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How to meal plan in five easy steps

Getting started meal planning seems like a huge leap for many. But once you adjust and form it into a habit, skipping a week seems more stressful than taking the time to plan and you’ll find that you save yourself time… time that can be spent with your family and friends or doing other things that you also enjoy!

Here are five important meal planning tips to get you on your way to a healthy, organized week of meal plans.

Keep a calendar

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/Free Digital Photos

It would be really difficult to create a meal plan calendar without a thorough, detailed calendar. One of the first steps in meal planning is taking a look at the week ahead. Whether you use an online calendar like Google Calendar or Cozi, a desktop calendar like MomAgenda or a wall calendar, what’s important here is that your whole family commits to reporting events, dates and appointments to the same system. With this in place, when it’s time for you to meal plan for the week ahead, you’ll have all of your plans in one place—you’ll know if Junior has a late basketball practice and needs an early dinner, or if your spouse is working late, or if you have a doctor appointment at 4 pm. Any changes in your schedule and will affect the time you can put towards making your meal, so keeping a calendar will help you to see which day is best for a slow cooker and which day you’ll have 3 hours to cook that pot roast.

Block out about 2-3 hours a week for planning and shopping

This one always makes people gawk and say, “Oh, forget it. I’m not meal planning if I need to set aside that much time!” But, trust me, the better you get at keeping your calendar, and the more practice you give towards making meal planning a routine, the faster this will become shorter time. Plus, while 2-3 hours seems like a lot of time to devote to meal planning, when you realize the time you save worrying about what you’re making for dinner at 4 pm on Tuesday and running to the grocery story three times a week, you’ll realize just how happy you are with devoting 2-3 hours to meal planning.

Now that you have your time, sit down, open your calendar to this week and take out a weekly planner. I use the Mom Agenda Family Planner which I like because there’s a separate section for each of my kids and a larger section for me. There are hundreds of printables to choose from if you’d rather play around with styles.

Next, transfer this week from your agenda onto your planner, pull up the weather channel on your computer, tablet or phone and look at the week ahead. Assess your plans by asking yourself the following:

  • Which days will be best for a slow cooker meal?
  • Which nights will you have time to cook?
  • Which days are definite left over days.

Then, go ahead and fill in your dinner schedule on the bottom of your calendar for each day, creating a grocery list as you go. After that, grab your bags and head to the grocery store.

If the idea of finding meals is intimidating, it may be helpful to subscribe to a dinner planning program for the first few weeks, months or, if you love it, year. When I first started, I subscribed to DinnerPlanner for an entire year. DinnerPlanner is great—they send seven meals, recipes and a grocery list to your email each week. I’d look at my week, select my meals, and learn all sorts of cooking tips and meal planning tips.

Of course, there are also bloggers who offer meal planning on their websites. I post mine every Monday at Julieverse. Sign up the free Julieverse newsletter and you’ll receive them in your email each Monday (along with other posts each day). Try Googling “Menu Plan Monday” for hundreds of participating websites.

One of the tricks of menu planning is learning to be flexible. There will definitely be days when life doesn’t go as planned: you forget to take the chicken out of the freezer to thaw, Little Susie needs to go to the doctor unexpectedly, you just need to lie down for an hour… it happens. To prepare for that always have a stock of last minute meals in your freezer or fridge. Marie Callender’s meals are the perfect solution for last minute meals—they can be heated in just minutes and many are loaded with vegetables and proteins.

Here’s a great list of things you should always have in your pantry and freezer to help you out when your plans change as well as a few last minute meal recipes. I call this my “last minute meal plan.”

I know you’ve heard it before, so it’s no surprise when we say that consistency will make this easier. Once you’ve made your plan, stick to it as best you can. Only by sticking to the plan will you learn that meal planning really does fit in your life. After a few weeks, you’ll notice that you’re saving money, time and stress. So, just like everything in life, it gets easier the more you do it. So, stick to it!

What tools or systems do you use throughout the week to save yourself time so that you can slow down and enjoy your family?

Posted in Family, Food, Traditions

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