Meal planning to simplify your life: Welcome to part two of this five-part series that shows you how to create your own routines to put you back into the driver seat for managing your life, family, and home.
You may be able to relate to this: It is 5 p.m., kids and husband are home, everyone is hungry, and you have no idea what to make for dinner. You simply haven’t thought ahead. You’ll take a look into the fridge, but apart from a sad-looking lettuce and a 5-day-old leftover chicken there is nothing. In a hurry, you’ll either grab your phone to order a pizza or get everyone in the car to drive to the nearest restaurant.
In my pre-planning life, we spent a lot of money on eating out, simply because I was not able to decide at short notice what to make for dinner. Apart from that, I would also need to run to the grocery store multiple times a week because I never had the things on hand that I needed to make a proper dinner.
What decision fatigue has to do with dinnertime struggle
The dinnertime struggle is real, and it has nothing to do with failure on your part, but it is just another example of decision fatigue! As already mentioned in part one of this five-part series “decision fatigue” is a state of reduced efficacy that occurs when there is an excessive or unlimited number of options. Decision fatigue is related to analysis paralysis and paradox of choice.”. If you missed the first article, check out the following link.
But you can easily overcome this struggle by simply following a meal planning routine which takes out all the guesswork of dinner preparation and simplifies your life.
Your meal plan can be as fancy or as simple as you want: there is no right or wrong. Some people plan out an entire month, others simply a few days in advance. Some use specifically designed checklists and pantry inventory lists, other simply write down several meals on a sheet of paper. But believe me, no matter what system you choose, if you plan out a few meals in advance, it will make your life much easier. Because then, when dinnertime hits, you just walk right into the kitchen and know exactly what you are going to cook for your family!
Meal planning to simplify your life
A meal planning routine saves a lot of money
When my husband and I got married, we did not meal plan at all. We either prepared something quick, ordered a pizza or simply went out for dinner. The result of this behavior was that we spent huge amounts of money on take away food and restaurants. One month we did spend almost 800 EUR for only two people! This was really shocking and eye-opening. If we were to spend only half of this amount, what else we could do with the remaining money! The quintessence of this experience was that you can save quite a bit of money by means of a simple routine such as meal planning.
With a meal planning routine you only buy what you really need
Before I started meal planning, I used to buy items that I thought I would need.
But purchasing random items does not prepare you for cooking a entire week’s meals. Usually, numerous items were missing which meant that I had to drive to the grocery store several times a week. In addition, very often I did not need all the items I bought. As such, quite often I was wasting time and resources.
Alternatively, when you do have a meal plan, you can check what you already have in stock and then only purchase what is missing. In addition, you can also adjust your meal plan to your overall budget.
A meal planning routine saves time in the kitchen
When you do not know what you are going to make for dinner, usually one of two things will happen:
- You procrastinate on starting dinner until it is too late – for us this usually resulted in ordering a pizza or going out for dinner…
- You spend a considerable amount of time in front of the fridge, pantry or freezer, trying to figure out what you could possibly make until you realize that you do not have all the necessary items at hand – for us this also usually resulted in ordering a pizza or going out for dinner…
However, if you do have a meal plan and you know what you’re going to make each night, you won’t have to spend any time thinking about what to make or desperately searching for ingredients.
Having a meal plan allows you to walk right into the kitchen and start preparing dinner on the spot!
A meal planning routine allows you to plan ahead
Another great benefit of meal planning is that it allows you to plan ahead and be prepared.
Let’s say you want to make a lentil soup on Thursday. Starting this dish on Thursday afternoon won’t work as you would need to soak the lentils first.
However, with a meal plan at hand, you already know on Wednesday that you will have lentil soup the next evening. This allows you to soak the lentils on Wednesday night and have dinner ready on time on Thursday.
How to create a meal planning routine to simplify your life
Step 1: Take inventory of what you already have
This first step is the most important one. And it is also the one that most people tend to skip.
However, if your main aim is to drastically reduce your grocery bill and food waste, it is important that you take stock of what you already have BEFORE you start planning your meals.
Take a look inside your fridge
The food in your fridge will expire more quickly than anything else in your kitchen. So it’s always best to look into your fridge first.
Look for any type of food that needs to be used up within the next few days. Make a list of those items.
Take a look inside your freezer
Afterwards you’ll want to take a quick look into your freezer. Take note of any meat, frozen veggies or meals that you would like to work into your meal plan. Also look out for items that are already quite a while in your freezer. Those items need to be used up sooner than others.
Take a look inside your pantry
Finally, take a look inside your pantry. Check what needs to be used up and take note of it. Personally, before I purchase anything new, I like to use up all of our side items first.
These steps may sound overwhelming at first, but trust me, once you get used to them, they only take up a couple of minutes.
Step 2: Determine how many meals you need to make
Next, grab your calendar and a cup of tea or coffee, sit down and determine how many meals you’ll need for the upcoming week.
If you homeschool your kids, you’ll probably need three meals a day plus snacks. If your kids have lunch at school and you and your husband spent a lot of time outside your home working, you’ll need to prepare less meals.
Also take also note of any events happening during your week that could influence meal preparation. On those days, where you will be very busy, you may want to plan for a quick and easy dinner.
Another great option for busy weeknights are leftovers! If you cook anyways, why not make a double batch and save the leftovers for those extremely busy days?
Step 3: Plan your meals
Now that you know how many meals you need, you can take into consideration the ingredients you found during step 1 – the inventory check. What meals could you make with these ingredients?
You could take a look inside your favorite cookbooks, look through magazines or search on Pinterest for ideas. I have done that a lot but that can be quite time consuming.
Take note of your family’s favorite meals
Something I started doing quite a while ago was taking notes of the meals my family really liked so that I would not always need to come up with something new. I basically created three lists:
- Meals for extremely busy weeknights
- Meals for normal evenings
- Meals for when I really feel like cooking something fancy
Over time, these lists grew quite substantially so that by now I have numerous meals to choose from each list. Nobody wants to eat the same thing over and over again, right?
As I do my entire planning digitally, I used “Google Lists” to create those lists. If this too overwhelming at first, try out my free meal plan printables. I have used those for many years and there is nothing wrong with that.
Step 4: List all missing ingredients on a shopping list
Now that you have got all of your meals planned out it’s time to add the missing ingredients to your shopping list.
You can either write them down on a piece of paper or use one of those shopping apps that you can share with other members of your family who also do the grocery shopping.
Step 5: Go grocery shopping or order online
For the remaining step, all you need to do is purchase the necessary ingredients!
You can either choose to shop in person and combine your shopping trip with running errands to save on gas or you choose to shop online.
If you really want to save money, now that you know what you’ll need, you can also search online for the best deals.
If your meal plan always seems to fail, focus on what exactly went wrong so you can make an effort to change it.
Are you the type of person who needs more options and does not want to stick to a stubborn routine?
If this is the case, your best bet will probably be to meal plan for two weeks at a time. Buying groceries for approximately 14 dinners will give you enough variety to work with. So, when dinnertime arrives and you do not want to eat what you had originally planned, you can easily swap it out for something else.
Are the meals you’re planning too complex?
If you’re at a stage in life where you’re super busy, it’s probably best to stick with simple meals that are easy to prepare. There is nothing wrong with that!
Is your plan realistic?
Wanting to eat healthier is an important long-term goal that we should all strive for. But if you’re eating out multiple times a week like I was, it’s not reasonable to expect yourself to replace every one of those pizza and restaurant nights with a healthy, gluten- and lactose-free meal. Be realistic about what you can achieve besides all your commitments and don’t feel ashamed if things don’t work out as planned. That’s life. You can always try better the next day!
My meal planning routine to simplify my life
Like my general planning routine, my meal planning routine also came a long way with lots of trial and error!
Today, given that we do our entire planning digitally, I use several different apps in combination to do our weekly meal planning.
Pantry inventory app to keep stock of what I have
As a first step, I use a pantry inventory app. In this app I record what I have in my pantry and freezers. I share this app with my husband so that he also knows what we already have.
Google Lists to note down favorite family recipes
Then, as mentioned earlier, I use Google Lists to keep note of all our favorite family recipes.
Google Calendar as a meal planning tool
To actually plan my meals, as outlined in my previous article, I use the Google Calendar app. In this app, in addition to all the dates and appointments, I have created a separate calendar called “What’s for dinner”. I use this calendar not only to set the dinner time but also what I will make for dinner. This way I can see exactly if my meal plans fit to our overall schedule. In addition, all family members can see what’s for dinner and when we will sit down to have our meals.
Grocery shopping app to keep stock of what we need
Finally, as both my husband and I do our grocery shopping, we use a shared shopping app in which we take note of the items we need to buy. When he is on the road and has time to do the shopping, he knows exactly what we need. Whenever I do the shopping, I also have all the items ready in a list. When one of us has purchased any of the items on the list, we can delete them so that only those items remain on the list, that we still need.
All the apps I use are for free, so there is not need to spend extra money on things like that. Just try a couple of apps to find out what works best for you.
Now it’s your turn to create a meal planning routine to simplify your life
Learning how to meal plan can truly simplify your life! If you’re struggling to keep up with the dinnertime rush or you are spending too much money on eating out, try creating a meal plan for the upcoming week.
If my digital method sounds too overwhelming at first, don’t feel frustrated. I have used pen and paper for years! Just grab my free meal planning printables and get started!