Meal Planning Tips

Are you meal planning yet?? I'm working on my meal plan for this week and I can tell you, I have 3 out of 7 days planned. I keep hitting roadblocks. Kyle and I are SO burned out on the meals we consider "old faithfuls." After 5 years of marriage, sometimes your recipes and cookbooks need a facelift! I've done a lot of searching on the internet, in cookbooks and have asked my friends for recipes, but I'm just not finding anything that seems to be just right for us - or they are fancy meals or just not appropriate for an everyday, weeknight meal. Another thing... I know I don't use my crockpot to it's abilities AT ALL. I make three things in my crockpot... roast, pulled pork and baby back ribs. Just realized all three of those are pork products (almost all of my roasts are pork, not beef)...!!

So, I'm just overwhelmed. I can't imagine not meal planning and just flying by the seat of my pants at the store - how overwhelming would THAT be?! Eesh...

Here are some tips that I've started to collect through my meal planning journey:

1. Flexibility is key. Meal planning doesn't have to be that hard.
I tried to meal plan for every single day. This meal on Monday, this on Tuesday, this on Wednesday, etc, etc. That ended up making the process cumbersome and leading to inevitable failure. Wednesday night would come and I would think "I REALLY don't want to eat that tonight...." So, we'd end up feeding Reagan something - maybe a lunchable, a frozen Kid's Cuisine, chicken nuggets... what have you... and then picking through the fridge to find something for Kyle and I. Kyle's fall back is frozen pizza, but I would usually end up with some kind of pasta, cereal or a sandwich - or... on a bad night, a quick trip to get fast food. And while that's really not a huge deal - it's not what I want for my family. This has taught me to plan 7 meals for a week, but not a meal for each night. And I always make sure that I have 1-2 extra meals that I can make at any time. That way, if we just aren't in love with our meal for the night, we have some options that DON'T include fast food. I do use a template with the days of the week marked mainly to keep track of how many meals I have, but I often change the meals out for different days. Another thing to remember: things happen. This week, Thursday night was so trying for both Kyle and I (think massive potty disaster with 3 year old... enough said...) and by the time the crisis was under control neither of us could think about food! So we never made one of our planned meals, which means we can have it this week. Score!

2. Research grocery store deals online.
This has been HUGE for us. We have an HEB and a Walmart at our fingertips. We also have access to an Albertson's in New Braunfels (however, I've NEVER been there). Walmart is great for truly lower prices, and there are some things that I just prefer to buy from Walmart than HEB - the same goes for things I like to buy at HEB vs. Walmart. I like the HEB generics more than Walmart, usually... but Great Value brand mac and cheese?! Umm... yes please!! SOOOOO much better than the HEB/Hill Country Fair brands! But, I love the HEB brand breads, veggies, ketchup, and so much more... Also, HEB offers so many deals, that make their prices lower than Walmart, but only for that given week. It is so hard to decide where to go when we start talking about groceries. And let's not forget all the OTHER things Walmart carries. I have a hard time going to WalMart for groceries and actually leaving with ONLY groceries... no play clothes for Reagan, or random household items... you know what I mean... I know you do! So, I've started looking through the HEB weekly flyer online to help me figure out what they have on sale. This also helps me plan. If HEB has chicken breast on sale for $1.97 a lb, I know we're eating more chicken than beef that week!! Usually, we can get a good size pack of chicken for about $3 - we will usually buy 2-3 packages depending on what other proteins we are buying that week. This means, I have a massive amount of chicken stocked up in my freezer! It's been great :0)

3. Keep your schedule in mind when planning.
Always keep your evening schedule in mind when planning. Reagan has dance every Thursday at 5:15. Her class lasts an hour and we're usually not home, depending on the traffic on 1604, until at least 6:45 - during Christmas, make that about 7:15. Every Thursday, my meal plan needs to have a SUPER easy meal that can be put together in a pinch, a crock pot meal that I can cook all day, or something that Kyle is comfortable cooking when he gets home from work so that it's ready when we get home. Also, once a month I have a meeting at church - it starts at 7 and I have to leave the house by 6:40. That means I need to cook early or again, crock pot meal. I don't want to cook a super nice meal just to scarf it down in the hour between Kyle coming home and me walking out the door. So, make sure you are keeping your schedule in mind when you meal plan, or you could be setting yourself up for a let down.

4. Meal plan THEN make your grocery list.
I've said this before - I make my list of meals and then go day by day, recipe by recipe to make sure I either have what I need in the house already or place it on my list to buy. Make sure you check out my Home Organization Binder for my Meal Plan and Grocery list sheets.

5. Organize your list.
Now, to some of you this may sound like I've fallen off my rocker - which I probably have... - BUT, in all seriousness, this is truly a great tip. You can organize your list a few ways. The two ways I usually employ are by department (produce, meats, canned goods, etc) or individualized to my specific store by aisle. The latter can be very cumbersome and not work well if you utilize different stores as I do - but it is the most sufficient list type. Right now, I utilize a departmental list. All of my produce in one section, dairy in another and then a list for miscellaneous (toiletries, OTC medicines, paper goods). This keeps me from running around the store like a chicken without a head and although the grocery store can provide great aerobic exercise, who of us actually WANTS to go from one side of the store to the other more than once because you keep forgetting something on aisle 5?!

6. Make time the night before to decide what you'll eat the next night and THAW it out!!
I cannot tell you HOW often I will go to the kitchen to start the dinner I've planned on making all day only to realize I NEVER thawed the meat out the night before!!! I don't know about you, but I cannot and will not thaw meat in the microwave. I just can't do it. Maybe someday I will be able to do this, but not now. I will place meat in the sink with lukewarm water to help speed the process up, but that's about it. So, what do you do when you have no protein?! Fast food... yup... that's a problem. I guess you could call that a Meal Planning Disaster :0)

7. Keep track of past meal plans.
Again, I may sound like a psycho, OCD hoarder... but really - keep your lists. I know my husband and I don't *love* to eat the same things every week - although he would love spaghetti and tacos EVERY week... This helps you keep track of what your cooking but it also helps you meal plan for the future. Six weeks in and having a hard time coming up with meals?? Go back to weeks 1, 2 and 3 - what did you make then?? It's been long enough to recycle a meal and chances are you might be craving it again anyway. Keeping your lists helps you cut down on your planning time. And really, after a while you could use an entire weeks plan again and nobody will notice!

I'm by NO MEANS a pro on this topic - I am working out the kinks myself, but I do know that the above tips HELP so much. Does that mean I implement them in my own life each and every week/day? Nope. I forget. I'm learning still, always... but they are great ideas to try and to work into your life. And I'm always looking for more ideas. What other tips do you use to keep your meal planning on schedule, inexpensive and working? I'd love to hear from YOU!