Ah, meal planning. Something we all aspire to and yet rarely get around to doing. And it's too bad, because for such a short time investment you reap huge benefits. Meal planing saves time, money, and a great deal of sanity. For those who have never meal planned before and may be a bit daunted by the prospect of coming up with a weeks worth of meals RIGHT NOW, I'll break down my process for you. It's not nearly as huge a beast to tackle as you might think.
First things first, take a quick look in your fridge, freezer, and pantry. If you can plan your meals around things you already have on hand then your shopping list is that much shorter, and you've already saved money.
In my fridge I have 1-2 meals worth of turkey (depends on what I decide to do with it), lots of eggs, bacon, cheese, carrots, celery, and homemade yogurt, among other things. In my freezer I notice a surplus of green beans, and a package of boneless skinless chicken thighs. We'll definitely be seeing those on the meal plan this week. And I always keep a fairly well stocked pantry of dry goods such as rice, beans, flour, onions, potatoes, sugar, spices, etc.
Once you have determined which leftovers from the week before need used up, and what ingredients you have on hand already, it's time to start thinking about the meals themselves. I typically try to do my meal planning on Sunday so that I'm ready for the week, but I was working Sunday night/Monday and so I'm doing it today. I also try to plan meals for early in the week that I have all the ingredients on hand for, so I have a little flexibility in my grocery shopping. Nothing kills a grocery budget like running to the store at the last minute for the one thing you need for dinner and coming home $50 later with a bunch of stuff you don't really need.
Any time you can cook once and eat twice you should. Baked chicken thighs for dinner one night can become the basis for soup, stew, sandwiches or casserole later in the week. I can stretch that turkey for two meals if I do one soup and one casserole. I also try to plan one meatless (or at least less meat) meal based around beans and rice.
Now it's time to start planning those menus. If you have something to use up but don't know how, I like www.food.com (was recipezaar) for finding new recipes. Just make a basic plan of what to serve and when. We'll look at our recipes in a bit to decide our shopping lists. There are several tools you can use to organize your meal plans. Here are two that I've used that are working for me.
I found this nifty note pad at Target. It gives you space to write in your meal plans with your shopping list underneath. I like that it doesn't take up much room, and is always visible on the fridge so I can add to the list as I discover things we need.
This is the menu section of my Home Management Binder. I don't use my binder nearly as much as I wish I did, but I'm trying to make it a part of my daily life again. The pages are in page protectors, and you can write with a dry erase marker. I have two menu pages so I can start planning next week without having to erase the week that's not quite over yet.
Here's how my weeks meals are shaping up:
Monday (yesterday): We ordered wings. Yum!
Tuesday: Turkey Stew
Wednesday: Turkey and Rice Casserole
Thursday: Baked Chicken Thighs, Roasted Green Beans
Friday: Bean Soup with Bacon
Saturday: Dinner w/Grandparents
Sunday: Chicken Sandwiches, salad
I'm using up my turkey first since it's been in the fridge for a few days. Also, I need to get the chicken thighs out of the freezer and into the fridge so they'll be thawed for Thursday. I love meals that can be made all in one dish, so I haven't listed a side dish for things that include plenty of vegetables. Both my husband and I are watching our weight, so we're trying to stay away from starchy sides and focus more on veggies and salads.
Now is the time go go through your recipes and make sure you have all the ingredients you need and make out your shopping list. Looking at my list, the only thing I need to pick up is salad greens. This is mostly because I shop according to sales and keep my fridge, freezer and pantry well stocked with things we use often. It's partly because I get in ruts and we tend to eat the same several things over and over. Now make up that shopping list, and sit back and relax knowing you've avoided the "What's for dinner" panic for the rest of the week!