Meal Plan Monday: Meal Planning for Beginners

Good post-Easter Monday!  I come to you (not live) this week to talk about something very near and dear to my heart:  meal planning.

For many people, I might be preaching to the choir or giving you information that you already know.  I am going to try to trace the most up-to-date way that I meal plan with the hope that any meal planning newbies who are reading this will find needed tidbits of knowledge to lead to meal plan success.

I have had successes and failures with meal planning.  It has not always been smooth sailing.  There have been stumbles as well as fits and starts along the way.

As we are a family whose big “restaurant-spending risk” is at supper, I mostly plan only the evening meals.  My lunches are usually leftovers or a can of Aldi-brand Chef Boyardee at work, Muffin’s school lunches are an interesting blend of leftovers, sandwiches, homemade (or even, horrors, store-bought) Lunchables, or snacky lunches.  Josh tends to do the sandwich or leftover thing although sometimes he grabs stuff at Walmart or Target.

In the summer, I try to plan a bit more (breakfasts and lunches), and, if we have company, I plan all possible meals (dessert and beverage included).

Tip #1:  Meal planning is not optional.  It is a necessity if you live under any kind of budget constraints (and I haven’t met a person yet who doesn’t).

Tip #2:  Gather recipes.  Some people meal plan around a rotational schedule and have recipes that they repeat over and over and over.  There are pros and cons to this.  The pros are that you always buy the same thing at the grocery store and know which ingredients to stock up on when they go on sale.  The cons, for us, would outweigh the pros.  Josh and I like trying new things.  A rotational meal plan would not allow us the freedom to do so.

I gather recipes everywhere.  My bookmarks/favorites in Chrome are mostly recipes.  My Dropbox is at capacity (and beyond) for recipes.  My computer has recipes.  I have pictures of recipes that I have taken with my phone that are in my photo roll.  I collect the special interest (and regular) food and cooking magazines that have recipes.  I look at blogs and ingredient provider websites for recipes.  And, finally, that great recipe glut:  Pinterest.

I have thousands upon thousands of recipe pins.  Seriously.  Thousands.  Morning, noon, and night, I contemplate recipes or even simply ingredient combinations.

Even if you go old school and gather recipes that you use in a binder, do so.

Tip #3:  From my available recipes, I make a meal plan.  I do not rely on pay-by-month apps or websites to plan my meals.  Part of the purpose of meal planning is to save money and time.  Spending money for a meal plan?  Ummm, no.  Another issue I have with these is that the ones that are completely pre-made tend to be recipes that use ingredients that one (or more) of us don’t like.  Curry powder, for instance.  Or anchovies.  Or, in some really sick why-would-you-ever-do-this-to-anyone-recipe-idea, curry powder with anchovies.

Note that I said from my available recipes, I make a meal plan.  Some people build their plans around the loss leaders in grocery circulars.  I went through a stage where I did that.  For me, a person who intrepidly treks to Aldi every two weeks (67 miles one-way), this isn’t really feasible.  I will buy the loss leaders at Kroger or Albertson’s if they are a fantastic deal.  Most loss leaders are either proteins that freeze well (and can have a meal plan built around later) or processed items that keep well (canned, jarred, or boxed items).  Produce loss leaders would usually end up being part of a side dish, and those items can be quickly swapped out.

Tip #4:  Find the day you know you are most likely to fudge on the meal plan and make it a leftover day (or something really easy that you don’t mind eating every week).  For us, that day is Thursday.  And the alternate meal is hot dogs.  Very rarely do we resort to hot dogs.  Usually, we eat leftovers.

Tip #5:  If you theme-meal plan, pencil stuff in.  Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday are the easiest days of my meal plan.  Tuesday is usually taco or Tex-Mex related.  Thursday is leftovers (Thrifty Thursday).  For Fridays, I usually list pizza.  This could be grabbing a pizza at Little Caesars, grabbing a slice at Sam’s, making mini pizzas (with English muffins or Texas Toast or French bread), or making a full-blown pizza.

Tip #6:  If you have holidays or special occasions, pencil those in as well.  Nights when you are out of town, holidays, nights when you have to work late, etc. easy to plan because you probably are going to (gasp!) eat out.  As long as it is part of your meal plan, you will not have already purchased food to eat out on that date.

Tip #6:  Plan around the week you know you will have (activity and weather-wise).  Longtime readers know that I drag the slow cooker, grilling, and chilled recipes out in the summer.  I refuse to heat up my kitchen (and, therefore, the rest of the house) if I can help it.  Also, if my weekend is busy (or we are out of town) and the work week is busy, no-brainer meals, such as hot dogs, hamburgers, salads, tacos, something pulled from the freezer, or sandwiches.

Tip #7:  Make a shopping list of everything that you will need for those recipes (and the essentials to get you through your shopping period) arranged by the location of the items in the store.  Remove/leave off any items that you already have, of course.  Sometimes I will make my meal plan around items we already have around the house.  It is incredibly frugal to do so.

Tip #8:  Follow the shopping list.  (And don’t go shopping without, at least, a mental list.)  This should be the ultimate no-brainer.  However, there are reports of people who walk the aisles of grocery stores, adding items to carts willy-nilly with nary a meal plan or a list in mind.  Scandalous! I tell you!  Absolutely scandalous!  These people have no intention of meal planning or cooking their own meals.  They like the appearance of doing so but will not back it up with the “goods,” as it were.

I’m sorry.  But when people do that it really “frosts my cookies.”

Tip #9:  When you get home, organize your groceries in their respective locations by recipes.  This is just a thrown-out-there tip.  If the first time I use the corn flakes, I also use the cream of mushroom soup, those items are going to be together.

Tip #10:  (The Big Kahuna)  Follow the meal plan.  Again, I think I hear a chorus of “Duh!” in the background.  But there are weeks where I falter here.  I get sick.  Muffin gets sick.  Josh gets sick.  Work hits me over the head with a brick a few (dozen) times to the point that microwaving a bag of popcorn takes more effort than I have.  How do I do a preemptive strike around this?

I prep on the weekends.  Remember in Tip #6 where I talk about busy weekends?  Yes, that is where things have to be orchestrated carefully.  For the last few meal plans, if it hasn’t gotten done on the weekend?  It hasn’t gotten done.  So, I prep as much as possible on the weekends (to the point of completely oven-readying casseroles, putting protein in marinade, chopping up toppings for tacos, precooking taco and/or sloppy joe meat, and even making meals so that all we have to do is microwave individual portion sizes for the weekday).  Meals that cannot be prepped ahead that require a lot of work are designated non-busy day meals only (weekends, summer, school holidays).

Why did I feel the need to write this post?  1)  I believe passionately in the importance of meal planning.  It soothes me.  It feeds my soul (literally and figuratively).  It provides structure to my often chaotic and fragmented life.  2)  The people who “frost my cookies” from Tip #8?  Heard about some of them.  I am literally contemplating tying my fingers together to keep from being more insulting towards them.  3) In researching budget recipes on Pillsbury’s website, I was overjoyed to find a five-day meal plan (in an article that stressed the importance of meal planning)…until I looked at the shopping list.

The shopping list included ingredients that were super expensive.  In a meal-planning article on the budget portion of a recipe website, should you ever include recipes in a meal plan that have super-expensive ingredients?

Personally, as a huge corporation, that company should know better.  Sure, in many cases, the more expensive ingredients could be substituted (and I would), but, in my mind, you put people off meal planning with such a counterproductive meal plan.  (For those who are dying of curiosity, the ingredients included honeycrisp apple–one of the more expensive ones unless they are on an extreme sale, rotisserie chicken–wouldn’t it be cheaper to buy and roast a chicken, pumpernickel bread, organic canned tomatoes, and organic Thousand Island dressing.  Whoever heard of organic Thousand Island dressing?)

So, what is on my meal plan this week?

Saturday:  Caramelized Black Pepper Chicken (Just a Taste), rice, eggroll

Sunday:  Easter dinner

Monday:  red beans and rice, bread, salad (freeze leftover red beans for June)

Tuesday:  Fajita Rice (Lynn’s Kitchen Adventures), beans, chips and salsa

Wednesday:  Baked Chicken Croquettes (Life in the Lofthouse), broccoli, rice, and gravy

Thursday:  leftovers or hot dogs

Friday:  pizza

Saturday:  I am chaperoning a school event, and Muffin has a Cub Scout thing with Josh.

Sunday:  Southern Buttermilk Fried Chicken (A Bountiful Kitchen), macaroni and cheese, green beans (freeze half of the macaroni and cheese for June)

What is on your meal plan this week?  How do you meal plan?