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Every single night, the dinner hour rolls around and the family chants out in hunger wanting to know what they’re going to eat. For most moms, this is the most dreaded time of day. Are you ready and prepared every single night, or are you floundering and debating if you should pick up the phone to order dinner?
For years I panicked when the clock hit five, because I was entirely unprepared and was doing my version of Chopped throwing things together. These days, I have my meal planning strategy down to a science, and I’m sharing my best beginner’s tips to meal planning for a family so you can roll through your evening with ease.
What is a Meal Plan?
Meal planning is essentially the way that you get organized and prepared to serve breakfast, lunch and dinner to your family every single day. It also includes the plan you put together before you grocery shop so you know exactly what to buy to get through a specific period of time. There is not one right way to meal plan since everyone has different lifestyles and preferences that they have to work around.
Meal planning, to me, is creating a plan that fits into your busy lifestyle AND that you actually enjoy doing. I’m not saying meal planning will be your top rated hobby, but it doesn’t have to be a dreaded task.
Some people absolutely love looking through cookbooks and magazines to find new recipes to try. When my first two kids were really young, I was one of these people. I would spend the time I was stuck on the couch breastfeeding finding new recipes and watching cooking shows for new ideas. There was actually a two year period where planning and cooking was a hobby for me.
As my kids have gotten older and we’ve gotten busier, I’ve shifted to a more ‘get it done and get it done fast’ tactic. There are different seasons in meal planning as well.
No matter how you want to spend your time planning meals, there are some major benefits to doing it.
Benefits of Meal Planning
There are several reasons that I started meal planning to begin with, and it has completely changed the way that we eat in our house.
1. Saves Money- Without a plan, you will likely walk around the grocery store grabbing anything that sounds interesting or you think you might use. When you get home to cook a meal, you realize that you don’t have some of the key ingredients that you need. You take another trip to the grocery store and end up walking out with the items you needed plus a few extra. In the end, you spend money on things you don’t really need and extra money when you go shopping that second or third time.
With a meal plan in hand, you get EXACTLY what you need at the store and nothing else. You can also identify ingredients that you use in multiple recipes giving you the chance to buy in bulk to save even more.
2. Reduce Food Waste- Food waste includes any leftovers from meals that go uneaten as well as the food in the fridge, pantry, and freezer that expires before we have the opportunity to use it.
Creating a meal plan allows you schedule in nights to eat those leftovers so that they don’t go to waste. You can also prioritize ingredients that are about to expire so you use them before they go bad. Creating a meal plan can help you waste almost zero food, which is a cost savings in and of itself.
3. Eat More Real Foods- Most of the really quick boxed and freezer meals, though convenient, are highly processed. Spending a little bit of time planning and preparing meals in advance can help reduce your need to fall back on convenience foods that aren’t as healthy.
I like to use the freezer meals at the store as ideas for what I can plan and prep for in advance on my own. If they can freeze it at the store, you can freeze it at home. I’m not an expert on what freezes well, so this is my easy way of knowing what works best!
4. Saves Time- People usually say that they don’t have the time to meal plan, but I would argue that spending a little bit of time meal planning with actually save you time. You’ll be able to work your way through the grocery store quickly, because you know exactly what you are shopping for. No wandering the aisles wondering what you should buy.
At dinner time, you won’t spend 15 minutes pulling out what you have, checking the Internet for recipes, asking what everybody wants to eat. You can be far more intentional with getting dinner on the table. Your meal plan can also be customized to your lifestyle so you have quick meals scheduled on the nights that it is most important.
5. Reduce Stress- I think most people are generally pretty frustrated or overwhelmed at dinner time. That’s why there are so many memes out there about dinner time and wishing the family didn’t actually need 3 meals per day! A well thought out meal plan will significantly reduce your daily stress. Meals just become a thing you do rather than a daily stressor.
How To Create a Meal Plan: Step-by-Step Instructions for Beginners
1. Choose your meal planning sheets. You can get the ones I use HERE.
2. Start meal planning on a Friday. I like to create my meal plan on Fridays so that I can go shopping on Saturday and prep over the weekend. By Monday we have everything ready to go for a busy week. Pick a day that gives you a little bit of open time.
3. Decide on your goals for your meal plan. Are you trying to save money? Do you want to stop relying on the drive thru? Is healthy eating a priority? Knowing your goals helps you create a plan that works best for you.
4. Pull out a calendar and decide how many meals you need to plan for. I wrote an entire post on how I plan out our meals based on our family schedule.
5. Take an inventory of your pantry and freezer. Write down expiration dates so you know what you need to use first.
6. Simplify breakfast and lunch. Choose 2-3 things you can always eat for breakfast and add those to your shopping list. For lunch, you can choose 2-4 things you always feed your kids, 2-4 things you like to eat for lunch, and eat leftovers.
7. Choose your dinners for a specific period of time. I generally meal plan every other week so that I can buy in bulk and double recipes. I also have a whole meal prep strategy that ensures we’re always prepared. Commit to only shopping one time per week for the things you need to reduce your grocery spending.
8. Create your shopping list based on the stores you shop in. It makes it easier to shop quickly if you separate your list out in a meaningful way. I section my list based on where the item is in the store and do separate lists for the two stores I go to.
9. Don’t wait until 5pm and plan early. If you need to thaw something, make sure that you have it in the fridge early enough to be ready. During the baby years, I would use nap times to get everything ready for dinner. It made it easier to cook while feeding a baby or supervising a busy toddler. These days, I use some time the night before to make sure everything is ready. Don’t wait until 5pm to think about dinner!
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Free monthly calendar, weekly meal planner, freezer + pantry inventory, family favorites meal list, and shopping list.
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How to Choose Meals
One of my top tips is to put together a Family Favorites Meal List that you can use to plan meals. This is food that you know your family enjoys and will actually eat. I add to this list as I find new recipes and just rotate through the list so we don’t feel like we’re eating the same thing over and over.
Here are a few other ways I like to categorize my meals within my plan:
- Plan the nights that you will eat out- This helps you know how many dinners to plan for, but it will probably also reduce your restaurant spending.
- Plan the nights that you will eat leftovers- We generally have enough leftovers by Wednesday or Thursday night for a full meal.
- Quick and Easy Dinners- These are dinners that take 15-30 minutes to pull together on busy nights. These are generally simple meals with few ingredients.
- Freezer Meals- I generally prep a few freezer meals at the beginning of the month that I can pull out as needed. This can be as simple as some marinated chicken so that you have a meal that feels pulled together on a busy night.
- Pantry and Freezer Cooking- Once or twice per month, challenge yourself to cook with what you already have based on your freezer and pantry inventory. You can do a recipe search based on ingredients on allrecipes.com.
- Instant Pot or Slow Cooker Meals- If you don’t have an Instant Pot, you need one. You can cook food so much faster, and if you forget to thaw out meat, you just add a little bit of cook time. It’s a lifesaver when things don’t go according to plan.
I have several different Pinterest boards related to quick meals, freezer meals, instant pot meals and more. Come follow me over on Pinterest to see the recipes I save!
Do You Want Someone to Meal Plan for You?
There are a few meal planning resources that I have used and loved in different seasons of life over the years. These are the three that I always recommend:
$5 Dollar Dinners: If you love the idea of a meal plan but hate actually creating one, I highly recommend $5 Dollar Dinners. Erin outlines amazing meal plans on a budget.
MyFreezEasy: If you love freezer cooking or are interested in using it as part of your meal planning system, the MyFreezEasy shop is the place to start. Erin lists out all of her favorite tools, freezer meals plans, and more for making it as simple and budget-friendly as possible.
Real Plans: Real plans is an amazing meal planning resource, particularly for families with special diets. Real Plans helps you quickly create a meal plan based on the types of foods your family likes to eat and/or dietary restrictions.
Shopping Resources I Love
Ebates: Ebates is a total no-brainer for saving money when shopping online. Every time you shop online, click on a store through Ebates to receive cash back on all of your purchases. Get $10 after your first $25 purchase when you use my link.
Ibotta: Ibotta is my favorite app for saving money on groceries without clipping coupons. Get cash back on your groceries just by uploading your receipts. Get $5 just for signing up when you click on my link.
Thrive Market: I order most of my pantry staples from Thrive Market. Think Costco meets Whole Foods with thousands of healthy food and personal care items. Get 1 month free PLUS 25% off your first order when you go through my link.