Meal planning has been a part of my weekly routine for years. It started out as a necessity when I was in my early twenties. I lived paycheck to paycheck, utilizing an envelope system of budgeting. My “grocery” envelope was continually depleted because I would go to the grocery store dazed, confused and hungry. It only got worse when I had my first child and had to include diapers on that puny budget. However, as soon as I learned to meal plan and carry a grocery list to the store, some of my financial woes disappeared. I was more focused, avoided too many impulse purchases and tried to utilize more sale items.
In the beginning, I was solely a blank-calendar-kind-of-planner. A simple, spiral-bound, month-at-a-glance calendar from the office supply store was my kitchen staple. I would write weekly dinner plans, making notes about where I could find the recipe and what sides to serve. At the same time, I would make my grocery list on a separate piece of paper while I had the recipes and lists of ingredients in front of me. What was nice about the calendar approach was being able to make note of my family’s busy schedule. Over time, my children have started to help by choosing their favorite dishes. I also now use a combination of cookbooks, online resources and phone apps that help create grocery lists while I compile my meal plans. I like to put a copy of the menu in plain sight so everyone knows what is for dinner. This helps them avoid eating ingredients I might need later and alleviates binge snack eating before activities if they know what they are supposed to get out for dinner. Days that I know will be super busy, I opt for slow cooker meals or casseroles that can be made ahead of time and warmed up a serving at a time. It’s not a bad idea to invest in a quality heating tray too.
Everyone’s approach is different, but the end result I think is ultimately the same: a less stressful dinner time routine and a more balanced budget. Whether you prefer sifting through cookbooks and recipe cards, writing everything down by hand or you enjoy perusing the web and utilizing more high tech tools, there are options galore.
“Old School” meal planning, but better:
Capsule Meal Planning by The Project Girl: This is very similar to my “go-to” calendar system, only more organized (and prettier). I’m not sure why I never thought to include my favorite recipes, coupons and grocery lists all in one place but you can bet I do now! Assembling this binder doesn’t take very long and costs nothing except some printer paper and your ink. The downloads are all free. And the longer you use this system, the less time it takes to plan future weeks of meal plans because you can recycle plans and grocery lists you have already created. My favorite feature about this plan is the ability to write your grocery list on the same page as your meal plan. Once I am done, I simply cut the page in half, leaving my menu posted in my kitchen and my grocery list tucked into my purse.
Spiral Bound Weekly Meal Planner by Seven Thirty Three: This is another free download, and by printing out all 52 inside pages you’ll have enough planning sheets for a whole year. The creator suggests getting everything spiral bound together at an office supply store or Kinko’s, but I think a 3-ring binder and a hole punch would work just fine.
The Eat Sheet by Mommy Tracked: If the idea of assembling and printing a binder makes your skin crawl, then this free downloadable sheet might be your best organizing trick. I used this sheet exclusively for a long time, printing out a month’s worth of Eat Sheets at a time to keep on hand. It is simple and fun to look at.
*Here’s a paper saving idea — laminate your meal planning sheet and use dry erase markers so that you can reuse the same sheet week after week!
Internet meal planning, my top three favorite websites:
Meijer Meal Box: This is a really cool, interactive feature available through Meijer’s website. You can create a customized meal plan by dragging and dropping a week’s worth of suggested recipes. The recipes can be sorted by nutrition, difficulty and what is on sale. After your meal plan is saved, you can create a grocery list from the list of ingredients in your recipes. There is even the ability to customize your list so that you can add or subtract items. I love the simplicity of this site, but just wish you could load your own recipes into their meal planning tool.
Say Mmm: The free version is somewhat limited, but still amazing. When planning your week, you can search anywhere on the web for a recipe and then drop the URL address into the meal planning tool. This program will figure out a grocery list, nutrition guide and meal plan based on the information you link. You have the ability to organize recipes, past meal plans and manipulate grocery lists and then print. I like that the printed grocery list is organized by category, i.e. Baking, Bread & Grains, Dairy, Frozen. There is a mobile site available for smart phones with an Internet connection, but currently no downloadable app.
Meals Matter: This site is maintained by the Dairy Council of California and has a ton of healthy cooking information. The meal planner was a little hard to understand at first, but eventually I got the hang of it, especially when loading your own recipes into the data base. Much like the other two sites, you are able to create a grocery list based on your week’s recipes. What I really liked was the option to input your meal plan into either your Google Calendar or Outlook.
Internet meal planning with the added bonus of Smart Phone Apps:
All Recipes: I have used this website for years and am continually amazed by how it has evolved. It is easy to use and even the free version allows you access to thousands of great recipes and meal planning tools. What I think is even more cool is the Smart Phone App called the Dinner Spinner. This allows me to search and save recipes even when I am waiting for my kids to get out of any of their many after school activities. On the Android, the upgraded version is only a couple bucks and well worth the investment so that you can create a shopping list on your smart phone and sinc your recipe box with your on-line account.
Food on the Table: Recently I was introduced to this tool through a friend. What seems really unique about it is the ability to customize your family’s food preferences and specify which grocery stores you frequent. This template will search the weekly sales information based on your criteria and help you create a meal plan that fits your budget. I love being able to see all of my store’s sale items and add them to my grocery list even if they are not in a specified recipe, like a certain brand of yogurt or cereal. There is also the option of either printing out your grocery list or viewing it on your smart phone. As far as free services, this seems to be the most comprehensive.
Only plan one day at a time? No problem!
Super Cook: What a find! Things don’t always go according to plan and sometimes I find myself standing in front of my pantry or fridge an hour before dinner with no clue. This website allows you to create a list of whatever items you have on hand and then gives you a multitude of suggested recipes that you could make immediately.