Monday, October 21, 2013

How to Organize a Meal Plan

I am a list person. I make lists for just about everything that I do, even if it doesn't really require a list. I write them, rewrite them, update them, change them, and write them again. If you were to come to my house, you'd find lists tucked away in just about every room. It drives my husband crazy, but I find it very helpful in keeping some semblance of order in our busy lives.
All of this to say, when it comes to deciding what we'll be eating, I make a list. I have found that it not only saves us money, but it makes coming home after a long day of work so much less stressful. Gone are the days where I'd stand at the fridge at 6:00 in the evening trying to figure out what I was going to cook, only to settle for something less than appealing and not very healthy.  I've come to enjoy the creativity that it requires to come up with several different meals, while staying within our budget.
I'm here today to share some of my tips on how to organize your very own meal plan and hope that you find it as helpful as I have. I typically only make a meal plan for 1-2 weeks at a time, but I have occasionally put one together that got us through an entire month, with only a couple of trips back to the store for fresh produce and dairy products.

Step #1: Print out a Meal Planner Template 
I like to use a free meal planner template like this one from The Project Girl. It makes it super easy to plug in your meals and even has a spot to list your groceries.

Step #2: Check your grocery store circular
If you're trying to save money or stay within a certain budget, it's essential that you do this step before picking your recipes. I admit that occasionally I get a craving for a certain recipe and I add it to my meal plan without checking to see if the ingredients are on sale, but I try to avoid that. Check to see what meat and produce is on sale at the time, and search for recipes that utilize those ingredients.

Step #3: Pick your recipes
I have certain easy recipes that I know are winners that I typically have on my meal plan, such as tacos or pasta. These recipes are the ones that I make on a day when I'm too tired to concentrate on cooking. However, I do like to throw in a couple of recipes that we haven't tried before, just to keep things interesting. While I do have an extensive cookbook collection, I love to find new recipes on Pinterest and Make sure when you are picking your recipes that you are utilizing what leftover ingredients you will have from other recipes. For example, if I have hamburgers on my meal plan for that week, I know we'r not going to eat an entire package of hamburger buns. So, I'll add sloppy joes to my meal plan so that we can utilize the extra buns. This is especially true about meat, because it is the most expensive part of a meal.

Step #4: Make your grocery list
When making your  grocery list, make sure that you are shopping at home first. I can't tell you how many times I've put something on my grocery list, only to get home and realize I already had it. Once you are sure that you need an ingredient, add it to your grocery list.

Step #5: Do your grocery shopping in one day 
Even if you need to go to several grocery stores for all of your ingredients, get it all done in one day. Multiple trips back to the grocery store will cause you to buy unnecessary things, resulting in a much higher grocery bill. While one large trip does require more money upfront, it saves you money in the long run. You will also be grateful when you realize that you already have what you need for dinner at home, and an evening trip to the store isn't necessary.

Step #6: Prep your food
Little things like portioning the meat into baggies and labeling it for the specific meal, and pre washing produce will make such a difference. If you plan to marinade chicken breasts for a meal, go ahead and throw it in a ziplock bag with the marinade and stick in the freezer. Take the baggie of chicken out of the freezer the night before you plan to cook it and let it thaw in the refrigerator.

Step #7: Organize your recipes
I like to type up my meal plan and hang it on the refrigerator for easy reference.  I also take all of my recipes and write them on recipe cards and put them inside of an envelope that I hang on the refrigerator. That way, when I am deciding what I'll be cooking that night, I can grab the recipe card that I need and I don't have to waste time looking for it.

There you have it! My methods may be a little over the top for some, so do whatever works best for you. If you start noticing your meals becoming less and less stressful, you've achieved the goal!

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