was a pretty generic meal, I can also incorporate the purchased ingredients into a completely different meal.
For example, let’s say I planned tacos. That night we had to skip them and had a basics meal instead. I can cook tacos the next day and continue with my plan from then on. Or, I can cook the next day’s meal and make tacos when I have cooked everything I had on my plan. Or, I can not cook tacos at all, but use the meat for spaghetti next week and make fajitas with the rest of the ingredients.
Whatever fits your family and your schedules, that’s what you need to keep in mind first and foremost. Meal planning only helps you if you aren’t a slave to the plan but able to adjust as life comes up.
Adapting Meal Planning To Your Preferences
There are situations when traditional meal planning won’t work. You may have an ever-changing schedule, kids’ sports activities or any other situation where you just can’t prepare ahead of time and cook in the evening.
I have several solutions for you too!
Use The Freezer
Whenever you are able to cook, prepare more than one batch of that certain meal and freeze in portions that suit you. Then on busy nights on the go, all you have to do is microwave and your dinner is done.
Again, I know you can eat out and also buy ready-made meals at the store, but all of them will be more expensive and less healthy than what you make at home. If you need some ideas, here are my tried and true freezer meals.
Cook Once Eat Twice
Certain recipes lend themselves to various meals. For example, cook spaghetti sauce once in a double or triple batch and serve as usual. Freeze the leftover portion and make lasagna with it next time. You can do the same thing with taco meat and taco soup, or baked chicken and a chicken-based casserole.
This is closely related to the previous option, except you will make two different meals from the frozen food.
Use A Crockpot Or Instant Pot
I am a work-at-home mom and I struggle with dinner time prep often. I cannot imagine working moms who don’t have a chance to prep a little here and there during the day. You guys are amazing for coming home and cooking for your family!
One thing that helps is a crockpot or instant pot. I’ll be real honest here, I don’t love either one of these things. I am probably like the only one on Earth, but my foods don’t turn out when I use them.
It must be my tastebuds, but to me, most foods in instant pots and crockpots turn out bland and look brown. With that said, I did find a few recipes that I can successfully make in these hand-off cooking machines. For example pulled pork, my favorite 15 bean soup, salsa chicken and various chili recipes.
If you love your instant pot and crockpot, make sure to find foolproof recipes that include them so you have an almost handsfree meal on impossibly busy nights. (Then send the recipes my way, please!)
Reconsider Your Schedule
Since I am already ruffling feathers with my crockpot confession, I might as well challange all of us to reconsider our schedules.
If we don’t have time to sit down and eat healthy meals as a family on a regular basis, can we rearrange our schedules to make that happen? Research shows that family meals eaten together are one of the best ways to develop a good relationship with your kids and establish healthy habits.
Cooking together is a great way to spend quality time together. (uhm, sometimes)
It may be tempting to sign the kids up for another extra curricular, but do you really want to miss out on the benefits of eating together?
It doesn’t have to be dinner! Lunch or breakfast is just as good.
Even if you’re a single parent, sharing a meal with your kids will give you a great oportunity to slow down and hear about their day. Who wouldn’t want to take time to look their kid in the eye over a homemade meal?
Meal planning isn’t just about what to eat, but planning ahead so you can eat together.
Meal Planning Resources
Now that you have tools to get you started, I wanted to list my favorite resources for meal planning.
Laura Fuentes at Momables does it all! I have been following her for years and she puts her heart and soul into her work. She provides weekly meal plans for lunch or dinner, so she does all the work for you. (well, besides cooking) She has allergy and special diet friendly plans as well.
Beth, the DGAF Mom has a whole system of meal planning for you in Trello. She will walk you through the entire thing and make sure you’re meal planning runs on autopilot.
Bryan from Bucks And Cents has 270 budget-friendly meal ideas, broken down by type of dish. This list is super helpful for when you feel stuck in a meal planning rut.
If you want to try meal planning but really need somebody to just do it for you, I got you covered! Download my free 5-week meal plan, that comes with recipes, a variety of healthy meals for every night of the week and a shopping list too! Sign up here:
With these tips, I hope you feel equipped to get started with your own meal plsnning. I promise it will make life so much easier and you’ll never look back. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to shoot me an email!
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