How to create a meal plan

I know, I know.  Meal planning is annoying...but also helpful.

One of the big topics that's come up during Healthy on a Budget Month is waste.  We don't mind spending money on quality, nutritious ingredients to cook at home...except when we don't actually cook them at home!  Whether it's because of a schedule change, laziness, not knowing what to do or just forgetting, there are few things that irk healthy eaters more than throwing away perfectly good food.  Or spoiled food that was perfectly good 2 days ago.

One simple solution to the problem of waste is creating a meal plan so that you only buy and cook what you'll actually eat.  Meal planning is one of those things that has never sounded appealing to me.  I like being improvisatory and one of the things I love about cooking is getting to be creative and making something super fresh.  Meal Planning just seemed too restrictive and Weight Watchers-y, and I assumed I'd be resigning myself to Meal Planning Hell and stuck eating Cheesy Casseroles or Slow Cooker Fajitas for weeks on end.

But really, meal planning can be any range of activities, from cooking a week's worth of meals all in one day to selecting 2 recipes for the week before you hit the market on Sunday.  It dawned on meal that while I was doing thoughtful and creative meal planning for my personal chef clients to maximize time and taste, I wasn't doing the same thing for myself and so I've started to use the same tools to help myself out.

A few minutes of planning time really saves you hours during the week as well as money since you aren't letting ingredients go to waste or needing to grab takeout.  If you think that Meal Planning might be helpful to you as you watch your diet and your budget, check out my steps for DIY-ing a meal plan that works for you.

How to make your own meal plan

1. Establish a schedule.

Step 1 is figuring out when you are actually going to be at home to eat this coming week.  Look at your calendar and cross off any work events, lunches or evenings out.  Then look at the rest of the days (whether it's just one night or every meal, Mon-Thurs) and determine which meals you actually need to cook.

The 2nd step of establishing a schedule is deciding when you will do your meal planning steps each week.  You'll need to pick recipes, shop and do any prep work.  A sample schedule could be selecting your recipes (based on your needed meals) on Friday the week before, shopping on Sunday afternoon and doing some extra prep work on Sunday night. 

2. Balance variety with effort.

I often hear two complaints when it comes to meal planning: 1) There's not enough variety and 2) It's way too time consuming cooking 3 different meals everyday.  These two desires are often at odds with each other, since cooking everyday is going to give you more variety and cooking once for the week will take up less time.  Find your own balance of what's satisfying to you.  

I find that I don't mind eating the same thing for breakfast everyday, but I will mutiny if you try to make me eat the same dinner every night.  You can see from my rustic meal plan photo above, I like to pick one breakfast to make for the week, one mix and match type lunch to repeat, and then cook 2 nights a week, eating the leftovers on the two other weeknights.  Some variety, but I'm still not cooking dinner every night.     

3. Collect your recipes.

Once you've determined how often you want to switch up your meals, you can start selecting specific recipes for the week.  Gather your favorites into a word doc, a Pinterest board or even a meal planning app to keep it organized.  You probably already have a good collection of dishes you like to make, but when it comes time to shop for the week, your mind draws a blank.  Make a collection of 10 awesome recipes to start and go from there.

Also, don't feel the pressure to select recipes for every single meal for the week.  Meal planning doesn't need to be 21 meals or nothing.  If you want to start cooking just 2 dinners a week, that's AOK, just make those 2 dinners your meal plan each week and be comfortable swinging the rest.  Nothing makes us feel more justified in giving up than when we go too hard and "prove" to ourselves that the result isn't worth the effort.

4. Make your shopping list.

I like to divide my shopping list into the following departments: produce, herbs, meat, cooler, pantry, and bulk.  I'll then go through the ingredient list of each recipe in order and mark down the ingredients in the appropriate section.  (Many meal planning apps do this for you.)  A grocery store trip that would have taken me an hour now takes me 20 minutes.  I cultivated this technique when shopping for personal chef clients; I got paid the same amount whether shopping took me 20 or 60 minutes, so you can be sure I got the trip down to 20.  Plus this super organized list--which I still make manually, I just find it faster--makes sure I don't forget anything behind, which can happen if you are flipping through recipes or hopping around departments.

5. Prep ahead.

This is an optional step, but one to consider if you work late.  I tend to favor quick meals that feature a handful of ingredients sauteed together (ex: my Cauliflower, Kale and Chickpea Saute).  However, certain whole food ingredients--like brown rice, millet, beans from scratch or soups--can take longer than you'd like to cook at the end of the day, so consider doing some of the work ahead of time.

When you get home from Sunday shopping, glance at your recipes and cut up any root vegetables, clean your greens, and cook any whole grains to give yourself a head start.

6. Explore tools that make it easier.

Creating a meal plan each week isn't for everyone so explore tools out there intended to make it easier.  Some of my favorites are the meal planning apps Paprika and Plan to Eat.   

Also, explore ready-to-go meal plans from your favorite chefs, authors and websites.  I'm in the process of creating my Plant-Centered Meal Plan which will be a package of weekly meal plans based on healthful plant foods (with optional meat), all designed for a flexible schedule.

Interested in learning more about the plan?  I'm looking for beta testers to help me refine the plan before I launch it to the public.  Sign up here to hear when beta testing is available!