It all started almost 12 years ago. I was a newlywed and the only thing I knew how to cook was scrambled eggs (and “fancy” ramen, where you add in vegetables to those $0.29 packs of noodles, but I don’t think that really counts). I wanted to learn how to cook, but more importantly, I was also trying to manage our newlywed finances as well, so I wanted to learn how to cook efficiently. Thus began my love affair with meal planning.
Fast forward to the present where I find myself trying to balance work, married life and the manic whims of a precious 3-year-old. Once again, I’m in a place where meal planning is ESSENTIAL for our finances, for our health and also for our sanity.
So, how can we simplify our meals and routines? How can we reclaim peace and joy in cooking?
Do a quick Google search and you will find hundreds of websites giving you “7 Tips” here and “10 Steps” there to simplify your meal planning. Hours and hours go by, hundreds of clicks to and from sites on Pinterest, and you might still end up totally confused and unsure of how to actually get started. I’ve been meal planning now for 12+ years, and I feel like I’ve tried it all. Through it all, I’ve discovered a few successful ways to simplify our lives (& our food budget) by meal planning:
Plan One Week at a Time: Gather your family calendar and decide how many nights you can cook at home vs. take-out/going out to eat. Everyone’s schedules are “so busy” these days, so plan which nights you WILL cook…aiming for at least 3-4 per week.
If you’re really ambitious, try meal-planning for two weeks. Calendars, practices, appointments, etc., are typically set in stone for at least two weeks at a time. I am usually at my MOST efficient financially and with groceries (avoiding food waste) when I plan a couple weeks at a time. Flexibility is key, groceries can carry over, and impromptu nights out don’t matter as much because you can move that night’s meal to the next open night.
Take Stock: What items do you already have? A huge part of simplifying your meals, is simplifying your ingredient list. Try to cook 5-6 ingredient meals. Use healthy, whole ingredients when possible; simple, unprocessed and whatever produce is on sale that week.
NOTE: Taking stock of your pantry and fridge are a LOT easier to do if they are organized ahead of time. Before you get started with meal planning, take an hour to go through and organize; dispose of expired food and group by “like-items” (cans, grains, breakfast stuff, etc., in the pantry and fruit, veggies, dairy in the refrigerator). Store items in clear bins or baskets for easy visibility.
Make What You Know: Look for recipes in your comfort zone. Search by the ingredients you already have and that will help keep your plans (and your searches) simple and efficient. Pinterest can be your friend if you use specific keywords like “healthy sweet potato recipes,” “quick and easy chicken recipes,” “make ahead eggplant recipes.”
I typically start my meal plan by choosing 2-3 proteins (usually what I have stored in the freezer) and then vegetables or grains for the sides. When choosing side dishes, I try to look for recipes that call for similar ingredients. Sheet Pan Roasted Chicken with Sweet Potatoes & Onions might be on the menu one night, and then a couple days later, I might serve Roasted Sweet Potatoes with a variety of toppings, including caramelized onions and shredded chicken (leftover from the previous night).
Take your simplifying one step further by creating a framework for your week: Meatless Mondays, Tacos Tuesdays, Breakfast for Dinner, Pasta Thursdays, Pizza Fridays, etc.
Write It Out: Designate a notebook to keep your weekly menus, ingredients and shopping lists all in one place. I am a HUGE fan of paper, but also acknowledge the power of digital, so I use both. I keep a written notebook of weekly meal plans, etc., and I keep a Google Drive folder of our fan-favorite recipes. For instance, if I’m searching for a good slow-cooker recipe, I’ll start by searching my Drive folder first before I head to the black hole that is Pinterest or Google.
I also prefer to write our weekly menu on a large dry erase calendar or chalkboard calendar, so that my family knows what to look forward to throughout the week. It also alleviates the barrage of “what’s for dinner?” questioning from said family members.
Now once you choose your recipes, go through each and list out the ingredients (and quantities) needed for each. Mark the items you already have in stock, and list out the items you need to purchase.
A good way to organize your shopping list is to group your items by “Produce,” “Meat,” “Dairy,” “Pantry Items,” “Sauces,” etc. This will help transform your current grocery store mania into the the short & sweet trip we all dream of….oh, you don’t dream about the grocery store? Just me? Okay 🙂
Plan to do all your grocery shopping on ONE day of the week. This can easily be done if your shopping list is organized and thorough. Gone are the days of stopping by the grocery store every day to “just grab a couple things” and walking out with $100+ of who-knows-what.
Simplify the Prep: Try adopting the Sunday Meal Prep or Make-Ahead Meal mentality. If your busy schedule doesn’t allow much time for slicing and dicing, try to prep your meals on Saturdays or Sundays. Buy meat in bulk (also SUPER kind to your wallet) and keep your freezer stocked with favorites.
Store meal items in clear bags or containers and label them with directions for ease of use. Again, so said family members can actually start the meal preparation with or without you there. Amen and amen.
Ultimately, I could give you ALL the tips and tricks, but it’s up to YOU to figure out what will work for YOU and your family. Hopefully these steps above are simple enough to encourage and inspire you to simplify (or even start) your meal planning routine.
If you are still unsure of how to start or need help organizing your kitchen, we are here for you.
Our goal at Simplicity is to help you clear out the unnecessary in order to focus on what matters most. We are here to help you create space and balance so that you can discover a new sense of harmony in your home (especially your kitchen) and life.
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Jessica Masanotti joined the Simplicity team almost 3 years ago. Her favorite space to organize is the kitchen (of course!), and she loves working with Simplicity Kids & Teens. In her spare time, she LOVES meal planning, cooking and eating all the delicious food, which she chronicles in her blog, The Freckled Fork.