You're busy, busy, busy, and the thought of having to plan out meals may feel like just one more chore to add to your already long list of things to do.
Taking time to plan for meals each week – and writing out a grocery list – means that I ultimately save TIME. It saves MONEY. It means fewer less desirable CALORIES. And, it means less STRESS.
Menu planning saves time because first, you know “what’s for dinner” and you won’t have to run to the grocery store as frequently. It saves money because eating out is so much more expensive than preparing meals at home. It also means less food waste because you’ve only bought the items you need to prepare your meals.
You can definitely save in calories too, because many times, we impulse buy, and end up choosing convenience or processed foods. Or, if you go out to eat, you order items that look healthy, like a salad, only to discover that your meal contains 1,000 or more calories. Finally, planning meals reduces stress because you have a solid plan for your week and you won’t have to rack your brain at the last minute to figure out the age-old question “what’s for dinner?”
Choosing ingredients from the grocery store gives you more control over the quality. More and more supermarkets are offering more organic options and a wide variety of foods and brands from which to choose. When we eat out, the food usually contains higher sodium levels than what we make at home. And restaurant prepared food typically uses lower quality oils like soybean, GMO foods are used as the norm and MSG is often added or hidden, along with other controversial ingredients.
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t enjoy eating out, but when you select and prepare your own food knowing exactly what is included in the dishes you make, you’re able to better control the quality and nutritional value of your meals.
This is a huge help with weight loss and weight maintenance since YOU are in control of the food and you actually know what’s in it. And, you’re likely to have more nutrient-rich food.
Pick a day to be your menu-planning day. Consider which day of the week you can best make time to sit down and figure out what to have for dinner during the week. Will this be the same day you do the grocery shopping? Or will you plan the night before and shop the next morning?
What works for you? Do you prefer to look through cookbooks, existing recipe cards, or find recipes online or maybe a combination of all three? Does your family have a favorite meal that they like to have each week?
Start with what you know so you don’t feel overwhelmed. If you already have a recipe box with a lot of recipes, start there. Find 5 or 6 you want to make for the week and go with that. You can add to the repertoire little by little. If you typically eat out most nights, maybe start with planning just three dinners this week and increase your menu planning from there.
Consider the days that may be typically hectic with kids’ activities, meetings, or any other obligations you may have. Then think about what would be the easiest meals to make on those nights. That could mean something in the handy dandy slow cooker once or twice a week. Or, you may want to double a recipe and have it ready to reheat on a second night. Another option is to double up your chicken for one dish and set half aside to add to a salad as your main meal on another night. Choose quick and easy meals when you know you won’t have much time to cook or maybe plan on those being your crock-pot nights.
After you’ve figured out your meals for the week, it’s time to create your grocery list. Be sure to check your fridge and pantry first to see what you already have and then make the list of what you need.
Another great option that’s super quick and easy is to use a service like a dinner studio where you go and prep everything for a week or more and bring the ingredients home to freeze and use as needed. Places like “Dream Dinners” and “Super Suppers” are becoming quite popular. Do a Google search and see if there are any in your area.
Okay, so you’ve figured out which nights are busy, you have your menus for the week and you have your grocery shopping list all set. You’ll want to be sure to write down your menu plan for the week so you and your family remember what you’re having each night. Post it on the fridge or somewhere else you can see it easily.
How do you like to store your recipes - on your computer? Print them out and keep them in a recipe box or folder?
If you type up your weekly menu plan and save it as a document on your computer, you can refer to it later. Perhaps you label the one you create this week “Week 1 Meals.”; then next label next week’s “Week 2 Meals” and so on. This way, after a few weeks, you’ll have quite a few menu plans to pick from and it gets easier. Then you can add to the list by trying 1 new recipe every week or every 2 weeks. Place these menu plans in a folder on your desktop labeled “menu plans” so you can find them easily. Before you know it, you’ll have a lot of recipe options and meal planning becomes even easier.
Cook once, eat twice. Plan to make double what you would normally make for dinner so you have leftovers for lunches (for adults as well as kids) and/or another dinner. You also have the option to freeze some of the leftovers to use the following week if you prefer.
Cook grains, like rice, ahead of time for the week, then refrigerate and use them later in the week (add a little water when reheating). Most grains will keep for 3-5 days in the fridge.
Be sure to have food defrosted if you’re using any frozen items like meat, chicken, fish, etc. Check what you need for the next day, the night before.
Chop your veggies on the weekend or the night before to prep ahead of time and place them in storage containers in the fridge. Also, decide which frozen veggies you can use instead of fresh (especially for stews, soups and some crock pot meals).
Make any marinades, dressings, spice mixes, or sauces in advance to save time on those busier nights.
If you typically eat dinner out twice a week, and you have 20 recipes to prepare at home, that’s about four weeks' worth of meals without repeating a meal – not bad! You can add more to the list as you go to expand your base of options.
Even if you start out just planning THREE of your meals each week, it will make a difference. Taking 30 minutes to plan your meals will save you much more time and energy than that in the long run.
Once you start implementing a weekly meal plan, you’ll notice you feel less stressed over the dinnertime rush and you may just have a better answer to the question “What’s for dinner?” You and your family get to enjoy more nutritious, home-cooked meals and stress less!
To Do: Menu Planning Experiment
For this coming week, take a look at the calendar and see which nights you’ll be cooking. Decide which nights you’ll need a quick, easy meal and which nights you’ll have more time to prepare dinner. Then start your menu planning. What new recipes have you been meaning to try? □ Write out the menu for each day’s meals. □Make a list of the ingredients you need to purchase, double-checking your pantry to ensure you have the spices or staples needed. □Decide which day you’ll go grocery shopping.