Why Meal Planning Makes Sense and How to Do It

5 Jan

Let me start by saying that I haven’t always been great at planning meals. Growing up we just went to the store, wandered the aisles, and stocked up on the things we used a lot and/or looked good. Then we went home, put the food away, and wondered why we still didn’t have anything to eat. I continued this approach into my early twenties for several reasons. First, it was all I knew. Second, meal planning sounded like too big of a hassle and a time suck. Three, nobody really planned their meals, right?

I’m not sure exactly when I started planning meals, but I think it was in the early days when Seth and I were dating and I was on my own, buried in debt. I knew I had to stop eating out and save money, otherwise I would end up begging for quarters on the freeway off-ramp. I figured if I had to eat at home, I wanted to eat a variety of good food, not chicken flavored ramen every night. And thus it began.

It was definitely a rough start. I basically started by thinking of something I wanted to make and searched for a recipe on my go-to recipe spot: food.com. I’d search through all the recipes based on ingredients and ratings and choose what I thought best suited my needs. Then I’d write down the ingredients I needed on a random piece of paper and started looking for my next recipe. This was not a fast process by any means, but it worked.

I started shopping with my list and while it did save me time and money in the grocery store, I wasn’t very organized and ended up going back and forth across the store several times to get items I’d missed in my chicken-scratch jumbled list. I knew there was room for improvement.

One of my biggest breakthroughs was when I started using my laptop in the kitchen instead of a cookbook (most of the time anyway). I increased my search for recipes online by following different food blogs and adding them to my Google Reader. I could look at all the new recipe posts in one place and put a star next to the ones that looked good.  Then during menu planning time, I could just scan through my starred recipes and choose the ones I wanted to make that week. I’d try to get a good variety of meals that also used some of the same ingredients.

When I decided to start posting the recipes on my blog, I would paste the url of the recipe into each post and save it as the recipe name so I wouldn’t forget what meals I’d planned. Then, when it was time to make something for dinner, I’d pull up my blog post list, see what my options were, and decide what to make based on what ingredients I needed to use first, how much time I had, and what I felt like eating. Suddenly it was all coming together and meal planning wasn’t so hard anymore.

The final thing that really helped improve my meal planning and shopping was using my smartphone with a grocery list app. I love GroceryIQ because it allows you to order the aisles so they mimmick your own grocery store. It sorts items by aisle and you can check off an item with just a touch and it moves it to the bottom of the list so you can easily see what’s left. Plus, it’s free! By using this app I rarely have to go back across the grocery store for an ingredient I missed and only go down the aisles I need. And I don’t have to carry a big piece of paper and pen with which to try and cross out an item using the grocery cart handle as a writing surface (no worky). Plus, when I run out of an item, I just add it to my list and it’s always there whenever I make a trip to the store! No more remembering stuff!

These days I have tweaked my meal planning approach just a little. I still use my Google Reader to find recipes I want to make (as well as cookbooks and other random sources). However, I’ve found it helps to have a guide in helping to choose what kind of recipe I’m looking for. Each week I try to choose one recipe from each of these categories:

  • salad/sandwich
  • soup
  • comfort food/good old standby
  • vegetarian
  • pasta

It helps me narrow the options down so I’m not looking at a giant list of recipes wondering which I should choose. It also keeps me from planning a week in which I make soup 5 times. I also pay more attention to how long a meal is going to take to make. During the week, if it’s much more than a half hour and/or requires a lot of prep, it’s out. It’s just me and baby in the evenings and I don’t want to waste those precious few hours I have with her standing at the stove.

I realized how far I’d come in my meal planning habits the other day when I attempted to make an impromptu trip to the grocery store without a meal plan or list. I walked into the store pushing my cart and had absolutely no idea what to buy aside from milk. I wandered down each aisle trying to scan every ingredient to see if I needed it. I felt stressed and lost and completely inept.  I came home from the store with a bunch of canned food with nary a fresh fruit or vegetable in sight. A far cry far from what I’ve become accustomed to.

So there you have it. This is what I do pretty much week in and week out. Sure it takes a small amount of time to plan my meals and make a list and go shopping, but the benefits from these small actions are huge. My family gets a delicious (usually healthy) meal almost every night. I’m free of the stress of searching for something to make at the end of a busy day, and I save time and money during my shopping trips. If you’re still wondering if this is something for you, stop wondering and just do it. It’ll probably be a bit overwhelming at first, but once you give it a couple weeks, you won’t ever turn back.

Have any planning or shopping tips that work well for you? Anything I’ve missed? Think I’m crazy? Tell me what you think!

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5 Responses to “Why Meal Planning Makes Sense and How to Do It”

  1. Rachel Skousen January 5, 2013 at 10:13 pm #

    You shouldn’t have given up on Ramen so quickly, Karen. There are TONS of varieties. It’s not just chicken-flavored anymore!

    I LOVE menu planning for the reasons you described but I HATE it because of the time it takes. Tagging possible recipes is a great idea for cutting back on time spent planning, especially since you can peruse all your tagged recipes for similar ingredients.

    My favorite idea is the weekly “categories” you choose from.

    • Karen @ Gravy Training January 5, 2013 at 10:27 pm #

      Oh ramen definitely still has its place! So does Mac and cheese, just not near as much as they would if I didn’t plan stuff. And yes planning seems like a hassle sometimes and is my least favorite part of my job as cook around here. But it’s worth it not to be stressed out about what to make for dinner when I get home or waste time wandering around trying to figure something out. Plus I don’t ever go to the store more than once a week which saves a ton of time. I don’t even bother going to the store anymore if I don’t have a list and a plan.

  2. Rufus' Food and Spirits Guide January 6, 2013 at 3:04 pm #

    This is a really smart approach. We need to do it more too.

  3. Annie January 6, 2013 at 9:56 pm #

    It saves me time in the end. It’s nice not to have to think of what to have every night. I know that I have everything I need for each menu item. I always hated finally thinking of something I wanted to make then find out I didn’t have all the ingredients. Then you’re back to square one and it’s getting later by the minute. I remember when I was first married, I started planning menus. Some ladies at work laughed and made fun of me. They told me I was a naive newlywed and my efforts weren’t going to last long. Well, almost 8 years later, and I’m still doing it! Who’s laughing now?

    • Karen @ Gravy Training January 7, 2013 at 10:34 am #

      I wondered how long I would last planning menus as well, but after I’d done it for a while, I realized I really liked it and it made my life much easier. I’m not so formal about it as I used to be (writing the week’s menu up on a chalkboard) because Seth and I see each other more now and I can just tell him what I made (or he’s there to eat it). Although, I think it did help to keep me on top of things. I tend to put off my shopping trips sometimes and we end up eating a couple pantry meals for a few days until I get my act together.

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