Meal planning is essential to eating healthy on a budget.
Most of us know this. While it seems so easy, it is actually ridiculously intimidating and time consuming. It takes figuring out meals, creating a grocery list, going to the store and actually sticking to the list. Trust me, I’m not an expert at this; I’m learning right along with you. But I think that I’ve got the basic formula figured out. While I think this is beneficial for everyone, be sure to make small adjustments so that this will work for you. It’s supposed to make your life easier, not more difficult.
The first step to creating a meal plan is setting aside the time to do it. I know you think you don’t have any time to set aside. Think about it this way: how much time do you spend agonizing over what you’re going to make for dinner? Going through drive-thrus? All of those little minutes add up, and by taking all of those minutes and centering them around one specific time will ease the stress (and your wallet).
You just have to commit to doing it. Physically look at your calendar and find time that ISN’T busy. Maybe it’s during naptime or right after work. If you can do the whole process at once, set aside at least 4 hours to get it done. But if you need to break it up, like I do, set aside maybe 1-2 hours a day.
First, go through your entire kitchen. What can you make out of the ingredients you already have? If you’re missing only one or two ingredients, just be sure to include the food you already have in your meal plan. Don’t spend money unless you have to.
From there, figure out the meals you want to make. Write them down, and break down their ingredients list. The ingredients list is your shopping list. Don’t forget to do this for all of your meals, including snacks. I have a terrible habit of only planning dinners and forgetting we have to eat at other times of the day, too.
The next step is actually prepping the food you bought. For me, it is so much easier to prep components of meals instead of a bunch of whole ones. That being said, I do make basic meals like enchilada soup and easy things that kind of get thrown together and tossed in the oven.
When it comes to prepping your produce, there are a couple different things to think about. Really, you shouldn’t wash your produce ahead of time because it’ll mold quicker. Also, research has shown that when you cut and prep your veggies ahead of time they actually lose nutrients. But produce that just sits there and goes bad doesn’t give you any nutrients. So if you have a tendency to buy produce but not use it, prep it ahead of time. Put the pieces in clear containers (mason jars, zip top bags) front and center in your fridge so you know it’s there. You’re more apt to add in veggies when they’re already prepped and only require a toss in a salad or a quick steam.
I like to precook things that we use a lot of and freeze them in small batches so I can warm it on the stove. This includes things like beans and rice. Dried beans are SO much more cost effective than canned ones, but they take FOREVER to cook. So, I cook them ahead of time in HUGE batches and freeze them on a cookie sheet in a single layer so they don’t stick to each other. Once the beans are thoroughly frozen, I scoop them up and put them in freezer bags. This way they won’t get super clumpy and will cook much quicker. This usually has to be done in several batches throughout the day, so I cook them in the morning, and as the day goes on I just cycle them out of the pot and into the freezer. The same basic idea goes along with rice and quinoa.
You can also do this with awesome deals you find at the store. Are blueberries in season and on a great special? Get a ton of them, freeze them on a cookie sheet, and store them in the freezer. You can do this with veggies, too. Just be sure to blanch them (drop them in boiling water for less than a minute, then drop in ice water) and thoroughly dry them so they’re the right consistency when you cook them up.
Make the Big Things.
I like to make big batches of spaghetti and put it in disposable foil lasagna tins. Just be sure to wrap them properly in plastic wrap so they don’t get freezer burnt. Also, don’t forget to mark containers with what it is and the date in which you made it Use this idea with just about anything that can be baked in the oven. Even sweet treats like cookie dough. It makes it so much more convenient.
Make snack bags.
Purchase things that you can separate into serving size baggies later on. My son loves dried fruit. So when I go to Costco, I buy a ton of different kinds. Then when I get home, I separate each into a baggie and drop it into the “snack box.” Keep a box full of stuff you like so when you’re in a rush you don’t have an excuse not to eat something.
Make it work.
Like I said before, this is what works for us. But I truly believe that, with the right tweaks and adjustments, that this formula could work for any family. While it may seem intimidating at first, it will help you in the long run. If you can handle it, for sure take a big leap and plan all of your meals for a whole week and see how it goes. If not, just take a few days at a time. But be sure to give yourself some grace. If at the end of the week, you ate more at home than you did the week before, that’s the progress that really matters.
Do you meal plan? What works for you? For my seasoned meal plan veterans: what advice could you give to the first-timers?