Many people start off meal planning with great intentions, but never develop a true habit. Here’s why.
Choosing the recipes is only one part of a whole system. If that’s all you do, you end up with a list of recipes with dates written next to them.
That’s not helpful unless you put it into a system.
You need all five of these parts to make the system work.
- master recipe list
- look through fridge
- plan meals
- grocery shop
- prep + put away
Let’s break these down.
1. Master recipe list
Unless you’re ok with eating the same thing every day, every week, every year, for the rest of your life, you need a way to save and organize recipes so that you can refer back and get ideas. Digital or physical both work.
If you cook with recipes you can start up a board on pinterest, keep a folder on your computer, or keep a real folder in your kitchen to store recipes. If you need inspiration to get more veggies in your meals, check out The Casual Veggie Cookbook.
If you are more of a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants cook and tend not to follow recipes line by line (raising my hand here) you still need a way to stockpile recipe ideas.
Again, you can use board on pinterest or a file on your computer.
Tip for people who don't follow recipes - I like to write my recipes on index cards with fancy shmancy restaurant titles. Basically, I write out the "recipe" in one sentence to get an overview of cooking techniques and ingredients. For example; pan seared chicken thighs served with a spinach and frisee salad dressed in olive oil and topped with pickled radish, sliced carrots, raw spring onions, and dollops of goat cheese. That one sentence tells me all of the ingredients, how to cook the meal, and how to serve it. Easy peasy.
2. Look through your inventory
Meal planning can save you a lot of money in the long run by preventing food waste.
Before you choose which meals you want to make, look through your fridge to see what you already have.
You’re not looking for top level ingredients here. It’s unlikely that you’re going to discover a steak that hasn’t been eaten yet. You’re looking for accent ingredients that can add flavor or texture to a meal.
- First, look for perishable food that needs to be eaten soon.
- Next, look for left overs that can be repurposed in a new meal. (extra credit - be honest with yourself and throw out any leftovers you aren’t going to eat.)
- Finally, look for jars and condiments that are almost empty. Half used jars of olives, roasted red pepper, sun dried tomato, jams, jellies, sauces, and dips are great inspiration for a new meal.
3. Plan meals
You’ve got this part. Consider the ingredients from step 2 and use them as a starting point to build out your recipes.
A few things to consider are how many days you need to plan for and how many meals you need to plan. You may not need to plan breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
You don’t need to assign a date to each recipe unless you want to.
(bonus tip - Do you often ask your family what sounds good for dinner, only to receive a shrug and casual “whatever sounds good to you”? Set up a meal plan and then ask them which of those items sounds good for dinner tonight. It’s much easier to choose from a list of five meals than to choose one meal out of infinite possibilities. Plus, the options you give them are meals you already have ingredients for and are willing to cook!)
I personally use RealPlans.com to store my recipes and plan my meals. I love it because I can import recipes I find online, I can modify recipes to use the ingredients and methods I like, and I can see past meal plans to get inspiration. Watch my Meal Planning Masterclass to see how RealPlans works.
4. Grocery shop
Once you have your meals planned out, make a grocery list. Try to group similar items together.
Paper lists or digital are equally effective. I use the Shopping List app on my iphone. It let me create my own categories, so I actually have my shopping list laid out in the order that I see items in the grocery store (bulk first, then personal care, then dairy, canned goods, etc).
I'm also a HUGE fan of Instacart. For the last four years I've done the bulk of my shopping at the farmers market, but I still have to go to the grocery store for everything else. Instacart does the shopping for me, so I can spend more time at the farmers market and pre-cooking the week's meals.
(bonus tip - keep an ongoing grocery list handy to add items as they are used up. It’s easy to forget that you’re out of floss when you’re focused on meal planning.)
5. Prep + put away
This is an easy step to skip, but it’s the one that will save you the most time later in the week.
Prep yo’self! Look through your meal plan and see what you can make ahead of time. Wash your lettuce and wrap it up. Chop up garlic and onions. Break your broccoli and cauliflower into smaller pieces. Shuck your corn cobs. Make a vinaigrette for salad dressing. Precook rice and grains.
If you aren't sure whether something should be done ahead of time - go ahead and do it! See what happens. You might find one blog that says not to wash your berries ahead of time and one blog that says it's fine. Try it for yourself and see what happens.
Why do you need all five steps?
Because they all rely on each other. The point of meal planning is efficiency.
If you plan meals and go grocery shopping but never check your refrigerator, you end up with lots of half used containers of food. If you check your fridge and grocery shop without planning meals, you end up with lots of ingredients that may not get used.
Meal planning is a habit that will help make your kitchen just a little more efficient.
If you hit a bump in the road and fall off the wagon, take a second to reflect on which part of the system is causing problems. Maybe you've stopped looking through your fridge before planning your meals. Or maybe you aren't prepping your food ahead of time which makes you feel rushed during the week.
Once you find a rhythm that works for you, meal planning will become second nature!