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I don’t think I have mentioned this before but my day job is a management role in the social work industry. If you are familiar with social work then you likely know that it is about more than just having a kind heart and passion for helping other people. One of the biggest assets you can have in the social work field is how to make very little stretch pretty far. The reason for this is that programs are often chronically underfunded and so you have to be able to do a lot with a little. One of the places you can see that in action is in group homes. Group homes have to provide proper nutrition to their residents while sticking to a strict budget and there is ONE tool that makes this possible even given the fact that there are multiple “cooks in the kitchen” if you will- different staff for shopping, cooking and planning.
This one tool is the Meal Plan.
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What is a Meal Plan?
A meal plan is the best tool you can use to run your home like a business. A business is in the… well, business of making money. And a business knows that a penny saved in a penny earned. Anyone who has tried to run a household also knows this.
I’ve talked before about how my family got out of a massive amount of debt. The crazy thing is that we did not get into that debt by going on vacations or buying fancy things. Apart from a student loan, we got into that debt simply from mismanaging our money- we were not wise about going out to eat, or spending savvy on groceries
A meal plan is basically a document that states what you are going to have for dinner. Some people do it by the week, and some do it by the month. When used in conjunction with looking for sales etc. it can be a great way to save money and get it together when it comes time to figure out what is for dinner
Creating a Meal Plan
Step 1: Make Some Lists
A few things that can help you get it together while making a meal plan:
- A list of what things you eat frequently and like
- An inventory of what you have on hand (this can be pretty laid back and not like an exhaustive thing, but its good to know if you have a bunch of things in the freezer that could be used up)
- Some recipes you want to try- this is optional but it can be pretty useful to try a couple of new things throughout the month. However if you are going to do this, make sure you have a quick and easy backup plan. I have had many recipe fails which resulted in trips to the nearest drive through. This is not a good outcome and I don’t recommend it!
- Check your calendar for upcoming or reoccurring events that may interfere with dinner. For example, we know that our oldest has soccer 2 nights a week and so we try to plan fairly easy things for those nights. That way he can either eat quickly before he leaves, or we keep his put aside for when he comes home. Additionally if someone has a doctors appointment or something else that will put a time squeeze on your night, plan for that as well. Good ideas for coping with those hectic nights are to utilize your crockpot or take out something you’ve batch cooked for healthy homemade fast food.
Check out this Crockpot from Amazon to make your life easier!
Step 2: Establish a Meal Planning Method
I have seen about a zillion ways to do this online from bullet journals to blackboards. There are many sites that offer amazing templates for meal plans and shopping lists and while I really would love to love these methods I personally find them cumbersome and unrealistic.
I have about a billion things to do and when it comes to time management I much prefer to have more to spend cooking than planning. This is why I do this in probably the most basic way possible. I simply print off a monthly calendar and write my stuff right into the little boxes. Keep in mind, when I meal plan I only plan for dinners. I’m sure that I could tighten up efficiency around here even further by planning everything else but at this point planning dinners alone works best for us.
Our Meal Planning Method- A Step By Step Guide
Step 1: Take items from your inventory and add them to the list, spacing them out
Example: I have 5 packets of beef barbacoa in the freezer. I won’t want to have them all in a row so I will add them to the meal plan, spacing them out. Since most of the meals I make with barbacoa take a bit of prep, I am not putting these on nights where there are soccer games or other commitments. Since the meals that I use barbacoa for are favorites around here, I am adding them around weekends (my husband likes to have “special dinners on weekends)
Step 2- Make a shopping list under each entry of the things that you will need for that dinner
Example: In the example above I already had the beef in the freezer, but would need other items depending on what I was making with it. For example if making burritos we would need: tortilla, rice, tomatoes, onion and jalapeno (for pico), sour cream or Greek yogurt, and salsa. If making flautas we would need tortillas, lettuce, salsa, sour cream/Greek yogurt, jalapeno and avocado. So whatever it is you are making, put the list under the food (even if you usually have it – for example rice might already be in your essentials pantry*- we will get to this later!)
Repeat these steps for a few of the dinners from your favorites list that are a bit more complicated, or need to be used up first (for example if they require fresh or frozen items that should be used first). Remember to space them out if your family is whiny about variety- like mine is!
Step 3- Now go in and add some easier quick meals to your busy nights.
Think crockpot meals, ordering in (although try to keep this to a minimum if you are trying to eat healthier or save money), leftovers or fend for yourself nights.
After you have completed these steps you can go ahead and populate the rest of your nights!
Pay special attention to planning meals around the ones you already have listed that would use up any leftovers from those meals. For example if you have burritos on Friday and anticipate having leftover tortillas and rice/beans, you can have quesadillas the next night which will use those up! (Can you tell we are big on Mexican inspired foods around here?!)
The MOST Important Thing About a Meal Plan
Now keep in mind that these are living documents. They are NOT final! You never know when you are going to feel terrible, or something will come up that will mess with your dinner plans. My solution to this is to cross off what was planned and add it to the bottom of the sheet, and put what we actually had in the calendar box.
I consider the meal plant to be a loose guide for the meals we will consume in the month. So sometimes things will be changed or moved. And that is totally OK! If there are items at the bottom of the list still at month end I carry them forward. Easy Peasy!
A meal plan is a TOOL for you to use to reach your goals, whether they be health related, money related or as part of a strategy to reduce dinnertime planning stress.
Shopping for Your Plan
When shopping for your meal plan, first look through at all of the grocery items that would fall under the “pantry staples” category and check in the cupboards whether or not you are well stocked. If you used a freezer inventory (or even just your memory of what was in your freezer) then you wont have to do this step with your frozen items.
I try to do a big shop once per week (or even every 2 weeks if I can swing it) with smaller trips between for more perishable items. I look at the upcoming week on our plan and generate a list based on what’s coming up. For fresh items like veggies you might have to go shopping more than once in the week, but that’s OK.
One you get into the hang of meal planning you will likely be able to see and predict the amount of everything you need for your recipes and monthly plan. It is like anything. You get much more efficient as time goes on from practicing. Also as you get used to writing your shopping lists, you will see the items that regularly occur and might discover that these are your Pantry Essentials.
A meal plan can save you a ton of money (especially if you live in an area where food is insanely expensive like we do here in Canada) but it’s really important to also shop smart. This might require thinking outside the box.
If you want to see what we do, check out the free eBook we have available that has 10 pages full of our easiest most actionable tips to save money when eating healthy!
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