Last year, when our family went through the 31 Days of Living Well and Spending Zero challenge, I struggled with one big area: meal planning.
Really struggled.. I just couldn’t get my head around planning meals more than a day or so ahead. I can barely answer “What’s for Dinner?” on a given night, so how was I supposed to answer it for an entire week or more?
I understood why meal plans are important. Meal planning can save you a lot of money. If you can plan out what you are going to eat over a week or more, you’re far less likely to waste the food you buy or give into the temptation to eat out. Plus, meal planning can help you take better advantage of the foods you already have in inventory.
Despite that, I still had trouble implementing the plan, and I wasn’t quite sure why, Considering how easy I find it to fall into routine and schedules, you’d think that meal planning would be a no brainer. Instead, my mind and taste buds rebel at the idea of deciding exactly what we’re going to eat on a given day and sticking to it.
I also felt constrained by my daughter’s eating habits. Little Bit used to eat tons of foods, but starting from about age 3, our standard main dish became “Anything with melted cheese and nothing without.” Over the summer, though, I lost that excuse as she broadened her palate and started eating a lot more diverse foods.
It’s great that our family can now enjoy more options for dinner, but that’s meant that I need to be more careful not to get carried away and buy a bunch of foods we won’t eat.
So I was motivated to change, but struggled with coming up with a workable plan.
I really just needed to overcome my mental block and simplify the meal planning process.
Overcoming the Mental Block
Over the last year, I read a lot of people’s meal plans, and I’ve realized my meal planning rebellion is probably overkill. For instance, Jamie over at Medium Sized Family gives a meal plan ever two weeks that just says” We’re gonna eat this stuff over the next two weeks.”
No “On Monday, we eat tacos” Just “We’ll eat tacos twice over the next two weeks.”
A list of possible meals to make over the next week or two appealed far more to my rebellious taste buds. Some days you just need pizza. Still, I struggled with the initial list.
Finally, I ran into the right article over at Ava’s Alphabet: How to Start Meal Planning When It Doesn’t Come Easily. And in that article, I found the key:
At some point during this struggle, I either read or was told to just start by writing down what we actually ate for dinner every night on my calendar or a sheet of paper
Why did I never think of that?
Come to think of it, every time you shop for food, you are meal planning. Maybe not efficient meal planning, but meal planning. You’re buying the stuff you’re going to use in your meals. Most of the time when I shop, I’m just saying “Yes, I can use that to feed my family,” based on what I know we use.
Only one problem with that approach: With no timeline for using a given food, it can go bad or get overlooked. And it still doesn’t necessarily answer “What’s for Dinner?” on a given night.
To change that, I have to turn my “stuff my family will probably eat” into “stuff I’m going to serve my family this week.”
Paring Down the Process
The first step to simplifying my process was to pare down the task. Before, I tried to plan three meals a day. I realized that approach ignored how my family actually eats 3 meals.
Breakfast at our house is catch as catch can. As long as I have Pop Tarts, oatmeal, cereal, yogurt, and/or granola bars, everyone will figure out something to eat.
We handle lunch the same way. Little Bit and I go through her school lunch menu each month and determine which days she wants to buy lunch and which days we need to pack. Other than that, we just scrounge up meals for her of cheese sticks and crackers or cereal and fruit. Jon and I make sandwiches or finish off leftovers.
If I keep buying our staples, breakfast and lunch take care of themselves.
It’s only dinner I need to plan. It’s the only meal where my family all eats the same thing.
Once I realized I really was only planning 1/3 of my meals, the meal planning process became a lot less intimidating.
Figuring Out What We Eat
I have a little over a month’s worth of data of what we eat, and it’s pretty revealing. Over 5 weeks (not including vacation time), I’ve come up with the following stats:
- We eat pizza (usually frozen) once a week. Mostly, pizza is our Plan B “I ain’t cooking” meal, so it’s not going away anytime soon. I’d love to see us eat it a little less, but I don’t think that’s likely. So,
- We eat at my in-laws at least once a week, too. Another meal I don’t need to plan.
- We made soup twice. Each time, soup and bread made up 2 dinners. One soup was leftover based, the other I bought 1 specific ingredient (butternut squash) to make. In cool weather, I can expect to make soup of some kind every other week, at least in cool weather.
- We had either chili or beans and rice every other week, pretty much alternating with the soup weeks. Again, each time, we had it, it made up at least 2 dinners (and a couple of lunches).
- We either ate pasta or made a meal out of roasted potatoes with cheese each week.
- Jon made “Crock Pot” entrees at least every other week: chicken, ribs, and a roast. These generally made up at least 2 meals (although the leftover chicken got turned into soup) and reflect what bargains i was able to find in the meat section during my grocery trips.
- For the remaining dinners we ate out for our anniversary and got Chinese takeout.
Now maybe this was just a repetitive meal month, but I doubt it.
My guess is during the summer, we went with a few more meals of burritos or eggs instead of soup. We may have done a bit more grilling instead of eating quite so much starch.
It still gives us a great starting off point for a flexible two week dinner meal plan.
My 12 Dinner Meal Plan
Thinking about what we eat, I feel pretty confident that we can turn our “what we ate” list into a solid 2 week meal plan and the start of my next shopping list.
- Frozen Pizza (in stock)-2 meals
- Soup (French Onion with Mushrooms–have all ingredients but the right cheese) -2 meals
- Rice and Beans or Chili (The main difference for us is sausage versus hamburger. Either way, we have all ingredients)-2 meals
- Roasted Potatoes with cheese, bacon, and frozen broccoli (in stock)-1 meal
- Spaghetti with meat sauce (in stock)-1 meal
- Slow Cooker Ribs (in stock)-1 meal
- Roast Chicken (in stock)-2 meals
- Breakfast for dinner (need more eggs)-1 meal
Emergency Standby Dinner: Bean burritos and chips (need more burritos), Grilled Cheese Sandwiches
Okay, that’s 12 meals, accounting for a dinner at the in laws or a night out, plus an emergency plan in case something comes up.
When someone asks “What’s for dinner?” I have an easy answer.
Meal Planning should also keep my grocery budget in check. Planning it (and looking at inventory) means I can limit most of my grocery shopping trips to dairy and produce (unless I find a killer deal on steaks for later. It’s always worth looking.)
Adding New Items
The only thing my meal plan system doesn’t address is variety. It’s entirely based on things we already do.
One of the things I do, though, is try to attempt at least one new recipe each week.
Last week, I made French Toast Bread Pudding and Butternut Squash and Apple Soup. Both will be on the menu again, though not over the next 2 weeks.
That said, adding a new entree isn’t always the most successful way for me to add variety.
Adding new sides can be a wiser approach, allowing anyone who turns their nose up (Little Bit) to safely avoid more than a single bite of strange new items. It can take a lot less effort to put a side together. Plus, if the recipe doesn’t work out, it’s a lot easier to toss a side than a main dish.
Desserts can be safe, too, since someone can always choose something else or skip it entirely.
So sometime over the next two weeks I’ll try a couple of new recipes. It’ll either be a vegetable side to accompany the chicken or ribs, a new bread recipe or some dessert that I can scratch together from what I have on hand. That way, I’ll add to my cooking repertoire without getting too ambitious.
Meal Planning Success
Meal Planning can save you money.and time. It can prevent you from wasting a lot of food and help reduce the temptation to eat out.
It’s a really good idea, but getting started intimidates a lot of people. If you feel like you can’t answer “What’s for Dinner?” when your family asks, answering for a whole week is overwhelming unless you can simplify the process.
So simplify it. Look at what your family already eats, look at what you have in inventory, and fill in the blanks. Then, whenever you get the classic question, you’ll have the right answer.
And it might not even be “Pizza.”
Do you know what’s for dinner at your house during a given week? If you do, what tricks have you used to make it easier for you?