I currently use a paper & pen method as that is how my brain works. If you are more electronically minded when it comes to organization, Erin from it's all happening wrote a nice meal planning post recently about how they use Google calendar and iPhone apps to make it a smooth process.
In sharing how we handle meals around our house keep in mind that it's something that works for us in our current life situation. We do a week at the time, but 3 days at a time might work better for you if you are just getting started. Conversely, doing a month at a time and keeping things in a freezer might be your method of choice (here is a interesting website with details & recipes: Once a Month Cooking). I like the idea of having more freezer meals on hand, but we simply do not have the space for an additional freezer. For us, meal planning a week at a time keeps us eating a good mix of fresh meals, "leftover" meals from the freezer, and a weekly take out/pizza night.
Here is the basic system I use:
- I create my meal plan and grocery shopping list for one week at a time on Sunday mornings. You might do less days or more depending on what works for you.
- I generally cook 4 days a week (aiming for one or two of the meals to make enough food to freeze for an additional meal), eat leftover freezer meals for two, and get take out/eat out/ make frozen pizza for one. This can vary considerably, but this is my general rule of thumb.
- I write all the meals down in white-board marker on a plastic sleeve covered sheet on the fridge. This keeps my plan in the forefront of my mind and also lets me visually shuffle things around as needed. Below is an example of last week's plan (which ended up getting shuffled around, as is the norm).
- I get my recipes from a variety of sources: food blogs, cooking shows, allrecipes.com, Epicurious.com, family & friends, cookbooks, and cooking magazines (Cooking Light, Cook's Illustrated, the occasional Better Homes & Garden-type magazine at the gym). To see my favorite recipes, visit my cooking blog or click on my index of recipes. Once I have tried a recipe and Husband and I deem it a success, it gets printed out, placed in a plastic sleeve and placed in the master recipe binder. I have tried working off my lap top, but I'm just WAAAAAAAY too sloppy. I also keep a lot of loose recipes that I have torn out of magazines in this binder, but those are kept in the pockets. They don't get official plastic sleeve status until they are tried. And because I'm anti-clutter, I go through these loose recipes every so often and get rid of a bunch.
Let's talk in more detail about choosing recipes before we launch into the step-by-steps of meal planning. When you choose your recipes, you need to consider the following:
- Your desire to spend time cooking and the time you actually have. Hate to cook? Then by all means choose quick, simple and easy. Love to cook, but have young children underfoot? You are also going to be choosing quick, simple, and easy most nights. Along these lines, make sure to stay realistic about your skill level and lifestyle.
- Don't pick too many recipes with special ingredients in one week. You will spend too much money on ingredients and have excess that will likely go to waste. Until you really get rolling with meal planning, it might be best to stick with familiar ingredients that can be used in a variety of recipes.
- Consider choosing recipes with overlapping ingredients. For example, if you are going to be cooking a whole chicken in your crockpot, then you can use the extra shredded chicken in a chili later that week. Also, if I'm buying fresh dill for borscht, then I will use the extra dill on fish or in a potato salad later that week. This keeps me from having leftover ingredients that might not get used otherwise.
- Grocery budget. Meat is expensive. Organic produce (or even just regular produce) is expensive. Gourmet meals can be expensive. Keep these things in mind. Perhaps just one fancy meal every couple weeks or once a month will be enough to satisfy the gourmet chef of the house.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
Now for the nitty gritty how-to of it all. Here are the steps that I follow.
1. Determine your basic eating goals. No need to write anything down. Just acknowledge to yourself what it is you want from your dinners. Are you looking to lose weight? Save money? Eat more vegetables? Reduce sodium? Keep that overall goal (or goals) in the forefront of your mind as you choose your meals and subsequent groceries for the week. Our goals are to eat organic/local/seasonal, include several vegetarian meals, attempt to be more budget-minded, and have meals that can be prepared either quickly or in steps (i.e. mostly during naptime).
2. Consider what is going on that week. Let's say Husband is going to be at a work thing late on Thursday, then that's a leftover or simple meal night for me and I make a note of it on the planning sheet. I don't want to try to be cooking a 30+ minute meal in the kitchen without someone to help me distract Bella. If we are going out on Saturday then I mark that down. If I know that Tuesday is going to be crazy busy & exhausting then that is a perfect night to schedule leftovers (i.e. a freezer meal). I think meal planning can trip people up when they forget to take into account their actual lives.
3. Now that you have some basic framework in place, it's time to choose the first meal. How to pick? Open up your fridge and freezer and figure out what needs to be used in the immediate future. Right now I have some basil that is on it's way out so I will either make Lemon Basil Pasta or a Pesto in the next couple days, both of which would make enough for at least one additional freezer meal. Lettuce only have a day left? High time for a Grilled Chicken Caesar Salad or maybe a Taco Salad, methinks. See how that works? Keep yourself from wasting ingredients and start with what you have.
4. The next meal(s) I pick are usually the fun ones that I am in the mood for or that Husband requests.
5. After those first few meals are penciled in, consider the ingredients that you will need to purchase to make those recipes. Let's say Husband requested chicken enchiladas. I know that will require the purchasing of a fresh bell pepper and cilantro, but the recipe only uses half of each. Since I don't like to waste any produce, I decide that I'm going to make a vegetarian Indian dish - Chana Masala - where I can use some of the cilantro (plus this recipe will make enough for two more freezer meals) and Asian Chicken Salad on another night to use the rest of the bell pepper and any remaining bit of cilantro.
6. From here I mentally check in with our eating goals and I can see we are short on vegetarian meals so think about what we have tucked in our freezer at the moment and I decide that one of the freezer meals should be Veggie Lasagna and that the night Husband works late can be Tuscan Cheese Tortellini Soup.
7. BOOM! I'm done and I'm ready to make the grocery list. Check out my master grocery list post if you are interested in streamlining your grocery shopping.
As the week proceeds I can and WILL shuffle and juggle the meals to make it work. For example, a lazy night might change to a pizza night or a gorgeous warm night might have us grilling something instead of what I planned. By including take out and leftover/freezer meal days, you give yourself a lot of flexibility and freedom with your week.
I really hope this was helpful for a few of you. And please let me know if you have questions. Like I said, this kind of thing is fun for me. Happy planning, my friends.