When I hear the term “meal planning,” I think of housewives with a half-dozen children driving from soccer practice to dance classes. And that is so not my life. A lot of online resources for meal planning are keyed toward families and children, but even if you are single or childless you can save a lot of money and time by planning your meals — and your grocery shopping — in advance.
Over the weekend, H and I take a few minutes to talk through our work weeks so we know when one of us is expecting to work late, grab dinner with friends, or eat lunch out instead of packing lunch. Then, we throw out ideas for what we’d like to eat the next week. I typically like to make one nicer dinner we can look forward to, but otherwise we like to keep it simple and 30-minutes or less. Here’s what we’re eating this week:
As you can see, this is a piece of paper folded in half with the dinners written on the left and breakfasts and lunches written on the right. It’s not rocket science. We choose meals in advance but for breakfasts and lunches we keep options ready that we can grab and go if needed. I eat the exact same lunch every day: turkey or chicken soup packed with veggies, carrot sticks and hummus, and grapes; I take a LUNA bar for mid-afternoon snacks. I change soups from tomato-based to broth-based or throw in an apple and pretzels instead of grapes and carrots when I need variety. It’s a simple life.
We talk about what we want to eat, I quickly sort through the cabinets to see what we have and look in the fridge to pull out anything that’s expired, and then we write down our plans for the week. We put the items we’ll need on our grocery list, and we don’t buy a lot more than what’s one the list. Some, of course — is the beer we love on sale? Are cranberries in season? [I’ve been hoarding cranberries in my freezer like a crazy person.] Did we just discover that there are Triple Double Stuf Oreos? Then we’re totally buying that too. But overall, we stay close to the list.
Using the paper method is helpful on the front end: we spend less at the grocery store. Because we are working on managing our budget better, we’ve been trying to keep our weekly grocery bill under a set amount that is right for us. It’s easy to over-spend at the grocery store if you don’t go in with a plan, but even if we weren’t saving money with this system [we are], I would do it because it is such a stress-killer. Ever walk into your apartment/home and think “what should I make for dinner?” Ever had someone you love ask you “what should we have for dinner?” Ever think that choosing something to make for dinner is too hard and even if you could choose something that sounded good it would be too hard to make, so you should just order a pizza or grab some takeout because decisions are hard? That’s me pretty much every day.
When you have the paper on the fridge, it’s easier to stay on track. The answer to the question “what’s for dinner?” is written on the paper you taped to the refrigerator. You don’t have to decide anything — just read. It is a great plan. Not feeling what is listed for the evening? You have all of the other nightly meals you can choose from before you resort to the takeout option.
Do not think that we don’t ever resort to takeout even when we have perfectly good groceries in our kitchen. We absolutely go off the list all the time. But we do it less, saving money, time, and benefiting our health while being less wasteful overall. It works for us, and even H agrees that it is a good idea.
Do you plan your meals in advance? Do you eat the same breakfasts and lunches every day, or do you need daily variety? Any other tricks for staying on-plan during the week?