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How to Start Meal Planning and Save Time!

(+ Free Meal Plan & Shopping List!)

Being married to a chef, the idea of meal planning wasn’t an alien one to me.  He likes to organise meals ahead of time and to prep foods on his days off.  For the rest of us in the house, we have always been a little slap-dash about meals and things weren’t always very organised. 

However the more I heard people talk about meal planning, the more I realised Robert was right.  So we started to plan at least the main meal each day and one I noticed immediately – we bought less food.  Instead of buying food in case we needed it during the week, we bought what we needed to make the meals we had planned.  That was the start of me being sold on the idea of meal planning!

What is meal planning?

Meal planning is simply the process of deciding what to have for what meal.  You can get as specific as you want or keep things pretty general.  You can plan the main meal of the day or map out every meal from breakfast to supper.

Meal planning also goes hand in hand with meal preparation for some people.  This is the idea of batching your time and preparing ingredients for meals at a regular point of the week – Saturdays and Sundays are particularly popular.  The idea is you plan the meals, you do the shopping for the groceries you need for the meals then you prep what you can.  On each day, all that is left is the actual cooking.

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Hi welcome to Pesto & Margaritas! I’m Angela and with my chef husband Robert we are the people behind this blog! Thanks for visiting and if you want to know more about it, check out our About Us page

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How long to plan for?

How long you plan for is totally a personal choice.  We typically plan for either a week or about 3-4 days as we tend to do a small shop twice a week.  That way we can see what we need for the next few days and buy these items.

You can decide how long to meal plan for in lots of ways but a few things to help you decide on a schedule include:

  • How much time you have for meal planning?
  • How much time you have for meal prepping?
  • How often your family likes to change their mind about meals
  • How much food you can buy at a time to plan the meals

If you plan to do a meal plan and then meal prep, also consider your facilities.  For example, if you don’t have the freezer space to prepare and freeze a week’s worth of meals then a shorter three or four-day cycle might be best.  If you don’t like to freeze food if you can help it, then 3 days is a good cycle as this is the length of time it is safe to keep most foods in the fridge.

Do a kitchen audit

So you are into the idea of meal planning and want to get started.  What now?  The first step is to do a kitchen audit to see what you have in stock – no point buying something if you already have it.  And you can often use what is around in your meals.

There are tons of ways to do this, but I use a Trello board.  This is one of my favourite online organisational tools and I have a simple board with a list of the main food categories – meat, fish, ready meals, frozen easy foods such as pizzas or chicken, packets and jars and so on.  An audit involves making a note of what’s in the fridge, freezer and shelves so we know what we have.

Make your plans detailed but be flexible

Armed with the results of your kitchen audit, you can start to make meal plans.  You can be as detailed as you want but it is worth having the basics of the meal in place.  So you might want to note that you are having roast chicken with roast potatoes, mashed potatoes, carrots, peas and turnip along with gravy.  This tells you all of the elements you will need to make the meal.

When you make your plans, don’t forget to look at leftovers and to make sure of what’s already in stock.  This way you can make a grocery list of what you need and remove anything that is already in stock.

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Tips to start meal planning

Meal planning it about finding a system that works for you and no two households will use exactly the same approach.  However, there are tips that you might find can help you or be applied in slightly different ways.  Here are a few of the best tips to start meal planning.

  1. Plan meals around your schedule

Don’t try to fit your schedule around your meal planning but do it the other way around.  If you know that the kids have afterschool activities on Tuesday and Thursday, go for quick and easy meals, leftovers or even a ready meal.  Don’t try to fit in a full meal made from scratch when the time is short.

  1. Have easy, emergency meals in stock

These might be ready meals, they might be simple meals that don’t take much work, or they might even be frozen leftovers but having some emergency supplies is always a good idea.  Life can get in the way of a good meal plan and spoil things.

  1. Only try one new recipe a week

There’s the temptation to use meal planning to start trying loads of different meals and that’s great but don’t try to do too much in a week.  Most experts recommend a single new recipe each week and the rest from your tried and tested pool.

  1. Have a system to save recipes to try

I’m a Pinterest fan for loads of reasons and I have a board on my account called Recipes to Try.  You might prefer to print stuff and keep it in a binder or even set up an online tool like Evernote to clip and store recipes.  Set up a system so you always know where to find ideas to try.

  1. Try themed nights

I’ve never tried this but I know a lot of people swear by themed nights for the week so you don’t have to think too hard about what to make.  A pasta night, a fish night, one night for chicken, one for Mexican, these are all examples.  Then you just need to decide what meal to make under the theme.

  1. Try to chain recipes together

Ruthy at Percolate Kitchen recommends chaining recipes together one after another.  So if one night you have white rice and broccoli, prepare enough to add into a soup for the next day.  Or make a big batch of chilli and use some in taco the following night.

  1. Make a grocery list as you plan

Finally, as you choose your recipes and make your meal plan, make a grocery list too.  This means you can compare what you have with the recipe, spot what you need and jot it down.  You can always tidy it up later and catch those duplicate items!

Examples of a meal plan

The good news is if you are looking for ideas for meal plans or at least to see them in action, there are loads of great resources out there – and one here!  Here is a week’s meal plan based six meals for the week along with a couple of baked items for breakfast or a sweet treat.  These meals all take around half an hour to make.

Main meals:

  • Ginger Poached Chicken
  • Lemon Shrimp and Couscous
  • Maple Roasted Salmon
  • Stuffed Sweet Potatoes
  • Grilled Chicken Salad
  • Tomato-Pesto Chicken

Breakfast/light meal

  • Cheesy Egg Muffins

Baked treat

  • Banana-Chocolate Cookies

If you like these meal ideas, even if you spread them over longer than a week, you can download the free meal plan and a grocery list readymade for dishes below!

Getting the right system

There are a few factors to use to help you figure out the right system for your home.  Maybe it is to plan for a week at a time or maybe 3-4 days.  Maybe you have plenty of storage and can plan even further.  Whatever works for you, embrace it and don’t be afraid to make changes where needed to get everything to work smoothly.

If you are a meal plan fan, I would love to hear your system in the comments below!

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