One thing I learned while on the Whole30 program is meal planning is important. It would have been difficult to maintain my focus to eat whole, healthy foods if I was not doing any planning. Being on a diet is stressful enough without worrying about my next meal.
Great meal planning helped me and will help you save time, save money and reduce the amount of stress and thinking that goes into cooking great meals. Poor planning on the other and could result in redundant trips to the grocery store, spending too much time in the kitchen and occasionally even not getting meals done. And even worse, eating food that hurts you.
Fortunately, I found that planning meals is not hard at all. The whole process takes me about one or two hours a week. The time you save easily pays for itself.
Here are ten great meal planning tips to make your meal planning easier and more productive.
Tip #1: What Meals Should You Plan?
Some people like to plan out every single meal of every day. Others only plan dinners and spontaneously cook breakfast and lunch.
Generally, I found that meals with many ingredients or would be elaborate takes planning. Nothing worse than starting meal preparation only to find a missing ingredient or two. So if you’re regularly cooking elaborate lunches, you should probably include those in your planning. On the other hand, if lunch at home is scrambled eggs and toast, then there’s no need to do much planning.
You might also choose to only plan certain days of the week. For example, Monday through Friday might be your responsibility, but your spouse is responsible for Saturday and Sunday.
Tip #2: Pick Two Recipe Sources
It is very easy to get sucked into the world of recipes, especially when you’re just getting started with meal planning. Online recipe sites have made it possible to find hundreds and thousands of recipes on anything from apple pies to vegan lasagne to BBQ pork ribs. If you’re not careful, you could easily waste hours in front of the computer browsing recipes, when 10 minutes would have done the job. I am guilty of this. Thanks Pinterest! There are so many recipes available on Pinterest, which I used to find Whole30 compliant recipes.
It’s not just the time either. Spending too much time browsing recipes will lead to being overwhelmed. You’ll have so many choices to choose from that it makes it difficult to pick any one thing. And they all look so good!
So pick just one or two recipe sources. Use a cookbook and one website for instance, or just use one website and your printer. Try not to get sucked in. Instead, pick the recipes that appeal to you and move on.
Tip #3: Create a Comprehensive Shopping List
Once you have picked your recipes, create a comprehensive list of the things you need to buy at the supermarket. The goal is to only go grocery shopping once a week.
Start by gathering all your recipes and putting all the ingredients in one list. If you’re using digital tools like iPhone apps or recipe sites, you should be able to jump dump all your recipes in a basket and have the ingredients added to a shopping list.
Once you have this list, go through your fridge or pantry and remove any items from your list you already have. Even if you think you know exactly what’s in your fridge, it still helps to look through to double check. Add any additional items you need to replenish, even if they weren’t on your recipe lists (E.g. milk, eggs, ketchup, etc.)
I like shopping with a list. I do not browse through the grocery store looking for items I do not need for the week. This prevents me from impulse buying!
Tip #4: Plan One or Two Simple Meals
Not every meal needs to be a Food Network masterpiece. Sometimes simple meals like spaghetti bolognaise more than do the job. Trying to cook an elaborate meal every night of the week is a sure recipe for disaster. And very stressful!
If you’re running out of ideas for simple meals, just look on a few recipe sites. There are plenty of one dish meals and 20 minute meals to choose from. I prefer to make one or two casseroles that can be eaten over several days.
Your family might get bored if you keep cooking the same simple meal every week. But if you cook one or two different simple meals every week, nobody will bat an eye.
Tip #5: Do One Experiment a Week
Want to improve your cooking skills? Want to try some new tastes? Want to surprise your family? Add in one (or two) experimental dishes a week. I like to have a backup plan when my experiment fails.
These experimental dishes should be outside the box of what you normally cook. For instance, if you normally do stir-fries, why not try to bake a quiche? If you regularly make your meats on the stove, why not try a baked chicken instead? For me, the Instant Pot Chili Pork Stew was a winner. Everyone likes it!
Plan your experiment meal later in the week. Make sure that you have some leftovers as backup just in case the experiment comes out horribly wrong, which it sometimes will. More often than not however, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the results.
Tip #6: Have One or Two Leftover Days
Leftovers are a fantastic way to save yourself cooking time. There’s a lot you can do with leftovers to keep the meal fresh, without having to cook a whole meal from scratch. Please leftovers are a great time saver.
The easiest way to use leftovers is of course to just stick it in the microwave. But if you want to add some variety to the meal, you can put it back on the stove and try adding a bit of different flavors or sides. Or if you have certain ingredients left over, you can make a whole new meal from it.
Tip #7: Prepare for “No Cooking Time” Emergencies
There are going to be times when life gets in the way and you just won’t have time to cook. Maybe your child scraped his knees, or perhaps work calls. Whatever the reason, sometimes you just won’t be able to cook.
For these times, it really helps to have a few of your best dishes frozen. For example, if you make a great soy sauce chicken wing dish, freeze four servings of the wings for a rainy day. If there’s ever an emergency, you can just defrost the wings and microwave them and serve them with rice or pasta.
Tip #8: Buy in Bulk When Foods Are on Sale
At the supermarket, you might find foods on sale that weren’t on your list. If you think you could cook up the foods anyway though, go ahead and buy them in bulk and then change your meal plan later.
Buying when things are on sale can help you and your family save a lot of money. Especially when you are focusing on healthy, whole, fresh foods. Quality foods tend to be more expensive. So buy them if they are on sale.
To take this a step further, you can also check out your local newspapers and online coupons sites for special deal advertisements. The more constricting your budget is, the higher your payoff will be for taking the time to check for discounts.
Tip #9: Cook More Than Necessary
There are many reasons to cook more than necessary.
For one, you’ll have leftovers. The leftovers can go towards your leftover days, which can give you a nice break from cooking.
You’ll also have a lot of snacks for the kids. If your kids ever get hungry, instead of going for the Doritos they can go for the leftover spaghetti.
Cooking more than necessary can also give you nice side dishes for other meals. For example, if you have a few chicken wings left over, they can make a good appetizer. Or you might give each person a couple chicken wings to add more taste to a meal.
It’s much better to over cook a meal than under cook. For a family of four, cook as if you had one more person at the table.
Tip #10: Make it a Family Adventure
Cooking shouldn’t always be you alone in the kitchen. At least once a week, get the family to help out. This is a fantastic way for kids to learn how to cook early in life. It’s also a fantastic way to connect with your spouse and to cultivate a sense of teamwork in the family.
Have the kids do simple tasks at first. Make sure to teach them proper safety technique before handing them anything dangerous. For example, teach them how to use their knuckles as blockers before handing them a knife.
Keep the atmosphere light. It should be a playful adventure, not a chore. Everyone should enjoy the experience.
These ten tips will help make your meal planning a whole lot easier. Implement these tips and you will save money, save time and make cooking an absolutely stress free endeavor.
If you have comments, any questions or wish to share your experience with meal planning, please share by leaving a comment below. Thanks!