Lessons From A First-Time Meal Planner
Is meal planning the panacea for all your weekday cooking woes? Or is it only useful to supermoms with large families to feed? I gave it a shot for my family of two: Here's what I found out.
I've never been much of a meal planner. As much as I do love to cook, it's always been a haphazard sort of process. The result? A lot of satisfying my whims, a lot of delicious meals … and way too much lazy takeout (and a too-high monthly food bill). So to kick off 2019, I took the plunge and decided to try weekly meal planning for two weeks. Here's what worked, what didn't, and what happened after the two weeks were up.
What Is Meal Planning?
To start off, I had to come up to speed on the difference between meal planning and meal prep. It's pretty self-explanatory once you stop and think about it, but easy to confuse because they sound so similar and are often spoken of in the same breath. At its simplest, meal planning is deciding what you'll eat for the week in advance; meal prep is doing work in the kitchen in advance.
Once you've decided on a meal plan for the week, a common next step is to make a grocery list and head to the store. With the ingredients on hand, you may or may not then choose to do some meal prep to give yourself a leg up during the week. This could be as simple as chopping up some vegetables so you don't have to do it the day you're cooking, or as involved as making five bento-box style lunches and packaging them up to grab-and-go each morning.
How to Make a Meal Plan
One of my first lessons learned? Meal planning is nowhere near as hard as I thought it would be! All you need to do is decide what you're going to cook for the week and write it down. That's it. You've meal planned. No need to dedicate five hours in the kitchen on Sunday (that's meal prep), and no need to perfect the balance of macronutrients each day (that's … something else altogether). The harder part of meal planning, of course, is making sure your family is on board and sticking with the plan — more on both of those topics in a moment.
There are lots of tools you can use to track your meal plan, ranging from a simple notebook or whiteboard to an app or software program. You can also follow a prescribed meal plan with a pre-built shopping list that someone else has put together, although I find those are rarely flexible enough to account for personal taste preferences and schedules. However you approach meal planning, the key is to write it down and buy whatever ingredients you need. From there, it's just a matter of getting home and cooking!
Meal Planning Tips for Beginners
So how did my foray into meal planning go? Spoiler alert: I'm still meal-planning four months later, albeit with some tweaks to make it sustainable. Here are a few tips based on what I learned:
- Be reasonable. If you currently only cook three nights a week, don't commit to suddenly cooking seven days a week. Or if your family refuses to eat leftovers, don't add "leftover night" to your weekly plan, or that will quickly turn into "pizza delivery night." Likewise, if you don't get home on Tuesdays until 8 pm, maybe that's not the best night to plan a complicated meal. Which leads to...
- Thursday night is egg night. I'm a typical Monday - Friday daytime worker, and by Thursday night, well, I'm toast. When I first started meal planning, I chose quick recipes for the end of the week, but still found myself going off plan (and wasting food) because when I got home and it was time to cook, I Just. Couldn't. Even. My saving grace to avoid takeout? Good old scrambled eggs and toast. Or tuna fish salad and/or sandwiches. Or sausages with pre-cut peppers and onions. Point being: Know when you're likely to run out of steam, have a couple no-brainer recipes up your sleeve, and actively plan them in your weekly menu. It's probably what you'll end up eating anyway.
- Sunday is casserole night. This was an early lesson that stuck. One of the biggest money-saving changes we made was to start bringing in our lunches. By making a casserole (or pot of stew or other large-batch, microwave-friendly meal) on Sunday night, lunch for the week is ready to go. Can't stomach eating the same thing days on end? Choose freezable recipes and store them in single-serving portions; it's like grabbing a frozen meal on your way out the door, but healthier and cheaper.
- Get the family on board. In full disclosure, I'm still working on this one. (Well, except for our dog who is generally on board with anything that involves food.) In my initial overzealous excitement about my new routine, I happily whipped off week after week of exactly what my partner would eat for a full fourteen meals, Monday through Sunday! Except I didn't consult with him. Eventually (and unsurprisingly) my enthusiasm was curbed by his lack thereof. Don't be like me: Even if your family isn't particularly interested in helping create a plan for the week, it's always a good idea to get them to "sign off" on the final plan, or at least give them veto power for disliked recipes. I found it helpful to designate one night as "Daddy's Choice" (which of course means I get one "Mumma's choice" night in return). Throw in one casserole night, one egg night, and one take-out night, and there's not a ton left to negotiate.
- Check your schedule (and the freezer) before you start. A quick and easy way to make planning more effective is to start by adding two types of notes to your plan: any schedule abnormalities and a list of ingredients that need to be used up. Note the days you'll be home late or someone in your family won't be home for dinner, then plan accordingly. Similarly, writing down items you already have on hand can help you prioritize your recipe choices to lessen food waste and save you money.
- Include advanced prep and mid-week shopping in the plan. I know I'm not the only one who has forgotten to take the chicken out of the freezer the day before I need it. Whether you need to soak beans overnight or stop at the store for fresh basil during your Thursday commute home, nothing will throw your meal plan off more quickly than a missing ingredient or forgotten prep step. Don't leave it to chance! A quick note on Tuesday's slot that says "Take chicken out of freezer" or "Get basil on way home" will make for a happy Wednesday.
- Be flexible. Life happens. Remember that your meal plan is there to help you out, not box you in. It's OK to swap meals between days or squeeze in a last-minute dinner out; just keep an eye on any ingredients that might go bad so you can cook or freeze them in a timely manner. Myself, I found that planning a full seven days in advance wasn't sustainable in the long run. Nowadays, I usually plan dinner for Monday-Thursday and then figure out the weekend meals later on in the week. It's a good balance of having a plan and groceries on hand to keep me sane during the work week, while still allowing us to slot in recipes to indulge specific cravings later on.
Using Yummly for Meal Planning
While most people know that Yummly is a great resource to find new recipes, for the purposes of meal planning, I found two other features to be the most helpful: the recipe scheduler and the shopping list.
I use the Yummly app on my iPhone to pick my recipes for the week; Once I find a recipe I want to make, I click where it says "Schedule Eat Time," and it automatically creates an event that gets added to my personal calendar. I do this for each recipe I plan to make, and then my whole meal plan is right there in my calendar along with everything else I have planned for the week. Each appointment also includes a link to that day's recipes, so I can easily find them. Bonus: the app also gives me nudges when I need to start cooking, so dinner isn't always quite so late!
Once I pick a recipe, I check to see what ingredients I have on hand, then use the plus sign in the ingredients list to add needed items to my shopping list for the week. Having arrived at the grocery store only to realize that my shopping list was still on the refrigerator one too many times, I'm a big fan of keeping my list on my phone. The app also automatically sorts your list by aisle, so shopping goes faster!
Here are just a few of the quick weeknight recipes on Yummly that make a regular appearance in my meal plans: