For almost three years now, I’ve kept a meal-journal. Before even that, I planned my meals at the beginning of each week on just a loose piece of paper. I did this for a couple of reasons: 1) my parents did this while we were growing up and it was fun to look forward to certain meals on certain days, 2) it cut down on grocery spending in a major way, 3) it motivated me to grocery shop and cook at home versus eating out or getting take out every night, and 4) I’m a little neurotic and get a lot of enjoyment out of keeping journals, making lists, and planning.
You may not have grown up in a house where meals were planned, and you may not get a high from filling up an entire journal (!), but I’d be willing to bet you like saving money. I’d also be willing to bet you hate throwing out food. You’re probably not going to turn down ways to be healthier either.
Meal planning, whether you plan out every detail or set a rough outline for your week, can make a big difference in the way you eat and the money you spend. No more roaming the aisles aimlessly, buying enough food for 3 weeks when really you’re only planning on cooking at home 3 nights. No more staring blindly into the refrigerator and deciding that the Chinese joint down the street would be easier and faster. No more stressing about that really, really sad bunch of kale that had such good intentions a mere 5 days ago. No more!
Here’s a quick and easy guide to help you plan your meals, stress-free.
1. Take stock of what you have. This isn’t to say that you should only cook pasta if you only have pasta. But if you have pasta, or beans, or some ground beef in the freezer, start there. Maybe try out a new pasta recipe. Or do a spin on taco night. You’ll use what you have, cut down on what you spend, and stretch your culinary muscles all at the same time.
2. Plan your grocery list while you’re planning your meals. Try to consolidate as much as possible. Planning on cooking rice with your Roasted Chicken on Monday? Make a little extra and make the leftover rice into Vegetable Fried Rice on Tuesday (leftover rice makes the best fried rice, anyway). Make a big crockpot meal (like my favorite, Barbacoa Beef!) on Wednesday, and use the leftovers for nachos, sandwiches, or burrito bowls the rest of the week. You’ll be planning a weeks worth of meals, but only buying the groceries you really need.
3. Only buy what is on your list. No, really. Ever go to the grocery store with a list of 15 things and leave wondering how on earth you spent as much as you did and how these 20+ bags got in your car? Listen, I know that the avocados are beautiful right now and, look! Only 2 for $4.00! And then, look, tomatoes! Onions! Cilantro! We could have guacamole! But you didn’t plan for guacamole. So if you’re not willing to change at least one night (and possibly the rest of the week if you’ve done Numbers 1 and 2), put the avocados down. They’ll just rot on your countertop and make you feel sad. Make note of the beautiful avocados and plan for next week.
4. Don’t forget about lunch. A huge bonus of meal planning is that you’ll most likely have lots of leftovers. Say goodbye to sad turkey sandwiches. If you plan ahead, you can round-two a dinner into a delicious lunch that will make your coworkers jealous.
5. Know yourself. If you know that towards the end of the week, you end up going out, factor in at least one stretch-day. Sometimes I’ll leave Thursday intentionally blank because by the end of the week I’m not feeling like cooking. So we’ll go out or order in, and I won’t feel bad about leaving any food untouched in the fridge.
6. Make notes. Take a moment at the end of the week to reflect on which meals were successful and which were not. Before you know it, you’ll have a make-shift recipe journal. You’d be surprised how often I look back on what I had during this time last year to get inspiration for the current week’s meals.
I’ve made meal-planning part of my weekly routine and I’m so glad I have. If you follow these 6 steps I think you also could make it a habit, but as with anything, be easy on yourself and make sure it works for your life. If you did start though, we could swap recipes. (See what I did there?)