In this post, I’m going to touch on how I organize meal planning for my household. This is a technique I’ve used successfully for years (even prior to kids), and now that we have expanded to a family of four, time is more precious than ever. Thankfully the system still works like a charm, even with our larger family to feed. And it saves me a ton of stress when answering the question of “What’s for dinner?”, plus a ton of time NOT wasted in running to the store constantly!
I am the primary cook in our house. My husband will help on the weekends (mostly to make breakfast and sometimes dinners), but nightly dinners during the work week are up to me. Since we both tend to get home from work hungry for dinner and wanting to eat right away, I’ve had to create a system that quickly gets meals on the table in 20-40 minutes. My husband and I also strongly believe in cooking from scratch using only whole/natural/organic foods whenever possible. We rarely use processed goods and our meals are predominately vegetable and protein based, with sides of whole grains and fruits. We don’t follow a specific “diet” and no foods are off limits. We just strongly believe that a healthy lifestyle starts with healthy food. And we manage to do this while limiting our grocery shopping trips to once every one or two weeks (sometimes even every 3 weeks when the garden is in bloom)!
Does this sound impossible? I’m living proof that it’s not. The system we have works great for our household and I am hoping that you will be able to implement some of these tips to streamline meal planning in your house as well. It is a simple way to buy all the food you need, and only the food you need. This way you always know what to cook, have all the ingredients on hand, don’t waste money throwing away unused or spoiled food, and don’t waste precious time running to and from the grocery store to get one or two items each day.
Ready to find out more? Here’s your three steps:
Step 1: Keep a grocery list where everything you need is written down as soon as you know you need it.
Even with all the technology today, I find it best to just delegate this job to good old-fashioned pen and paper. I tried at one time to keep this list on my smart phone (that way it was always with me when I needed it), but I found it wasn’t effective because all the members of the family (mainly my husband right now) weren’t able to contribute to it. What happens when your spouse changes the toilet paper a few days before your shopping trip and uses the last roll? If there’s no place for them to immediately write down the shortage, you will be running to the store again a few days later for the one important item you really can’t go without.
Instead, it’s much easier to just write it down immediately on a grocery list so that no one has to try and remember it later. (Bonus: The more you can clear these small “things to remember” out of your head, the more focus you will have on other parts of your day!) Keep this list in an easily accessible, central location. We have a buffet in the kitchen/dining area which acts as command central for our home. On this you will find keys, cell phones & chargers, wallets/purses, the grocery list, recipes for the week, letters that need to be mailed, other errands that need to be run, etc.
Items get added to the grocery list as we use them up. If toilet paper or toothpaste runs low, it gets added to the list. If I’m cooking and use the last of the baking soda, it gets put on the list right away. That way, I don’t have to try and remember what those low items were when I’m at the store. It’s all on the list and I’m know that I’ll get everything I need as long as I stick to my list. It’s a failsafe that nothing gets forgotten. It’ll take some training to teach yourself to add an item to the list right away when you run low, but once you practice it enough, you’ll see that the benefit of always having what you need on hand is worth remembering to do it right away. (And trust me, this training can be done, even for non-list people! My husband is not a list/plan ahead guy for things like this. But after 3-4 shopping trips where what he wanted wasn’t purchased and he had to run to the store on his own to get that one special thing, he is now really good about putting things on the list as soon as he runs low. He started to realize the time saving benefit for himself as well!)
Step 2: Before going to the store, plan ahead what you are going to eat for the week and know all the ingredients you will need to prepare your meals.
This takes a little bit of planning, but once into the routine I doubt you will go back to the frantic “what’s for dinner” mentality you had before. This is also vitally important for all of you who want to get healthier. I know this is not a post specifically about healthy living and eating, but it is amazing how being organized can tie into a healthier lifestyle (more on that in a future blog post). Just think about it – say you had a stressful day at work, are hungry and tired, and just want to eat something fast and relax. It can take you just as long (or longer) to order a pizza, wait for it to be made, go pick it up (there’s no delivery options to my home!), come back and finally eat than it can be to just drive home and throw together the meal you already had planned the night before. When you know you have everything you need at home for a healthy, delicious meal there is much less temptation to eat out. This will help your waistline as well as your wallet!
So how do you plan out what you are going to eat for the week? Since I enjoy cooking, I generally work off of recipes and pick about 7-10 for each grocery trip. Some are passed down from family, some are printed in cookbooks, but many I just find online. I also have no fear in using recipes as a guideline and always tailor them to fit foods that my family prefers. But I do all the tweaking and changing in my mind before going shopping. This again allows me to make sure I have everything on hand for dinner, even when I know I am going to change something.
Let me give you an example:
One of the recipes I have chosen this week is “Cajun Fish with Cabbage and Bacon Sauté” from RealSimple.com. It calls for white fish, canola oil, Cajun seasoning, bacon, scallions, corn, cabbage, salt/pepper and cider vinegar. Before I add these items to my shopping list, I have already changed the recipe based on what we like. My new ingredient list is white fish, olive oil, mole rub, bacon, scallions, corn, Swiss chard, salt/pepper, cider vinegar. I’m still following the recipe as a guideline, but items and quantities may be changed. Now that the recipe list has been altered, I check to see what I already have in my kitchen and how much of it I have before adding it to my shopping list. I already had sufficient amounts of olive oil, mole rub, salt/pepper and cider vinegar. This means I will be adding white fish, bacon, scallions, corn and Swiss chard to my shopping list. I do this same process for all 7-10 recipes I have picked out. I know it sounds like a lot to check for each ingredient, but honestly between selecting recipes, changing ingredients when needed, and taking stock of my kitchen, I can accomplish the whole task in 20-30 minutes. And this gets me the groceries I need for 1-3 weeks!
Here is what my grocery list looks like, after I did the above process – for 10 recipes this time!
- Saran wrap
- Rubbing alcohol
- Flax seed
- Spelt flour
- White fish
- Green onions/scallions x 2
- Frozen corn, large
- Swiss chard
- Kidney beans
- Large tomatoes x 3
- Zucchini x 2
- Red pepper x 2
- Tomato paste, 12 oz
- Asparagus x 2
- Pine nuts
- Yellow pepper
- Eggs x 2
- Ground beef, 1 lb.
- Black beans x 3
- Salsa, 32 oz
- Grape tomatoes
- Limes x 2
- Bread x 2
- Almond milk x 2
- Plum tomatoes x 2
- Lemons x 2
- Peanut butter
You’ll probably notice I don’t bother to organize my shopping list by category (such as produce together, meats together, frozen products, bulk goods, etc.). Sounds wrong for someone who is into organization, right? Well this is why I also love pen and paper lists. When I am in the store and each item is placed into the cart, I physically cross the item off the list. Before I leave each area of the store I just scan down the list to see if I need any other items from that section before moving on. And since I almost always shop at the same store, I know the layout well enough to not have to search around for what I need. Once everything is crossed off I know I am done and can recycle the paper. I find this to be much more efficient than re-writing a list by store section and potentially forgetting to transfer an item to the new list.
Seven to ten recipes generally gives my family enough food for 1-2 weeks worth of meals (sometimes even up to 3!), allowing us to minimize grocery shopping trips and gain more free time in our busy lives. Your family may be different depending on how many you have to feed and how much each person eats. You can always plan more or less recipes per trip, or double quantities in a recipe to make sure you have enough leftovers if desired.
Step 3: Organize your selected recipes by most perishable ingredients first and least perishable last, and then stick to that order when cooking them for the following weeks!
As you can see from the list above, most of our shopping trips revolve around fresh produce and the occasional pantry item we may have run out of. When you eat this much fresh produce and don’t want to keep running to the store to get more or replace an item that may have gone bad, you have to make sure you eat the more delicate items first while they are freshest and keep the heartier items for the end of the recipe cycle. We also keep our fridge quite cold in order to help items stay fresh longer.
Generally fish, leafy greens, zucchini and tomato recipes get used first. Avocado, carrots, potatoes, onions, peppers, celery and corn tend to be heartier and can be saved for later consumption. Meats I tend to freeze immediately once I get home and pull out what I need to thaw a few days before I use them. Recipes that call for mostly pantry items, such as frozen shrimp, bread, pasta, canned beans/tomatoes or pasta sauces can be used last. By using this method we very rarely throw away any spoiled or unused food. Recipe selection is also important to making this work, which you will get better with the more you use this system. Make sure you pick a variety of types of meals, with a variety in your needed ingredients (hearty vs. more delicate).
Each evening I will grab the next recipe to be used, scan the directions and see if there is anything that might require extra prep work or might need to come out of the freezer to thaw. If so, I will tackle it before heading to bed. If not, the recipe is sitting on my kitchen island when I get home so I can walk in the door and get cooking. Lunches the next day are generally leftovers of the night before. For breakfast during the week, my husband and son prefer cereal or toast with peanut butter and I have a bowl of quinoa with nuts and fruit which I will batch cook earlier in the week. And it’s as easy as that!
I urge you to give this a try. It may take a couple of weeks or trips to the store to iron out how the system will work for you and your family, but it can save you so much in time, stressful last-minute decisions, and money on your grocery bill.
Set aside a place in your kitchen with a pad of paper and pen where you can start your shopping list. Make it accessible to everyone in the family to add items when needed. Start organizing your meal planning by using delicate produce first. Try it for one week and then another. You will be thrilled at how easy meal preparation can be when you don’t have to decide what to make the day of when you are already hungry and are left wondering if you have everything you need. It’s already done for you!
I’d love to know your thoughts on this system. Leave your comments below, or send me a message to let me know how it works for you!
All the best,