Meal planning has been a secret weapon in my kitchen. This one little trick has saved time, money, aggravation, and has kept my family healthier. Every weekend, I make a list of meals for the week, which allows me to properly shop for food at decent prices, eliminate last-minute take-out decisions, plan ahead for meal preparation and provide balanced meals for my family.
Saving Money with Meal Planning
Meal planning is a money-saving trick. I also base my meals around what is available in my freezer and pantry. This allows me to re-stock my house with things that are on sale instead of buying full-price items at the last minute.
Planning Your Week
I begin meal planning by looking at my calendar to see what our week is going to be like. If we have an activity after school that involves me volunteering or running around a lot, I try to do something simple. If my husband is not going to be home, I do a kid-friendly meal. If we are busy, but the family will be home for dinner, it’s crockpot time!
Knowing my menu in advance saves me aggravation because I don’t have to figure out what I am going to do when my children are screaming at my feet and want attention. Many days I can even prep dinner during the day, avoiding the after-school insanity that seems to precede the dinner hour. I have also found meal planning to be healthier, since I make sure we have veggie and fruit options included in our meal. It’s also a way to plan ahead to try out new recipes.
Planning Meals in Patterns
Another trick is also keeping meals in a pattern. This is my solution for sanity in my family. Monday night is usually a pasta night, which can be as simple as tomato sauce and pasta, or as elaborate as meatballs with pasta, fettucini alfredo, baked ziti, or penne a la vodka. Pasta night is great for Mondays because we pack up leftovers for my husband’s lunches for the week.
On a no-activity night, which is usually Tuesday for my family, I usually make chicken or some other meat with potatoes and veggies. Since we don’t have to be anywhere, it’s a good night for a more elaborate meal.
Wednesdays are often the kid-friendly night or breakfast-for-dinner night for my family. Activities and meetings are plentiful on this day, so whipping up scrambled eggs with toast, or popping chicken nuggets in the oven are an easy solution. If we don’t have anything at night, pancakes are an inexpensive, fun treat, paired with breakfast sausage, and quesadillas are always welcomed by the little ones. Grilled cheese and tomato soup is also a kid-friendly, affordable meal which can be easily whipped up.
We have a hectic scheduled on Thursday, with music lessons at dinner time. As a result, we rely on leftovers for the adults, and the kids request their favorite meal, macaroni and cheese. This great staple is stockpiled in our pantry and often paired with frozen veggies. This is such a pattern in our meal planning that even the piano teacher jokes about our daughter’s mac-and-cheese ritual.
Weekends are more fluid, although homemade pizza makes a regular appearance on our menu plan. It’s also a great idea to cook a chicken or turkey on Sunday for a special dinner, then work the leftover meat into meals during the week. Leftover chicken can be used in casseroles, chili, quesadillas, soups, stir fry, pot pies and many other meals. I try to stretch a chicken through meals. If you can’t use the leftovers right away, freeze them for the future.
Many families also rely on regular theme nights in their meal-planning patterns. Taco Tuesdays, or Crockpot Wednesday, Baked Potato Bar Thursdays, or Frozen Food Fridays, with fries, nuggets and fish sticks, are popular. During Lent, we have Fish Fridays in our house.
Use What You Have
The secret to meal planning is to use what you have. Take inventory of your pantry and freezer to plan meals around what is on hand. I even keep a list of what is in my freezer on the side of my fridge as a reminder of what is in there.
As you plan your meals, keep a shopping list next to you to figure out what ingredients you might need to make a complete meal. Then go through grocery store flyers to pick up a few bargains to stock up for future meals. If pork chops are on sale, buy a few packs for the freezer. Frozen and canned veggies are also good items to have on hand for planning meals.
Organizing meals and making complete shopping lists will cut down on last-minute trips to the store for one ingredient, which can cost extra money in your food budget.
Don’t Be A Complete Slave to the Plan
Even though meal planning seems rigid, it’s best to keep in mind that things change. A plan can be changed and adjusted, and I do it all the time. Switch meals to a future night if something comes up, or if a rainy day seems more like a soup-and-sandwich night then plan on the scheduled meal for tomorrow. You’ll have all your ingredients on hand, so it’s very easy to be flexible.
If you don’t want to have a plan by day, plan out seven meals which you can use at any time throughout the week. This also allows you have what you need on hand without feeling like you have to have a certain thing next Thursday.
Once you start planning, you’ll find it a very natural step in taking care of your family. And you will see the rewards in your wallet.