I love meal planning for a number of reasons: 1) It’s a lot harder to tempt yourself with indulgences and junky fast food when you’ve already got a game plan and your ingredients handy. 2) It makes you more thoughtful about the food you cook. 3) It helps you maximize your ingredients. 4) It’s less expensive—especially if you also plan for breakfasts and lunches on the go. 5) It saves time! If you plan accordingly, that means less time spent in the grocery store!
I started meal planning when I moved in with my then-fiance (now husband) and started grad school. We had little money to go on once all the bills were paid. Meal planning was a way to make the most of the ingredients we purchased, to plan ahead to avoid having to buy a lunch or breakfast out, and to think and talk more about food over our now-shared meals. The first few weeks were a little rocky, but when I challenged myself to really stick to my meal plans / groceries without getting any new ingredients for a few weeks, I got the hang of it.
Now that we’re a little less pinched, I still meal plan because all of the aforementioned reasons are awesome! Plus, it’s a creative challenge to use only ingredients on hand to throw something together if I change my mind about a particular meal or something starts going bad sooner than I thought.
Here are my cardinal rules for meal planning and grocery shopping:
- Stock your pantry… and your fridge and freezer. Certain staples should always be there. My grandmother taught me that if you have flour and water, you have a meal. If you have sugar, that’s even better. Flours, sugars, eggs, canned tomatoes, beans, frozen vegetables, onions, olive oil, spices—there are some things I always keep in my pantry, fridge, and freezer that I know I can scrape together a meal with if I need another day without running to the grocery store, or want something different than what I planned.
- Similar to #1 in that you need to have certain ingredients handy: have a go-to meal that you can whip up in under 30 minutes with whatever you have handy without checking a recipe or relying on specific ingredients. For me, that’s a soup or a curry. I always have the needed ingredients handy for the base, and I can mix and match the particular veggies or whatever else I put in. It can also be a frittata, a galette, grilled cheese, a casserole—just as long as you can throw it together efficiently, with confidence.
- Never go grocery shopping hungry. This has gotten me into some trouble… if I do, I’ll end up coming home with way more produce than I need (this week, it was about five pounds of greens—whoops!) or half my grocery budget gets spent on cheese. On a related note, never go grocery shopping with your husband if he’s hungry… hello, Costco-sized bag of M&Ms! It’s easy to veer from your plan, even with a well-meaning list, if you’re hungry eyes-ing all over the place.
- Never go grocery shopping without a list. Figure out what you’re going to make for the week for dinners, lunches, breakfasts, and snacks. Then figure out what ingredients you need and write them all down. Do you need any beverages? Household items? Are you going anywhere or having anyone over that you may need to have an extra appetizer handy? Add those, too.
- Shop your house before you leave. Once I have a list of the ingredients I need, I check off the things I already have in my pantry and fridge. And while I’m at it, I add anything that might be running low.
What are your meal planning tricks and go-to meals?