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Meal planning. Most of us see it as a necessary evil if we want to a-) eat on a budget, b-) eat healthier, c-) waste less, or d-) stop eating out all the time. A lot of us will do a good job of meal planning for a few weeks or months, and then life happens and meal planning falls on the back burner until we re-commit to starting all over.
For me, strict meal planning just never worked. I don’t like being told what I’m going to eat for every meal… even if I’m the one who told myself to do it. What if I have grilled chicken on the menu for lunch today but really want the rest of last night’s fried rice? THE WOES! What to do?
For me, the trick has been to put less “planning” into meal planning. Instead, I’ve learned to work with and manage the food we have so that we’re never bored and minimize food waste. In fact, let’s call this technique “meal management.” Nerdy? Maybe. But who cares if it works? At this point I can plan our meals for the week in less than 15 minutes on the fly (because let’s be honest…I ALWAYS put grocery shopping on the back burner until we run out of everything short of water), which means I can actually stick to it.
Go ahead…oooh and aaah at the thought of the time you’ll gain by meal planning only 15 minutes a week. I’ll wait here….
All done? Great! Now let’s talk about tips to simplify meal planning so you can develop a meal plan in 15 minutes a week:
1-) Build your own cookbook
This is especially important if you have go-to recipes from a variety of cookbooks and/or websites. It quickly gets exhausting if you have to break out all your cookbooks every time you sit down to do your grocery list and meal
plan manage. Instead, invest the time to put all your favorite recipes in one digital place that you can access at any time or place. I use Evernote, but there are other programs such as Google Keep as well (and if you really want to get fancy, you can use a program like Camscanner to add recipes from physical books.) Whatever you decide, I would recommend a program that will allow you to categorize your recipes so that you can easily look up what you need.
Once you have your cookbook going, try a new recipe every so often (maybe 1 new recipe every few weeks). Only if you LOVE the recipe should it get added to your cookbook for good. If you like to tweak recipes, you could always have a section for recipes that you wan’t to optimize too!
Of course this is an up front time investment, but it makes a huge difference in efficiency. In fact, you can even shop without a grocery list if you have a cookbook full of your favorite recipes on your phone! Bam! That’s what I call efficiency!
2-) Develop a system that works for you
I have a system for choosing weekly recipes instead of writing in exactly what I’m going to eat for every meal of the week. It’s simple! I just pick one recipe from each of 4 categories: 1 meat, 1 fish, 1 vegetarian, and 1 craving, and this feeds our family of three dinner for about a week if I scale the recipes appropriately.
If the first time I follow a recipe I find that it makes a huge or tiny amount, I jot it down in our cookbook (assuming we’ve decided to add the recipe to our cookbook) so I can adjust accordingly. I also keep simple things on hand (pasta, frozen meals, etc) for for weeks where we didn’t have enough to carry us through, and on weeks where we end up with too much I carry the leftovers into the next week (in the form of lunch or dinner leftovers). Easy peasy, right?
In addition, I don’t “plan” breakfasts or lunches… we keep plenty of staples for these meals on hand (granola bars, lunch meat, almond butter, etc.), and if we want something different we just dig into leftovers.
Of course, depending on your needs or values your system may not look the same. For example, if you’re vegan you definitely won’t be using meat and fish as two of your categories! So maybe you would choose 1 lentil dish, 1 bean dish, 1 pasta dish, and 1 tofu dish as your categories. Be creative!
3-) Keep it simple
Fact: some of the best recipes are the easiest. And you should note which ones are super easy in your cookbook. Do this and you’ll find yourself making them over and over! Eventually you won’t even have to look at the recipe to know what to buy for it. It’s a domino effect of simplicity!
If there’s a recipe you love but it’s more labor intensive, note that down as well and save it for weeks where you’ll have a little more time to devote in the kitchen or when you’re really craving it.
4-) Invest in good cookware
We can meal manage all we want, but if we loathe cooking then then we’ll never stick to it.
I’m personally a big advocate of investing in just a good set of pots and pans and knives over a bunch of fancy gadgets because most of us are guaranteed to use it regularly. Ask yourself how much you actually use that George Forman grill or that air fryer. If it’s less than once every few weeks, then the space it is taking up (especially if it’s on the counter) may be causing you more stress when you try to cook. Keep it simple with functional tools, and optimize the space in a way that works for you. This way you’ll feel and cook like a beast in the kitchen!
5-) Plan your food prep
Planning your food prep is arguably more important than planning your meals themselves. Think about it: have you at one point or another opted for takeout or a frozen meal over cooking because you just didn’t want to go through the headache and time of prepping the food, cooking, and doing the dishes after a long day at work? Probably.
What is it then, that makes frozen pasta meals or pizza so appealing compared to making your own meal on those nights? Answer: the prep is done for you!
Imagine if you came home and the peppers were already cut, the meat already rinsed and trimmed, and the carrots already peeled. Cooking the meal wouldn’t seem so bad then, would it?
This is why doing food prep is so important! It makes the cooking and cleaning process much more efficient, and as a result you’re less likely to put it off.
So do yourself a favor and worry less about when you’re going to eat a specific meal and more about when you’re going to be prepared to cook a specific meal. I promise you’ll be less stressed!
6-) Save your meal plans as you go
Did your meal plan this week work as smooth as butter (pun intended)? Did you enjoy every meal this week and feel like your family ate a balanced diet? Then save it and use it in the future! Hey…you already did the work…may as well reap the rewards!
There you have it! If you haven’t already, sign up for our email list and get a beautiful and my FREE mini planner! This planner includes a 4-page meal planning section that will help you incorporate some of the tips I mentioned here (like planning your food prep and scaling your recipes) but also is flexible enough for you to make your own adjustments. Master a system that works for you and before you know it you’ll be meal planning in only 15 minutes a week too!
Of course, if you need (or want to offer) additional tips or ideas I’m here to help. Just ask your question in the comments below.
Want more meal planning tips? Check out these 4 fun themes to use up leftovers!
I love the idea of creating a cookbook as you go. That could become a great keepsake if you have kids and they have their favorite meals to add to the plan. I totally agree with having great cookware. I also like having good storage containers for the leftovers and the foods I have prepped ahead of time.
Thanks! Yes, good storage containers are very useful, especially glass containers like Pyrex!
Beth Davidson says
This is a good guide. I am one of those start a meal plan, drop it for months type people. I can’t get into having every tiny detail figured out. i think I will give categories a try, but I’ll probably do by cuisine rather than by protein. Like, one Italian dish, one Mexican, etc. Wish me luck!
Thanks, Amanda! This is an excellent resource. I will definitely take all of your tips into careful consideration. Hope this time it works!