Ugh, meal planning.
Can any two words strike up so much dread?
It’s one of those things that we know we need to do, that we know will ultimately make our life easier and make everything run smoother. And yet, sitting down to actually do it, to actually take the time to plan out a menu and make a grocery list? It feels like such a pain!
Or maybe that’s just me.
But while I don’t always relish the thought of planning my meals, I also know what happens when I don’t. Inevitably we start eating out. A lot. Or we order takeout. A lot. And that means we spend WAY more money than we should on restaurants and GrubHub, but it also means that I overeat and inevitably gain weight.
So while in the short term, I get to save myself the pain of planning my meals, the long-term consequences of NOT planning my meals are even more painful.
Meal planning eliminates dinnertime stress and overspending. Rather than navigating weeknight meals without a plan, go in with a plan and dinner is served. Simple!
So what’s the solution? Is there a way to make meal planning just a little bit easier, and in the process make LIFE just a little bit easier? Is there really a way to actually eat healthy(ish) dinners at home every night and not feel like you are chained to your kitchen?
I say YES!
Here are a few practical ideas for simplifying your meal planning routine that might just change everything:
1. Make a Standing Date with Yourself
The best way to make sure meal planning ACTUALLY happens for you every single week? Make a date with yourself! (And then stick to it, of course!) The reality is that often we don’t plan because we don’t make TIME to plan. We don’t see it as priority, and then, before you know it, the weekend is over, the week has begun, and you’re picking up McDonald’s from the drive-through for the third night in a row.
2. Create a Go-To List of Family Favorites
Believe it or not, your meal plan doesn’t have to be full of new and original recipes every single week! There’s no shame in sticking with a few tried and true favorites that you know everyone loves, every single time. Of course, in that moment that you actually sit down to plan, it’s easy to feel like you are all out of ideas. That’s where your favorites list comes in! Keep an ongoing list of meals and recipes that are always a hit, whether they be classics like spaghetti, tacos, or good-old steak & potatoes or newer recipes that you’ve tried and liked (especially the really easy ones!)
3. Simplify Your Ingredient List
The easiest way to simplify your meals? Cook simple meals. Really! Believe me when I tell you that not every meal has to be a gourmet feast. Think meat & potatoes, or an easy soup with hearty bread on the side.
Here at Living Well Spending Less, we’re a little bit obsessed with simple 5 ingredient recipes, but with good reason. They make life SO much easier. Because the truth is that food doesn’t have to be complicated to be delicious! Download our free 5 Ingredients or Less Mini Cookbook or check out our full selection of 5 ingredient recipes HERE.
4. Take Help Where You Can Get It
When it comes to your grocery bill, preparing your own produce can save you quite a bit of money. However, chopping, grating and preparing can also take quite a bit of time. While there is something to be said for making your own bread, almond milk, or tomato sauce, sometimes the convenience of jarred or canned foods trumps the cost savings.
Frozen vegetables often contain higher nutrient levels because they’re flash frozen at the time of harvest, unlike many “fresh” vegetables that deteriorate while in transport for weeks. If you opt for additive-free and organic items, you might find yourself very pleased with the flavor and nutritional values. Many well-known stores (including Trader Joe’s, Aldi and Costco ) offer quite the cost savings on organics, and you can even find pre-chopped, prepped items to simplify your meal planning routine.
5. Embrace Taco Tuesdays
It’s perfectly okay to have a few favorites every single week. Whether it’s Taco Tuesdays or Spaghetti Thursdays or Pizza Fridays, having a regular rhythm definitely helps keep things simple—and believe me, your family won’t mind a bit!
Regular meals in your repertoire also means you can easily shop for ingredients and keep them on hand. You’ll save time at the store searching for new ingredients for new recipes. Plus, keeping it consistent means you can reuse spices or ingredients each week. For example, making a stir-fry once a week means you can plan on always keeping the basics in stock (rice, soy sauce, spices and brown sugar), but you can change up the veggies or meat you incorporate each week. If there’s a deal on chicken one week, enjoy a chicken teriyaki dish; if tofu is on sale the next week, give it a shot.
6. Learn to Love Leftovers
Cooking once and eating for several meals is a huge time saver, and also a great solution for lunches. I always like to make a big pot of soup for dinner on Monday night so that I’ll have easy lunches to bring to work the rest of the week.
Of course if you’re not a big leftovers fan, you can also find ways to cook once and use ingredients twice. For example, last night’s roasted chicken with baked potatoes becomes filling for tonight’s chicken fajitas with spicy Mexican hash browns. If your family balks at a second spaghetti night in a row, try a baked spaghetti pie for the second round. It’s fairly easy to make the second meal different enough so it’s doesn’t seem like yesterday’s microwaved meal.
7. Try Sunday Meal Prep
I’m a big fan of Sunday meal prep. It sets up my week for success, and there’s something very comforting about looking into a freezer or fridge full of ready-to-go meals. I’ve really streamlined the process, so I can prep a whole week (or two) in just an hour. It’s a wonderful time saver and Big time stress-saver. If you want to give Sunday prep a try, you can easily go beyond dinner and plan out your family’s breakfasts and lunches as well. Once you try it, you’ll be hooked.
Preparing oatmeal ahead of time, individually bagging lunch components (like chips and carrot sticks), or making bread on a Sunday afternoon makes for a fun and relaxing process. I really feel Sunday meal prep helps me enjoy cooking much more in general. I can do it at my own pace and it feels productive and planned, rather than stressful and thrown together. It’s a great way to start Monday off on the right foot.
8. Embrace Make-Ahead & Freezer Meals
Similar to Sunday meal prep, make-ahead meals and freezer meals are an amazing way to streamline your meal-planning process. A freezer full of go-to meals saves so much time. It makes dinner planning simple and easy, and you have plenty of variety available to suit your family. Not only that, but you also save money by shopping once, prepping once, then making the meals right then and there. No more heading to the store on a whim for a last-minute ingredient only to come home with a bag full of items you didn’t plan on purchasing.
When you get home from work or at the end of your busy day, the last thing most of us want to do is haul out pots, pans, and cutting boards. Preparing meals beforehand allows you to simply pop what you need in the oven at the end of the day, or come home to a delicious creation that’s been cooking away in the crockpot all day. With make-ahead meals and freezer meals, I can focus on my family, hear about their day, help with homework, and enjoy our time together, rather than stress out in a hot kitchen with hungry kids underfoot.
To get started, check out our 10 Meals in an Hour® meal prep system. It’s AMAZING!!!
9. Use Flavorful Ingredients
A secret to simple meals? Use only the best, most flavorful ingredients! Fresh herbs, strong Parmesan cheese, or a squeeze of lime can make basic meals sing and feel so much fancier! Grow herbs in a container or vegetable garden, then use them to add a little polish to your dishes. Plain old pork chops and rice can get really special when you have fresh rosemary or thyme.
Fresh ingredients rarely need much preparation—steaming and adding a little salt and butter can generally be enough. Celebrate and highlight the best qualities of your ingredients by allowing them to shine through. Don’t bury them in sauces and heavy (time-consuming) preparations!
10. Make the Most of Pantry Staples
One final trick to simplifying your meal planning routine is to make sure you keep your pantry stocked with the ingredients you use frequently. If spaghetti is frequently on your menu, keep lots of sauce and noodles on hand. Always have taco seasoning and shells, along with a couple of pounds of ground beef in the freezer. Keep frequently called for ingredients–things like diced tomatoes, tomato paste, green chiles, beans, etc.–on hand so that you’ve got them in a pinch. And be sure to have a variety of frozen veggies, chicken, and even pizza on hand as well.
This not only makes grocery shopping easier–especially on those busy weeks–but gives you a backup plan (that doesn’t involve takeout) if your meal planning happens to get off track.
And, when all else fails, you can always have grilled cheese or pancakes for dinner! I’ve found that even though we put pressure on ourselves to cook delicious and healthy meals for our families, no one ever seems to mind the occasional “cheater” convenience meal. So things simple and give yourself a break!