Wednesday, April 30, 2014

How to create your own meal plan system

I feel like I post about meal planning way more than any normal person should, but I get so many questions about it! I started doing the family meal planning and cooking when I was 15 and at this point it's mostly second nature. There are all kinds of complicated systems you can set up (I used to coordinate all our meal planning with the grocery store sale flyers) but I don't have time for anything complicated right now. Here's how I set up our current meal planning system, step by step. It might take an hour or two to get everything in place (depending on where you're starting from) but the payoff is barely spending any time meal planning on a weekly basis.

You will need: 
A 3-ring binder (I'd recommend a 1.5")
Page protectors
Tab dividers (~5, make sure they stick out past the page protectors - like these)
The ability to do basic arithmetic

meal planning on sunday
{meal planning on sunday}

Figure out how many servings you need each week. I only meal plan for the weekdays, because our weekends are generally crazy and we aren't at home much.
Ask yourself - Are you planning for just dinners? Dinners with leftovers to take for lunch? How many days a week do you buy yourself lunch? Now do the math. 
D and I eat in almost every night most weeks, so I count on 10 servings minimum (5 nights x 2 people). I take my lunch to work most days, but probably one day a week I eat soup or something instead, so I count myself for 3 - 4 lunches. D always eats out on Tuesdays and usually at least one other day during the week so I only count him for 2 - 3 lunches. This gets us to about 16 servings of food needed during the week.

Decide how often you're willing to cook and how high your tolerance for leftovers is. I love leftovers and D is perfectly happy with them. We also have limited time and there's no way we are going to cook every night. Right now I plan to cover our 16 servings with 3 meals throughout the week. If you hate leftovers, you are going to have to cook more often. There isn't really any way around it. In that case, I'd recommend having a good supply of quick meal recipes on hand.

Choose your meal categories. This will just depend on what you eat most often. We have a big salad (usually grains + veg), one meal with either meat, lentils or pasta and one quick meal (burritos, quesadillas, eggs, etc). You might want one meat, one pasta, one fish. Or whatever. Don't get overly fussy about the categories. Soba noodles are pasta, obviously, but I count soba noodle salad in my large salad category. Because it's cold, so to my mind it is salad. You can also cook more than one meal from each category, if you want pasta 2x per week or something. Having this structure can be really helpful for keeping yourself on track if you have specific goals. When I lumped together meat/lentils/pasta into one weekly category, our meat consumption suddenly went down because we now eat meat every second or third week instead of weekly, without even thinking about it. I just keep meat, lentils and pasta in three separate tabbed sections, which helps me use them more evenly. If I had lentils the week before, I'll tend to pick a pasta or meat dish this week.

Figure out what your goal servings are for each meal, based on your weekly needs. I usually aim for a 6 - 8 serving salad (which sometimes means I need to double the recipe), a 4 - 6 serving meat/lentils/pasta meal and a 4 serving quick meal. I use this spreadsheet right now (previously used this one) but you can easily customize your own.

Gather up your base recipes. When I did this I had a ton of recipes floating around. The more superfluous recipes you have, the longer your meal planning takes. Just flipping through them eats up time each week. Strip out just the ones you are likely to make on any given weeknight. I kept my huge recipe binder for special occasions, holidays, desserts, etc. My weekly binder is much slimmer and only has meals I'm likely to make during the week.

Type up your quick meals (if you're using this category) on a single page and add it to the front of the binder. These aren't recipes, they're reminders. Think about what you cook when you don't have time for anything complicated. I made quick notes about what ingredients we needed for each meal and that was basically it, along with a short description of how to cook a frittata.

Organize your binder. Label your tabs with your categories and start dividing up your recipes. I keep all my recipes in page protectors so they are slightly less disgusting. When I did this I noticed that our big salads category was a little skimpy, so I specifically searched around for some recipes to fill out this category, printed them out and put them in the binder. After I make one for the first time we decide if we want it again, if not, I toss it out.

Do your meal planning (see old post for details). Look over your schedule for the week to see if you need to plan low (going out during the week) or high (guests coming over for dinner). Check your fridge to see if you have leftover ingredients you need to use up. Choose the specified number of meals from each category. Pull those recipes out, make your grocery list and then put them back in the front of the binder, before the dividers. This will make it faster to pull them out as you cook during the week. Check your grocery list against your pantry. All of this should take no longer than 20 minutes, once you have the system set up. I don't agonize over choosing meals. You're going to eat every single day of your life and there are no wrong choices. Once you've got your lists, shop. D and I usually split up the shopping based on convenience and when we need the items.

Roughly schedule your cooking nights based on your schedule that week. Lately I've been designating one free evening and cooking two meals. The grain salads are usually better the next day, so I'll make our salad and stash it in the fridge. At the same time, I'll make our other big meal for the week. This saves me a little time because I'm only washing the knives, cutting boards, mandoline, measuring cups, once. Bulk cooking is not my favorite thing to do. I'm having to juggle two recipes, make sure I'm not mixing anything up, there is a lot of chopping and washing vegetables. If I had shorter days, I would absolutely make dinner almost every night, because I enjoy cooking, but this works.

Have a back up plan! Sometimes we have a week where we end up eating more and Friday night rolls along and we're out of planned meals. Or we don't feel like eating leftovers. I keep a couple frozen meals from Trader Joe's in our freezer for those situations or, rarely, we'll order takeout or, more frequently, we'll decide to have an impromptu meal out. I have a relatively low tolerance for take out because I love it if it's an indulgence but it bums me out if we're doing it because we don't know what else to do. Then it doesn't feel exciting, it feels depressing.

Stop trying to be perfect. Sometimes I don't plan correctly and we run out of food. Sometimes I overplan and we have too much food and get sick of it. Sometimes I try a new recipe and it isn't that great but I feel like I have to soldier through the leftovers anyways. This is the fastest route to a week of takeout and guilt. If you make something you really don't like, toss it out and change your plan. (I have a really hard time doing this and will instead attempt to avoid the fridge - I hate waste, but delaying it doesn't change it)

week 2
{scribbles}

The upside to meal planning is that you save time and money. Quite a bit of money, actually. When I'm being good about meal planning, our grocery spending is shockingly low (compared to our usual, at least). It's because I don't buy on impulse and we're better about using everything up. Our weekly grocery needs aren't huge, which makes the shopping way easier. And it just doesn't take as much time or effort as you might think. This sounds insane when I write it all out but I promise you that I usually spend 15 minutes max thinking about our meals and writing up our grocery list.

18 comments:

  1. This is awesome! Would you be able to share some of your favorite weekly dinner recipes?

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    1. We have quite a few, even with my paring down! This postshows three weeks of pretty typical meals for us, but you kind of have to dig through it to see all the recipe links.

      I'll try to put something together soon! I've been tucking our old meal planning sheets in the back of the binder each week instead of tossing them, since someone asked about what the weeks actually consist of. So I do have the data to work with!

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  2. Wondering the same as above. Or do you have a Pinterest board I could follow with some awesome recipes? I'm especially interested in the make-ahead grain salads. Thanks for sharing all of this, it's super helpful!

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    1. Nothing right now, sorry! I will try to start posting more recipes (or at least links), and sharing more lists of our weeknight meals. Sadly, one of the main hold ups is that I'm generally not cooking while it's nice and light outside, so I don't get any photos, which makes me less likely to remember to post something. But with the days getting longer, I think that will get better!

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  3. Loved this post, as I really enjoy seeing how other people meal plan! I agree that the time invested in the planning saves TONS at the store. I still use the meal planning + shopping lists from your old etsy!!

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    1. Awww... thanks, Angel! I'm totally nosy about meal plans - love to see what people are doing and cooking.

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  4. Love this post, I'm a meal planning nerd!
    Have you found a great Soba noodle salad recipe yet that you can share with us?
    PS- made your broccoli slaw....uh-maz-ing

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    1. I'm still auditioning soba noodle salads! It's so strange - over the last couple months I've suddenly felt the need to find the perfect noodle salad recipe. Sadly for D, he isn't as in love with soba as I am, but he's being a good sport.

      I haven't found the perfect one yet, but I'm hopeful.

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  5. You should definitely post your weekly favourites if you haven't already! Great post. Going to give this system a go as I'm officially the worse weekly food planner.

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    1. I will work on it! And trust me, anyone can learn to do meal planning - it just takes the right system for you and a bit of practice. If you hate it, setting up a quick system will make it so much more bearable!

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  6. This is really helpful :) Thanks for sharing, I must really start to be more organized about meals ! Also, nice to see 'daal' on your menu :)

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  7. Oh my gosh! You're a lifesaver! Thanks for the tips. I would also love to see your favorite weekly meals! Thanks!!

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  8. I love meal planning and do it every week. I can only agree on the effect it has on the amount to pay! Great post! Xo, Alexandra
    Glam O’Clock | Beauty Fashion Wellness Lifestyle

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  9. This is great! Something that has kept me really excited about cooking (almost) every night during the work week is getting a CSA box delivered (we use the Regular box from farmfreshtoyou.com). It offers enough veggies to inspire at least 3 meals plus fruits for snacks. It helps give you new ideas of things to cook (includes 2 recipes per box) and spices up the monotony of what i was cooking thanks to trying new veggies! PS the Trader Joe's frozen Indian Food meals (spinach paneer and chickpeas are my fav) are great!

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    1. We did FFTY for a while and I loved getting that box! If my schedule frees up enough that I have more time to spend in the kitchen we'll probably go back to it. It was great for breaking me out of a veggie rut (I end up eating broccoli and kale in rotation, even when I know I should be mixing it up more).

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  10. Brilliant idea! I do plan meals since I mostly do my grocery shopping online but this will make it much more efficient.

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  11. I love this idea. My recipe binders could use some serious re-organization and I still struggle a lot with meal planning. But I too find that when I do have our meals planned out I spend less at the grocery store and we waste less food. Also love what you said about throwing out meals that don't work out. That's so hard to do! But life's too short to spend choking down leftovers of something you didn't like in the first place, right?

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