I used to hear the word “meal planning” and cringe. To me, nothing says “You’re an adult” like meal planning. It seemed like something only super-moms or people on crazy diets did, but not normal, everyday people like myself. It brought images to my mind of pre-cooked meals, perfectly portioned and frozen in plastic containers, eating reheated food all week long and spending your entire weekend preparing these meals. If what I described matches your weekly routine, I mean no offense. It’s just to me, this wasn’t the ideal situation.
My experiences with meal planning in the past were hit or miss. The first time I tried meal planning was when I was living in Korea. It’s safe to say I was wildly unprepared. I didn’t know how to effectively plan out my meals for the week, how to decide which meals to have on certain days or what was the best way to choose my ingredients. I tried meal planning a few times, but I ended up making overly complicated plans with meals that required completely different ingredients and ended up costing me much more money than I had planned.
My way of life in Korea was completely different than it is now in Canada, so it was unrealistic to make my North American ideals fit into my Korean lifestyle. I stopped meal planning because I lived right next door to a small supermarket that sold everything I might need including meat, produce, dairy and packaged cereals. It was very easy to stop in on my way home from work to buy the produce I needed each day depending on what I felt like. I was lucky not only because the owner spoke English, but also because my schedule allowed for that. Now, even though there is a grocery store only a 5 minute drive away from my house, I don’t have the time to shop for groceries every day, not to mention it would be more expensive.
It’s been three years since I lived in Korea and during that time I have used varying degrees of meal planning. It took a while for me to find a system that worked well. I had a few rules that my meal planning had to follow:
• It had to be fast. I didn’t want to spend hours of my day to figure out my meals. For me, from the time I started to the time I finished writing out my shopping list, it had to be less than 1 hour.
• It had to be easy. I didn’t want to have to consult a million different references, go to 5 different stores or search for different recipes every day.
• It had to be affordable. I learned from my mistakes in Korea that you really needed to plan better to avoid breaking the bank each week.
I often get a lot of questions about how I create my meal plans and what that looks like for me. I’m happy to share it, but I think it is important to remember that what works for me may or may not work for you. Meal planning is a very personal activity that requires some time to prepare and time to make it a habit. In the beginning, it wasn’t easy for me and took me longer, but now that I am in a rhythm I’m down to about 30-45 minutes each week.
I keep a meal planning notebook. I keep all of my notes and weekly meal plans in there. This has been really helpful because it allows me to look back at previous weeks to see what I made and keep track of all the meals I collect. I also keep recipes in a binder that stays on my counter everyday.
The first thing I do is look at my calendar for the upcoming week. Are there any social events happening? Do either Mike or myself have meetings or appointments in the evenings? Is there a dinner-out scheduled for one night? I take all of these things into consideration first so I know how many dinners I need to prepare.
Then, I go to my fridge, freezer and pantry. I take a look at what I already have and create an inventory. I hate wasting food or throwing things away because I forgot to use them. Meal planning has really cut down on the food waste that happens in our house. I’m ashamed to say that I’ve thrown out entire packages of romaine hearts or heads of broccoli simply because I didn’t use them in time. I like to create a chart in my notebook and write the proteins on one side and the fruit, vegetables and grains on the other. This helps me to visualize meals much easier.
Once I have that list, I then look at the flyers for the stores I usually shop at. In the spring and summer months when fresh fruit and vegetables are in season, I like to shop at the farmer’s market. Since there isn’t a flyer for this, it’s helpful to be familiar with what is in season in your area. In the flyers, I try to identify what is on sale. If any meat is on sale, I often like to stock up if there is a great deal. Common things I look for are ground beef in the “club pack”, cuts of beef for a roast dinner or pork tenderloin. Also, I try to see if there are any special items that don’t go on sale very often. This is great to help build up an inventory in your home so you have these proteins for when you need them. Anything that is on sale or I think I might want goes in the chart in a different colour, or separated by a line so I know what I have and what I might want to buy. I do the same for any produce as well as an pantry staples like a sale on coconut oil, peanut butter or bulk nuts and seeds.
Now that I have a list of items I already have and items on sale, I start trying to piece together meal ideas. The goal for me is to create meals that are healthy, easy to prepare and don’t require too many ingredients. When it comes to putting the meals together, I like to quickly flip back through my notebook to see what I’ve made in previous weeks and look through my recipe binder or favourite cookbooks. I also take a look at the things I’ve pinned most recently on Pinterest to see if there is anything there that would work with the items I wrote down. Anytime there is something that lines up with the list, I write that idea down. I also write down anything that either Mike or I feel like having because the most important part of meal planning is that you make meals you like.
Usually I have a nice list of meals or at least main ideas – like my Pesto Stuffed Chicken or a new Pork Tenderloin recipe I want to try out. I start assigning days to each of these meals and then adding in sides to round out the dishes. Sometimes I don’t know exactly what vegetable to serve with a dish, so I wait and see what looks good at the market or the store. Typically, I plan to have smoothies for breakfast, but vary up what goes in the smoothie day to day. As for lunches, I most often have leftovers from the dinner the night before or a salad.
Once I know the meals for the week, I make my final shopping list based on the ingredients I need for everything plus the staples I buy every week like bananas, almond and coconut milk, salad greens and spinach for smoothies. Aside from the market in the summer, usually I can get everything in one store, but I realize that many people shop at multiple stores to get the best deal. The perfect store for me is Zehrs. It accepts visa (4% cashback on groceries? Yes, please!), it has a great selection of products at good prices and I can collect PC Points which has given me over $500 in free groceries in the past 2 and a half years! I enjoy grocery shopping so sometimes I will just peruse the aisles if I have some extra time to see if anything jumps out at me.
Throughout the week I consult with the meal plan and I may make some adjustments like moving Thursday’s meal to Wednesday or sometimes things come up and a simple go-to meal like chicken with salad needs to be put in one meal’s place. This is another reason why having a notebook is great because if there were ideas I had that didn’t make it to the plate that week, I can look back on it to get ideas for the following week.
I hope this was helpful for any of you out there who may have been struggling with meal planning or who may have attempted and given up in the past. The key for me is making sure I know the night before what tomorrow’s dinner will be so I can take meat out of the freezer to thaw and have a plan for who will cook what and what time dinner will be ready. The first time might be a bit tricky, but I think if you stick to it, you’ll see that meal planning saves you time during the week, saves you money from not buying unnecessary food, and saves you headaches of wondering every night at 5:00 what’s for dinner.