Meal planning may very well be the best thing that happened to my grocery budget. I've used coupons for years (more about that in another post), but the act of planning my family's meals for the next week or two (or more) made the biggest difference in our grocery expenses.
Meal planning, step by step
Meal planning can be intimidating at first, but it doesn't have to be! Here are some simple steps to help you get started. We'll break it down and make it easy. Before you know it, you'll be a meal planning wizard!
To make the process easy, I've even included a link below to download my simple meal planning printable. I like to use a 3x5 sticky note in the "Shopping List" area of the sheet, so it's easy to tear off and take to the store. Check it out!
Step 1: Start small - plan 1 week of meals
For starters, I would recommend planning for one week at a time, then moving up to two weeks at a time when you feel confident. Don't start out trying to plan for a full month, because you'll feel overwhelmed. Start small and add on as you go. I plan for a full month, but I've been doing this a while. I thought two weeks of planning was crazy at first!
Step 2: List your favorite meals
Grab a notepad and make two columns - "Main Dishes" and "Sides." Now list every main dish you can think of that you can make or have been wanting to learn to make. Here are some examples from my list: tacos, burritos, quesadillas, homemade macaroni & cheese, grilled chicken, pot roast, stir fry, etc. At this point, don't worry about categorizing them. Just get them down on paper.
When you get stuck, ask the rest of your family what their favorites are, or what they'd like to have. My kids typically request homemade mac & cheese, breakfast for dinner, cheeseburger pie and tacos, and my husband loves honey lime chicken enchiladas, most Italian dishes, and pretty much any kind of meat dish. Just do a big brainstorming session for main dishes.
When you're done with that list, do the same for your side dishes. Fries, potato wedges, baked potatoes, garlic green beans, peas, salad, corn bread, dinner rolls, quinoa, etc. Again, just write everything that comes to mind for you and your family.
Step 3: Group your dishes into themes
Once you have your lists, group your dishes into theme nights. For us, common meal planning themes/categories are Mexican, Grill, Crockpot, Meatless/Breakfast, Italian, Asian and Comfort Foods. As you're grouping them, make a star next to any that can be done in 30 minutes or less.
Step 4: Consult your calendar
Take a look at the family calendar for the week, 2-week, or whatever period you're planning for. What nights are practice nights, dance classes, scout meetings, lessons, etc? Are there any other events you have planned, like a date night or family dinner out?
Every other week, I've got one night right now that starts with swim practice for one child, has one hour afterwards to get her cleaned up and both kids fed, and then we're off to Girl Scouts. That's a tight turn, and a small window! I know that night can't be anything that takes too much time to prepare, because I just don't have the ability to drive home, cook anything detailed, allow enough time to eat, and drive to the meeting.
When you check your calendar, you can see at a glance what nights you'll need a quick dinner. Maybe that's crockpot night, leftovers, or breakfast for dinner? Tacos or spaghetti can be on the table in twenty minutes or less, but there's no way lasagna or meatloaf will work.
Step 5: Fill in the blanks
Now use your list and add the dishes you'd like to cook to your week, using those evening schedules as a guide. If you need to keep track of a recipe location, make a little note where to find it. When my husband is going to be putting dinner together, he likes to know which cookbook and what page to go to. Likewise, when I've spotted something I'd like to try, the last thing I want is to be wondering a week later where that recipe went!
Step 6: Make your grocery list and shop
Take a look at the meals you have planned out, and check your freezer, refrigerator and pantry for the ingredients you'll need for those dishes. Is there anything you'll need to pick up? Make your grocery list, take a look at the local ads to see if there are some sales you can take advantage of, and hit the stores.
Step 7: Post the menu and check it daily
Post the menu in a place where everyone can see it. I picked up an inexpensive whiteboard calendar and tuck it on the side of the fridge. Make a habit to check your plan daily, so you have enough time to thaw something for the next night, or you can remember to prep the slow cooker in the morning. You might want to copy it down into your planner, or maybe take a picture with your phone so you can always see at a glance what's for dinner.
One last thing-
Keep your list of meals. Next time you sit down to plan family dinners, it will go much faster and be even easier!