How I Meal Plan: A Simple, Hybrid Approach to Meal Planning

Do you meal plan? Or do you wing it every night? You may already have a perfect method for meal planning, or you may be looking for different meal planning ideas. I have tried several different methods of meal planning and I’ve found a method that works for us right now.

History of Meal Planning

I don’t know exactly when meal planning began. An article from ScienceDirect indicates meal plans were being created for individuals suffering from diabetes as early as 1950. I imagine the meal planning of today, with specific lists and recipes is a more modern concept than not, as it has only been in the past hundred years or so that most families in America have large refrigerators and food storage, and access to a variety of food products in large grocery stores.

Today we have countless resources for meal planning at our fingertips. We can print out cute weekly meal plan lists or buy a tasteful whiteboard or chalkboard to hang in our kitchen. You can even pay for complex subscriptions that will help you meal plan, find recipes, and make a grocery list.

Pros of Meal Planning

“Individuals planning their meals [are] more likely to have a better dietary quality, including a higher adherence with nutritional guidelines as well as an increased food variety” (Pauline Ducrot).

The list of benefits of meal planning is long and varied. Studies show that meal planning is associated with health, portion control, and food variety. Some other benefits include:

  • Saving time

Having a plan saves you from running to the store a few times a week for one ingredient, or from stressing before meals because you don’t know what to make for dinner. 

  • Saving money

If you know what you are making for dinner, and especially if you’ve been able to prepare beforehand, you will save money by avoiding going out to eat or getting take out. You will also reduce food waste with a plan, thus saving more money.

  • Eating healthier 

If you plan to eat healthier you will buy healthier foods and eat healthier meals. Having a plan also leads to fewer meals eaten out, which is overall healthier as well.

Cons of Meal Planning

While there are so many benefits to meal planning, there can also be a few drawbacks. I have tried meal planning in the way you may see on Pinterest, with every meal planned, balanced, and varied. But that method doesn’t work for everyone, and it didn’t work for our family during this season. Some drawbacks may be:

  • NOT saving money

Having a plan may keep you from spending money eating out, but it also may cause you to buy extra or unnecessary ingredients. I found when I had a specific meal plan that I ended up with lots of extra spices, condiments, and random extra ingredients that were delicious, but added up on our grocery bill.

  • Having too much food

I discovered with our family that if I cook every night we would have way too much food! We eat leftovers for lunch most days, yet I still have bits of extra food filling the refrigerator after a few days. This is partly my problem because I cook too much food for two adults and a toddler, but I guess I am still used to cooking for the large family I grew up in. 

We like having leftovers. Cooking once and eating twice (or more) makes sense and saves time for our family.

  • Not wanting to eat the meals planned

Sometimes I would look at my meal plan and decide that I did not feel like cooking or eating whatever was planned for that night. Of course, this has a quick fix—just switch days around—but having specific meals planned for specific days felt too exact (especially if I wrote it in pen in my planner!)

The pros do outweigh the cons with meal planning, but I still wanted to find a method that was a win-win for our family in our current season one life. 

How I Meal Plan

After being married for three years I am slowly figuring out the best meal-planning method for our family. It has changed based on where we live (like when we were in Romania and only had a dorm-sized refrigerator!), and who is in our home (like when we have guests).

Most nights I love to make dinner and I’m excited to get in the kitchen and prepare the meal. Some nights I am tired of making food after preparing breakfast, lunch, and probably a snack or two. Thinking of something to put together for dinner is the last thing I want to do.

The method that is currently working for our family and living situation is a hybrid. I partially plan our meals and partially decide what to make the day-of.

Right now I go to the grocery store once a week and I stay home all day with my 22-month-old toddler. I will probably not do things exactly the same when we have a newborn, but I’ll figure it all out when we get there. 

Here are the basic guidelines I use for our (kind of) meal plan.

  • Always have staples
  • Have a meal plan list
  • Shop in-season/on sale
  • Use most perishable items first
  • Plan leftover nights

Always Have Staples

We have a handful of foods that I always like to keep on hand. It will be different from family to family, but our staples include oats, rice, beans, eggs, apples, bananas, potatoes, flour, cabbage, and spinach. Our list also includes things like coffee, peanut butter, yeast, herbs and seasonings, and other items, but these are the main basics. I try to always, always keep these stocked. I might not buy each of them every week, but I always make sure we have them. 

If all else fails, I can always make rice and beans, or beans and potatoes. We eat oatmeal for breakfast every morning, and apples and bananas are our favorite snacks. I like keeping whole wheat flour on hand for making bread or muffins.

Meal Prep When You Can

In addition to always having staples on hand, it will save time and effort to have your staples partially prepared.

If you eat meat, be sure to always have meat thawed or cooked. Cook twice as much as you’ll need one night so you have it ready for the next night. Or always have beans soaking, cooked, or have cans in your pantry.

If you find a few extra minutes in the kitchen go ahead and prep veggies so they are ready to throw in a dish. Wash fruits before putting them in the bowl so they are ready to go.

Bake potatoes whenever your oven is already hot. 

Whip up a batch of muffins to have for snacks when you have the time. 

Do whatever works for you in the time you find!

It is nice to have a food prep day, but you may not always have hours in one day to get it all done. I like to do as much as I can the day I go to the store, but then I prepare the rest throughout the week as I have time. 

Have a Meal Idea List 

We have several meals that I make over and over again. We know we like them and they’re easy to make with little thought. Kendra at The Lazy Genius calls them “Brainless Crowdpleasers,” because they are recipes that don’t take much thought and they please your crowd/family.

Some of ours include:

  • Burrito bowls
  • Curry
  • Pasta salad
  • Roasted veggies, beans, and bread or cornbread
  • Any type of soup or chili
  • Homemade pizza
  • Breakfast for dinner

I also keep a list of meals I like to make for guests or big crowds that draw from our staple list.

Shop in Season/on Sale

When I make my grocery list each week, the first thing I do is look at the Aldi sale ad to see what produce is on sale for the week. Now that we’re starting to get produce from our garden, I can include that in my list as well.

Some things I buy every week whether or not they’re on sale (such as apples, bananas, and spinach), but I will probably only buy Brussels sprouts, asparagus, or strawberries when they’re on sale.

Use Most Perishable Items First

To avoid wasting food, make sure you use ingredients that will go bad the quickest, the earliest. If I bought zucchini on sale at Aldi, I know it is nearing the end of its freshness, so I’ll make a recipe containing zucchini early in the week.

Spinach turns more quickly than cabbage or carrots, so I’ll be sure to serve spinach salads earlier in the week and change to cabbage or carrot salads later. 

This cuts down both on decision fatigue and food/money waste.

Plan Leftover Nights

I do not plan seven breakfasts, lunches, and suppers a week. I usually plan four to five meals a week, depending on what our plans are in a given week.

As I mentioned before, we like having leftovers for lunch (and it saves me from having to plan lunches), so I like making more food for dinner than we will eat in a night. Even with eating leftovers for lunch, after a few days we still have a serving or two of a few different dinners. 

On planned leftover nights I will assess how much food we have and see if I need to supplement with anything. Usually, I will make a salad, and if I feel like we need more food I will bake a few potatoes, make a loaf of bread or cornbread, or scramble some eggs.

Put it All Together

Once I have my list of sale items and what staples and produce I have on hand, I can put it all together for a rough meal plan. I like to make a list of meals I can make from the list, but I don’t assign days to them unless we’re having guests. I never know what we will feel like eating or how much time I’ll have on a certain day, so I like to decide the day of which meal I’ll make.

Some basic guidelines I tend to stick to when I make this meal plan/list are: 

  • Salad once a day (either for lunch or dinner)
  • Brunch on the weekend
  • Special dinner for Friday date night (usually pizza!)
  • Any special requests from Sam

Some weeks I’ll stick to my plan and make every meal I wrote out. Some weeks I’ll find a new recipe or idea that uses ingredients I have on hand and make that instead. Mostly I try to be flexible and enjoy it because I do enjoy being in the kitchen.

Recap

Meal planning is great, but it doesn’t exactly work for everyone. I have figured out a system that works for us in our season right now, but it won’t work for everyone. The basics of my system are:

  • Always have staples
  • Have a meal plan list
  • Shop in-season/on sale
  • Use most perishable items first
  • Plan leftover nights

Do you meal plan? How do you do it?

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