We began meal planning with a goal of reducing our spending on food. We saved $500 in our first month, and discovered other immediate benefits which we share here. We’ve now made weekly meal planning a family habit, with more than 15 months of consecutive weekly plans safely tucked into our shared Google Doc. When we first started meal planning it felt like an overwhelming series of tasks that we were scared would consume our weekends. We discovered five tips that help break down the meal planning process and make it easy for anyone to begin:
1. Calendar Review: We begin our weekly meal plan on Saturdays and end on Fridays. We develop each new plan on a Friday (or early Saturday morning if it’s been a really rough week.) Our template is a simple table built in a Google Doc we’ve named “Ongoing Meal Plan”; we add a new table to the top of the doc each week and date it. A key component for our process is a row called “Circumstances.” We take note of any special activities that will alter our typical plan. We’ve learned to make busy days easy cooking days, focused on fast, simple recipes or leftovers.
2. Theme Selection: You can instantly reduce the complexity in meal planning if you choose a culinary or practical theme to organize your meals around for the week. You can read up on four examples of theme weeks we’ve planned here.
3. Recipe Search: The sheer volume of recipes available online and in printed cookbooks is overwhelming. To simplify the process, begin with one print cookbook you already own and love. Thumb through that favorite book and re-discover a few recipes that you can include in your first meal plan. To cover the gaps, do a search online using keywords that include ingredients you already have on-hand. This will lead you to cooking websites and blogs; after trying their recipes over a few weeks, you’ll discover which you like; bookmark those sites and revisit whenever you’re looking to create a new meal plan. A few of our go-to sites are Paleo Running Momma and The Whole Life Challenge; our favorite printed cookbook is Tacolicious and two recent loves are The Dairy-Free Kitchen and Run Fast. Cook Fast. Eat Slow.
4. Grocery List: As we build our weekly meal plan, we build our weekly grocery list in a separate Google Doc. We keep both tabs open on our browser and toggle between them, reviewing the ingredients for each recipe and updating the grocery list accordingly. Plan to stand up and sit down a bunch, as you walk to the fridge, freezer, and pantry to confirm stock already on-hand. We live in a small house without a lot of food storage and we’re determined to stick to our food budget, so we purchase only what we need for that week’s meal plan. We make one trip to the grocery store each week. If we need to go to a specialty store we include those stops on our weekly “To Do” list.
5. Shop: This is our least favorite part of the process, and while we could pass it off to a delivery service, we prefer to personally select our fresh produce, meats, and dairy, to ensures that we know the quality and source of our food. We often look for organic items, but we’re not militant about it. With a few exceptions for local favorites (e.g. Clover organic milk or Papalote’s Habanero Roasted Tomato Salsa), we’re not loyal to particular brands. This gives us freedom to select items based on price; we can recoup the cost of expensive organic purchases with lower-cost options for everything else, and keep our bill within our weekly budget.
About Food Prep
Generally, we don’t prep our food all at one time, immediately upon returning from the grocery store. We prefer to parse out the prep day-by-day based on our schedule. The exception is when we pick up farm-fresh produce that’s often still covered in soil from the field. We wash those leafy greens and veggies before storing them in our fridge. Otherwise, we’ve trained our sons to wash apples, carrots, or grapes before snacking, and everything else can generally hold until we’re ready for it. Washing, chopping, and measuring generally takes us 10-15 minutes for each meal; if you’re planning to do all your prep at one time, try to set aside an hour when you get home from the grocery store.
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