When meal planning, I have found there are several ESSENTIALS that you must have to make the process easier:
1. A Goal:
When beginning to meal plan you have to be realistic. Sitting down and trying to plan meals for the entire MONTH can be challenging and overwhelming. I would recommend starting with ONE WEEK. Once you are comfortable with that move on to planning out TWO WEEKS in a row, and then if your feeling ambitious plan the WHOLE MONTH! Honestly, I still don't plan out the entire month. I plan out for TWO WEEKS and if I find other recipes I want to try later on in the month, I bookmark (save) them for later planning.
2. A calendar:
One of the most helpful things for me is having my monthly AGENDA CALENDAR in front of me AND a monthly MEAL CALENDAR when planning my meals. That way you can know what days you need to plan meals, what days you don't, what days you need a "quick" meal, and then the days that you have time to cook a more "detailed" dinner based on what events you have going on that week. I personally use ONE Google calendar which has all my agenda calendar dates in it, and I just add my meals in there so I can keep it all together in ONE place. But there are MANY options. You can even go as simple as printing off a blank monthly calendar from the Internet and filling in the dates/meals. Do what works for YOU!
3. A Grocery List:
This is a MUST! If you have ever tried to go grocery shopping blind (without a list), you know how frustrating that can be. Roaming the isles trying to make up meals in your head as you go, and hoping you make it out with all the ingredients that you need so you don't have to run back to the store last minute....BEEN THERE....HATED IT......WON'T GO BACK.....I recommend having your list on hand as you are meal planning. When you find recipes you want to use, right down the items that need to be purchased for that particular meal. I always keep a running grocery list on my refrigerator so it's handy when I need to add to it. There is nothing more stressful than come "grocery shopping day" rummaging through your refrigerator, your pantry, OR your recipes trying to decide what you need or simply trying to use your "memory" while at the store. Without my list I would be LOST...
This is the most important part of your meal planning: What's for dinner?!?!? Finding the perfect recipe is not always easy and trying to decide what to cook can be stressful. I LOVE to cook so I enjoy searching for new recipes to try. I recommend keeping a running list of meals that you cook (and like) so you can use them again. If you are new to meal planning, I recommend that you only attempt 1-2 "new" recipes during the week and stick to "familiar" recipes the rest of the week. Having "staple" meals during the week is also a good idea. Meals such as: tacos, spaghetti, hamburgers, ect for fillers is what I consider a staple meal. Once you get the hang of meal planning and recipe hunting you will feel more comfortable with adding new and different items to the menu more often during the week. **My most used recipes sources to come in a future post**
5. Recipe filing system:
Having a place to store you recipes is a great idea! I am ALWAYS looking up new recipes outside of meal planning days, so I prefer to bookmark mine on my computer so it's handy when I am ready to meal plan. Then when I sit down to meal plan, I also copy and paste the link onto my meal plan Google calendar so I can pull it up easy when I'm ready to make that meal. Another simple idea is just to print out your recipe and store in a convenient location. And if you decide the recipe you have chosen is a "keeper" then either save it in a file on your computer or print and store it in recipe file. I have a folder on my desktop labeled "recipes" and that is where I store all my favorites I know I will want to make again! I also reccomend keeping your previous months meal calendars so when your in a crunch and need some meal ideas fast, you have a good source to pull from. I always **star** the recipes on my calendar that were a "family favorite".
6. A Day To Plan/A Day To Shop:
Having a set day to plan your meals and shop for your food is a good way to stay consistent. When you sit down to plan, you will need TIME. Time to search for recipes, time to make your grocery list, time to fill in your calendar ect. You will also need TIME to shop. Running in the store with your kids at 2:00 in the afternoon (AKA: nap time) with your weekly grocery list is probably not a good idea:-) Plan a time to shop that works best with EVERYBODY'S schedule. I prefer shopping at night, WITH NO KIDS:-) And I NEVER EVER shop on a SATURDAY (can't handle the crowds). Coordinating your meal planning day with your shopping day is what I have found to work best. Plan your meals one day, and then shop the next. That way you are saving yourself from the last minute trips to the grocery store.
***Even though I plan my meals out 2 weeks at a time, I usually only shop for what I need for that SPECIFIC week. When making my grocery list I have a running list for that weeks shopping trip and then I have a column labeled "next week". My reasoning for this is that there are usually items that I need to purchase weekly such as fresh fruits and veggies, I also shop with coupons (which come new every Sunday if you get the newspaper), and each week the local stores have different specials, so I want to make sure I get the most for my money. I also have found when I have tried to shop only every other week, I tend to OVER BUY and we don't have much "food storage" space and I end up spending more money, which for us in NOT budget friendly:-). So going to the grocery store every other week does not work for me. But if it does for you ROCK ON!!!
With these tools in hand, you are sure to be meal planning in no time!! Next post: Meal Categories That Help Make Your Planning Easier.