If you’ve ever tried meal planning but have failed in the past and are looking for a simpler way to get started, here are 10 strategies that can help you make it work!
Have you ever tried meal planning but felt like it didn’t work for you in the past?
I certainly felt that way 5 years ago when I first tried meal planning and failed miserably the first, second and third time I tried it. But now, after having done this for over the last 4 years, I’d never go back to starting my week without one.
Why I Started Meal Planning
Before I started meal planning, I used to dread hearing my kids’ ask me: “What’s for dinner?”.
This not only made eating out really difficult for us it made it hazardous.
On those rare occasions we did eat out, my son would either break out in rashes or my husband and I’d have bloating, headaches or fatigue for days afterward.
This is what forced me to give meal planning a try.
Since then, cooking at home has become so much simpler not to mention easier.
For one thing, meal planning has helped me cut down on the number of times I have to go to the grocery store.
Another huge bonus is that having a plan allows me to cook healthy and nutritious meals for my family without breaking the bank since there’s less waste.
With such a small price to pay to keep my family well fed, well nourished and so much healthier than before, I think that everyone should give meal planning a try!
Why Everyone Should Meal Plan
Even if you’ve tried meal planning in the past and have failed, I want you to keep reading.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned after almost giving up at least 5-6 times is that learning to meal plan takes time but it’s so well worth it.
For me, meal planning has allowed me to take back control of my kitchen not to mention transform my family’s health and well being.
Just as they say that “the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world”, the hand that cooks your dinners will determine your family’s health in significant ways.
When you know exactly what your family is eating (or rather not eating) day after day, you can positively or negatively influence their eating habits.
As my father-in-law liked to tell me all the time:
Your kids will crave later on what you feed them now.
Meal planning helps me ensure that my kids will eat a variety of foods, all different varieties of fish and green leafy vegetables, that they otherwise wouldn’t eat if left to choose on their own.
Best of all, meal planning significantly reduces the stress I used to feel every time one of my kids would ask:
Hey mom, what’s for dinner?.
Since dinner is already taken care of, I have one less decision I have to make for the day~
This is why meal planning is like knocking down dominos—you take care of one challenge and the rest of the others gets easier.
Those are a few reasons why I meal plan and why I think you should try meal planning for yourself.
7 Strategies To Simplify Your Meal Planning
1. Find a Good Meal Planning Template
The quickest way to get on board with meal planning is to find a template that works for you.
Don’t worry at first if you can’t find the “perfect one” because most likely you’ll have to modify it as you go along.
There are lots of freebies available on-line but find one that will give you the option of listing out your groceries and your inventory all in one place like this one.
The most important thing is to keep trying something until you find one that works for you.
I must have tried at least 5 meal planning templates before I settled on this meal planning app called MealBoard.
One thing I liked about this app is that it syncs across all my devices so I can meal plan or add to my grocery list wherever and whenever I have a few minutes to spare.
This mobile app also allows me to cross reference my pantry inventory so that I can tell which ingredients I have on hand which I still need to get at the grocery store for the week ahead.
Best of all, MealBoard has a web based importing function that allows me to import about 99% of the recipes I find on-line. This is super helpful whenever I want to try out a new recipe.
This post is clearly not an endorsement of this meal planning app but the point I want to make is that whichever method that works for you, pen and paper or web based method, find one that best suits you.
2. Stick to What You Know
The other important aspect to successful meal planning is to stick to what you know—especially when you’re starting off.
Populating your meal plan with 5 new recipes for the first week you’re starting off is a recipe for disaster.
Instead, fill up your meal plan with only those dishes you know how to cook already and that you know your family will enjoy.
You can also start off by just planning only one meal each day of the week, like dinner for instance, and keeping everything else consistent (i.e. bacon and egg for breakfast every morning).
Whatever you do, make your meal plan doable on a consistent basis so that you can build momentum.
This is how I started and why I think I’ve been able to stick with it over the long haul.
3. Know that You’ll Fail
As I’ve said before, meal planning can be tricky at first so know beforehand that you may fail multiple times before you get it right.
Studies on habits show that developing one can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days.
What this means is that it’s okay to fail multiple times before you find success.
Once meal planning becomes automatic, however, it will make your life far more pleasant.
Rather than feel resentful, angry, or tired about cooking for my family like I used to, for instance, cooking has become so routine for me, I can actually do it and even enjoy doing it.
So don’t be so hard on yourself. Don’t give up and stay focused on the progress; I guarantee you’ll reap the benefits soon enough.
4. Use A Variety of Cooking Methods
When I first started meal planning, freezer meals were all the rage. I tried this for a little while and realized that eating thawed out chicken and ground beef all the time got boring real fast. Besides, I didn’t think eating frozen dinners every night were all that healthy for you, either.
What I did instead was to switch up how I cooked my meals throughout the week like:
Once you have a variety of dishes you can cook in different ways, you can cater your meal plan to fit in with how much time you have on any given day of the week.
As for me, I’ll often use a slow cooker dish on the weekends when I don’t like to be in the house more than I need to and an instant pot dish if I’ll only have 30 minutes to spare.
Stir fry dishes are usually my go-to’s at the end of the week, since it’s so easy and I can use up whatever leftover ingredients I have.
5. Limit the Number of Ingredients You Use
As you review your list of meals for the week, try to find recipes that use like ingredients.
For instance, if I know I’m going to be cooking my slow cooker Dak Jim for dinner one day out of the week, which calls for carrots, onions, and shiitake mushrooms, I’ll add in separate dish during the same week that uses these same ingredients, like bibimbap.
Grocery stores usually sell carrots, onions and shiitake mushroom in a huge batch so this is an economical way to use up all the ingredients throughout the week.
Using up ingredients like this means that you’ll also have less waste and your refrigerator will get emptied naturally–which in turn will make restocking it so much easier.
This is another one of those added bonuses of having a meal plan—not only does it help you stay on top of your groceries, it will help you to make better use of your food inventory and to keep your refrigerator clean; See what I mean about the domino effect?
6. Prep Ingredients in Batches
The other reason why I like to plan meals that use as many like ingredients as possible is that I can prep all these ingredients at once.
Let’s say, for instance, I have 3 meals that week which call for onions. As I’m chopping up 1/2 onion for one dish, I’ll take a few more minutes to chop up the rest or, dice or slice it depending on what the other recipes call for and put them away into a container for use later.
When I prep like ingredients in batches like this, it gives me a head start to cooking other meals throughout the week.
This is why I’ll never go back to cooking on a day by day basis. I save so much time and angst by consolidating all of my prepping into one session.
Or as my husband likes to say:
Economy of motion reduces action.
7. Maximize Leftovers
Another simple way you can ramp up your meal planning is to maximize your use of leftovers.
When I make soups or stews, for instance, I’ll make enough for at least 2 or sometimes 3 meals if I’m lucky.
This saves me from having to cook 5 different soups or stews every day of the week. Instead, I can usually get by with 2 good soups to accompany 5 days worth of meals.
In fact, this is exactly how all these dishes came about initially. A very popular Korean dish, bibimbap was actually a meal made up of leftover ingredients!
8. Keep Your Pantry Well Stocked
Using up leftovers dishes and ingredients this way is also much easier if you have a well stocked pantry.
Before heading off to the grocery store, for instance, I’ll always check to make sure that I have the following staples handy:
- Chili peppers
- Miso paste
- Fish sauce
I also make sure I have a good supply of the following veggies on hand:
I always like to have a steady supply of anchovy or beef broth in the refrigerator at all times as well.
Once I have those items, I know that even if my meal plan doesn’t work out as well as planned (like the boys eat up all the bulgogi at one meal), I still have enough potatoes and carrots to make a meal out of or broth to make soup with.
9. Have a Back Up Plan
Always have go to dishes that you can cook even if you run out of most of the ingredients.
One of my fail safe dishes is stir fried rice since I always keep left over rice in the freezer and can toss in just about anything and it will taste good.
With 1/4 of a zucchini, 1 chicken breast, ham, or even eggs, along with some pantry staples like sesame seed oil and soy sauce, I can make a great dinner (and left overs) for the kids.
Add to this some miso soup made with a little bit of left over anchovy stock and you’ll have a meal that’s tastier and healthier for you than any take out.
10. Don’t Give Up
Learning to meal plan is like adopting any new habit—it will get better and easier the more you keep at it; You’ll also see how much simpler your life will get because of it.
For one thing, meal planning has cut down all the stress and anxiety I used to feel come dinner time. Now, rather than anticipate this with dread, I can now enjoy what I have to do anyway.
Once you get the meal planning down, it will be like knocking down dominos—you’ll knock over one challenge and find that all the others will fall away as well.
How Meal Planning Simplified My Life
I know that if any of you are not used to meal planning it may still seem like an additional chore added to your already busy schedule.
But meal planning will not only help you maximize your schedule, it will foster family togetherness as well.
Eating together Brings the Family Together
In fact, without eating home cooked meals growing up, I don’t think I’d have had a good relationship with my parents.
Growing up as a latch key kid, dinner time was THE only time I had to connect with my parents. You don’t know how important it was for me that my mom made that possible by making home cooked meals night after night.
Even now, dinner time in my family is THE #1 way that pulls our family together—especially as my kids get older and family time is competing with time spent with their friends or their media time.
Perhaps it’s because I only have boys, but there’s nothing like their favorite dishes to bring them all home on time for dinner. This to me is worth more than the time lost getting my meal plan done for the week.
Let me know in the comments below if you have any additional tips for meal planning that I’ve missed or what you’re going to try out this week!