If you know me at all, you know that I absolutely swear by planning our meals. Chris and I get paid every Monday, so it just makes sense for us to plan our meals weekly instead of monthly. I also find that this allows us to be more flexible and add different events to our calendar as things come along, without wasting food that we’ve already bought if those events include dinners out or at someone else’s house.
Before we get into it all, I realize that every family has a different schedule, different needs, different dietary requirements or preferences, and a different budget. So I’m just sharing what works for us, in hopes of inspiring healthy eating on a budget in your household. In no way do you have to copy exactly what we do, although you are welcome to do so!
My goals in meal planning are:
- Committing to eating a healthy, balanced diet while on a budget. If you’ve already planned what you’re going to eat and already have the food bought, you’re way more likely to actually cook that healthy meal!
- Minimal trips to the grocery store each week (saves time, less stress while shopping with children, and cuts down on unnecessary purchases)
- Providing my family with home-cooked meals around the dinner table, as many nights of the week as possible. Eating out is great, but we like for it to be a special treat for our family instead of the norm. I grew up treasuring our times around the dinner table as a family – I remember lots of giggling, lots of stories shared and lots of important conversations and bonding.
One thing that has helped me to stay on top of meal planning is a good notebook. I don’t know if it simply makes me feel like I want to do it every week because it’s a cool notepad, or if it’s actually helpful…but for whatever reason, I really love my meal planning pad! I will say though, I’ve been meal planning for years without this cool notepad, so you don’t have to get one to be successful. Mine looks like this (pictured below) and my aunt actually got it for me on Amazon.com. Click here if you’d like to order one for yourself. It’s awesome and helps me to think about breakfasts, lunches and snacks, which I’d previously not been very good at remembering to do!
Are you still with me? I know this is a lengthy post, so I’ll try to make it as concise as possible! Here are the steps I take every week:
STEP 1: On Thursday or Friday, I open my calendar and look at what’s going on the following week, starting on Monday. This way I can assess what evenings we have booked up and whether or not I need to cook on those nights. I also look at nights that I’ll be rushed and need something quick, or nights that I’ll have time to cook a more involved dinner. We have a few events that happen every week – for example I know I’ll need to make something easily transportable to take to the boys at band practice at church on Wednesday nights, and I also know I’ll want to have a crockpot lunch pretty much every Sunday because we all get back home at around 1:30pm starving and not wanting to wait for a meal to be cooked!
STEP 2: I look at the weather (I’m one of those funny cooks that likes to have cozy meals on cold days, and grilled meat/salads on hot days) and I look at what we had the previous week. I get bored quite easily so I like to change it up and keep things interesting. That being said, Indian food is a family favorite around here, so we usually end up having some kind of curry one night per week. I also try to incorporate two high protein vegetarian meals per week. All the poultry we buy is organic (we don’t have red meat too often) so it can get expensive if we eat meat at every meal. This has been a long process with my husband, but in the last few years he has really learned to love vegetarian meals, as long as they have enough protein to sustain him for the evening.
STEP 3: I start thinking of what dinners I’d like to cook/eat that week. I look at my blog very often, as I really do make those recipes very often. I look on Pinterest, and then in some of my recipe books if I have time. Then I start writing them down on a piece of paper that will eventually become my shopping list. It kind of looks like this:
M – Italian Chicken Quinoa ; T – Roasted Veggie Quiche with roasted potatoes and salad ; W – (boys at band practice) Spaghetti Bolognese ; T – Minestrone Soup ; F – Dinner at the Smiths, take dessert ; S – Chicken Tikka Masala with basmati rice and naan ; S – Crockpot 3 Bean Turkey Chili
STEP 4: I write down what I’ll need to buy for the week. I know that with some staples like quinoa and basmati rice, I can make one bag of each stretch for two meals. Since those things don’t spoil, I don’t have to have both of those quinoa meals or both of those basmati rice meals in one week. I keep a running list each week of household items that we have run out of like toilet paper and paper towels, as well as staples that don’t have to buy every week like coffee, cereal, butter , parmesan cheese etc. I also have a list of things that I basically buy every week like eggs, milk, bread, bananas, pita chips, clorox wipes etc. I also think about breakfast and lunch a little bit. These aren’t as planned as our dinners because our days can get crazy, and our schedule can change at any moment. Breakfasts usually consist of eggs, toast, oatmeal (which I buy a big tub of every now and then and it lasts for quite a while), or cereal. For lunch I usually have some things in the freezer or in the cupboard that won’t go bad if I don’t use them that week – stuff like organic mac and cheese, frozen cheese tortellini, these amazing indian lentil boxes that can be served with rice and/or spinach etc. We often eat leftovers for lunch as well, or if there are some fresh ingredients leftover from a meal we’ve already eaten (like salad stuff or some beans or something) I’ll throw something together adding staples I have in the cupboard like pasta or couscous.
Ok, hang in there, I’m almost done! This does seem like a lengthy process with a lot of extra effort, but I promise once you get into the swing of things it’ll be a time, money and effort saver for you like it is for me.
STEP 5: I go to the grocery store! I write my shopping list in the order that I go around the store. This may seem like overkill to some, but for me it gets me in and out of the store much quicker, and actually helps to prevent me from impulse buys for the most part. Every week I visit two stores, preferably on the same day. For me it’s a local grocery store called Ingles, and then Trader Joe’s which takes me about 20 minutes to get to. The money I save by shopping at Trader Joe’s is well worth the drive! Because of this, I make two separate lists. I’ve learned what is cheaper and/or better quality at each store. For example I buy stuff like toilet paper, cleaning products and bananas at Ingles, but things like organic milk, basmati rice, quinoa and most of their produce are cheaper at Trader Joe’s, and they generally hold their products to a higher standard (they promise no MSG, artificial flavors or preservatives, genetically modified ingredients, artificial trans-fats etc.) so I feel happy buying extra little snacks for our family there.
EXTRA TIPS AND WAYS TO SAVE:
- If you’re going to try this meal planning thing, you HAVE TO commit. Of course there’s always room to switch meals to different days (as long as you’re ingredients aren’t going bad that day), and oftentimes something will pop us with us and we’ll have to push a meal to the following week (I usually try to pick a meal that has ingredients we can freeze or keep fresh for a good amount of time), but the bottom line is if you’ve bought the ingredients, you need to use them. Of course we all have days where we’re busier than we thought we’d be and the last thing we want to do is cook a big meal or sometime we’re not in the mood for the meal we have planned, but it is worth it to stick to the plan. I promise. We have saved so much money by being disciplined in this way, and we eat way healthier because of it. Goodbye last minute pizza order from Papa John’s!
- If I know I have to buy a more expensive ingredient for one meal (like Thai red curry paste, or a certain vegetable/herb that I don’t usually get), I’ll try to make sure I can incorporate it into another meal either that week or the following week. That cuts down on waste and helps to justify that added expense a little bit.
- Learn the prices and quality of products at different stores. You may be surprised to find that something you thought was cheaper at one store, actually isn’t. I buy my bananas, potatoes and cilantro from Ingles instead of Trader Joe’s because I find they last longer. Weird! Alot of people also shop at stores like Aldi, which does have some great deals, but I’m not in a position to add another stop to my weekly shopping. It’s all about finding what store/s work for you!
This was a very long post and I’m sure I’ve forgotten some bits and pieces (I’ll come back and add them in if necessary), but I hope that in some small way this has helped you feel like meal planning is more attainable for your family, and inspired you to commit to your budget and to eating healthier. Healthy eating doesn’t have to be expensive or intimidating, and it can be VERY YUMMY if you know what to cook. Unless you have strong convictions or heavy allergies, you don’t have to be extreme and go fully vegan, or gluten free or anything like that (often that’s not actually sustainable for a lot of people, and then they just go back to fast food and takeout!), just make simple choices for a balanced diet for your family. You won’t regret it!
If you have any questions to ask or extra tips and tricks to share, please comment and let me know! Thanks for sticking with me 🙂