If you’ve made New Year’s resolutions on getting healthy and saving money, you know the kitchen is one of the most important places to make good on your resolutions. Simple things like meal planning can make all the difference when you’re trying to get organized!
And here’s why …
A few years ago, as my kids got older and life got busy, our household fell into an unhealthy, expensive mealtime pattern. Most days, I would think about dinner, stress about what I was going to make, and then end up not making a decision at all.
Then my husband would invariably call on his way home from work asking if I needed him to pick up anything. I’d remember that I forgot to take out any meat to defrost, meaning I’d need to come up with a quick (and not-so-healthy) meal. (Hot dogs, anyone?)
Or he’d grab something on the way home. (Taco Tuesday, again!) When my husband made those last-minute runs to the grocery store, he’d often pick up delectable high-calorie and high-sugar foods we really didn’t need in the house.
And when I made my short-on-time, on-the-way-home grocery store trips, I hated the stress of shopping with all three kids in tow. I’d make one stop and if I had to pay more for the groceries, so be it.
We weren’t being smart about our diet or our budget. I needed to get serious about meal planning ahead of time, and shopping according to what was on our dinner menu. So, that’s what I did!
It really did make a huge difference, and I learned a few things along the way.
Here are 11 tips on meal planning for your family:
1. Create a “master list” of dinners.
When I started meal planning, I put every dinner I remembered ever cooking and had my husband and kids rate those meals from one to ten. I then highlighted in green the meals that were quick and easy (for busy weeknights). I also marked the “special” dinners that required more prep time or pricier ingredients.
2. When meal planning, plan two weeks of dinners, minimum.
This way, you won’t have to take on the task of meal planning every single week. (I usually try to do three weeks at a time, or even a monthly dinner meal plan.)
This doesn’t have to be difficult, as you can reuse some favorite meals (just use your master list!). These are some dinners that I prepare regularly:
- Spaghetti with meat sauce (or meatballs)
- Chicken curry and rice
- Chicken quesadillas
- Shepherd’s pie
- Ground Beef Tacos
- Slow-cooker chili
- Chicken pasta
- Grilled salmon
3. Have your family offer suggestions while meal planning.
I try to add at least one of my kids’ favorite meals each week, so they have something to look forward to. It helps that my boys love spaghetti and meatballs, which is one of the easier meals. They also like homemade burgers, which is a simple dinner to put together.
4. Try adding something new to the dinner menu once a month.
When I do my meal planning, I’ll often look online or ask around for recommendations. This way, you can try working with ingredients you’ve never attempted using before, and maybe discover a new family favorite!
A few new meals I’ve tried over the past few months include:
- Slow Cooker Chicken Taco Soup
- Lemon Basil Chicken Thighs
- Poppy Seed Ham and Cheese Sliders
- Beef Stroganoff
Then I’ll ask the kids, “Should I add this dish next time I do the meal planning?” Sometimes there will be a resounding affirmation, and other times an awkward silence. (But at least I know what not to put on the menu again.)
5. Keep an ongoing grocery shopping list.
You can do this easily with a magnetic notepad on the side of your refrigerator. Or, if you have a favorite grocery store and shop via their app, just add the items you need to your shopping list whenever you notice you’re running low. Have the list on hand when you’re doing your meal planning.
6. Let your kids help with the meal planning.
This can be a terrific way to add practical life skills training to your kids’ education. Sit down with your kids, along with your master list and a meal calendar. Work together on a two-week (or one-month) dinner plan.
Your kids can help look in the cupboards and fridge/freezer, checking what items might be low. Then they can add the items to the shopping list.
7. Do meal planning based on your weekly schedule.
You generally know which days are busier on your calendar. For instance, maybe your kids have sports practice or a homeschool group meet up once a week. Maybe you have a midweek church service. So, opt for simpler meals on those days while saving the more complex dishes for the weekend or days when you have more time in the kitchen.
If you know you will be out much of the day, schedule a crockpot meal or take out a frozen meal to thaw and serve for dinner.
8. Work with what you have on hand.
When I’m particularly ambitious and make a meal planning schedule for the entire month, I will put “leftovers” for a couple of dinners. These spaces can be moved around, depending on when we actually have leftovers on hand, but it’s part of saving money to not let good food go to waste.
There are a lot of great meals you can make with leftovers. (It doesn’t always have to be a casserole.) I often make chicken fried rice when we have leftover grilled chicken and/or rice, tossing in whatever vegetables I have in the crisper.
9. Keep an eye out for sales.
With the prices of produce these days, it’s wise to shop according to what’s on sale and what’s in season. And if you find a great sale on a cut of meat, buy extra and freeze it for several meals.
10. Cook extra and freeze it for an extra meal.
Another way to save time and money when meal planning (as well as make use of on-sale groceries or extra ingredients you have on hand) is by cooking extra. Make a huge pot of soup or curry. Then you will have leftovers for lunch the next day and hopefully, enough to freeze an extra meal, which you can pull out on busy days.
11. Don’t forget the other meals when menu planning.
After making your dinner menu, take time to go through the other meals of the day—breakfast, lunch, as well as healthy snacks—and add necessary items to your shopping list. Maybe your kids enjoy oatmeal or malt-O-meal. My daughter had a phase when she wanted plain bagels on hand, which she would eat with peanut butter and cream cheese.
Your kids can help with this as well, checking the fridge, freezer, and cupboards for your supplies and adding to the list anything that is lacking.
This type of meal planning will take a bit of time at first, especially when creating your master list. (But you don’t have to do this part yourself! If you have a child who enjoys planning and lists, have him or her make this for you. Your child can go around to all the family members and ask for their favorite dinners, then add in all the meals you suggest.)
Once you make this part of your schedule, though, it will save so much time, stress, and money (and even pounds). You will feel better that you are eating healthier and for less money. Also, your kids will enjoy knowing what is on the schedule for dinner.
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