We were having dinner with friends a few months ago, including another 30-something-year-old couple. At some point in the conversation, I said something along the lines of, “Oh yeah, when I plan our dinners for the week…” They looked at me like I had three heads. The looks of confusion on their faces led me to believe that maybe not everyone does this? Is that true? Well, in the event that others out there are just as befuddled as our friends were, I thought that I would share our meal planning process.
But why? Well, chances are that you will save money, be healthier, and still be able to eat delicious food if you put in a little time and effort. Your health and your bank account are worth it. Really. For me, it started in 2004, when we were broke. I had just graduated college, and I moved in with my boyfriend (now husband) into a ridiculously low-ceilinged attic apartment in Burlington, VT. It’s good that we aren’t very tall. Anyway, our post-college jobs were less-than-awesome, and we were on a very tight budget, especially with student loan payments starting a few months later. We simply couldn’t afford to buy groceries that were going to go unused and end up rotting in the fridge. So, once a week (usually on Sunday), we put together a meal plan with budget as the main priority, made a grocery list, and went grocery shopping. The priorities have evolved over the years. When I did Weight Watchers, I started planning WW-friendly meals. When I started lifting weights, I planned meals around macronutrient goals. When I was in class 3 nights a week, I tried to plan quick and easy meals.
1. Decide what your priorities are. This will give you a framework for planning. Budget? Dietary requirements? Time? Schedule?
2. Choose a starting point for recipe-finding.
- Skim sale flyers to choose foods that will be on sale.
- Try a new ingredient. Curious about pomegranate? Never had quinoa? Go for it!
- Choose a cuisine ethnicity. Maybe you have a favorite Thai dish that you would like to replicate, or maybe you’re really in the mood for comforting flavors of Italian food.
- Pick a protein. As vegetarians, our main proteins are eggs, tofu, legumes, tempeh, and seitan. If you are an omnivore, you obviously have many more choices. I don’t like to repeat proteins in a given week. It’s mostly because I get bored easily, but it’s also to maintain a balanced diet. For example, we might have one meal with tofu, one meal with eggs, and a meal with legumes.
- If you’re part of a CSA, prioritize your fresh produce and base your meals around it.
You may have noticed that there are only three meals planned for a whole week. This is because we typically choose dishes with enough servings to last two nights so that we don’t have to cook every night. We do a quick check-in about our schedules for the week to determine how many nights we will be cooking, since at least one of us usually has something going on that takes us away from home for dinner.
3. Choose your meals. Some people don’t like following recipes and prefer to wing it. I find winging it to be a bit stressful at the end of a long day, so I typically go with recipes. I discovered that cookinglight.com and vegetariantimes.com both list the nutritional information for their recipes, so they were great resources when I was trying to hit specific nutritional goals. I have a collection of cookbooks full of tried-and-true recipes that I always go back to. When I have a certain ingredient in mind, or an idea for a dish, I love going to Foodgawker.com to search through the food blogger photo gallery.
4. Ok, so now you’ve figured out how many nights you need meals for, how often you will be cooking, how many meals you need, and what those meals will be. Now it’s time to make your grocery list. I use the ShopShop app on my IPhone, but any list will do. When I’m REALLY on top of things, I sort my list based on the layout of the store. This happens approximately once a year.
5. Go grocery shopping. Your store should probably be in line with your priorities if possible. We go to the budget-friendly store nearby, but we meet our healthy-living goals by being part of a CSA, and occasionally supplementing with items from Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s.
6. Start cooking! If you’re going to make meals for multiple nights, make sure that you have adequate storage containers, and room in the fridge for your leftovers.
And one final tip: It gets easier. I promise. It may feel overwhelming at first if you aren’t used to it, but over time, you will find resources and methods that work for you and your lifestyle.