Sunday, June 1, 2014

8 Things I've Learned About Meal Planning (and Some New Resolve)

I have been doing meal planning on and off again for several years - along the way I've learned a few things:

1. If I do not meal plan, we wind up with a lot of "it's 6pm, I have no idea what to make!" days that end either in ordering take out or convincing each other we weren't really hungry anyway (and then snacking on something inadequate at 10pm).

2. Paper meal plans don't work for me.  As much as I love all the really cute displayed meal plans I see on Pinterest, they would look just like my baby books of old - filled in for a week and then never touched again.  I am a computer girl - electronic text gets it done.

3. Planning breakfasts doesn't actually lead to making breakfasts, because meal plans don't come with a cook that is ready to face working in the kitchen at 7am.  If we want breakfast, we need to have things pre-made that involves minimal effort at breakfast time.

4. We should be eating breakfast more regularly, so we need to plan for those prepared breakfast ideas.

5. Lunches are a saboteur if you don't plan for them.  Minus a lunch plan, I tend to skip (leading to more non-nutritious snacking), and Michael winds up eating out (expensive and not the healthiest option) or snacking out his office's free 'healthy snacks' selection (they aren't particularly healthy - but free is tempting when you have no lunch).

6. I love the idea of trying new recipes so much that one pitfall of meal planning is a tendency to load up on new things to try and forgetting to shuffle in our favorites.  Since family memories are made in part of favorite family meals, this is something to be mindful of.

7. As much as possible, I need to have one or two meal ideas that are easy, fast, and creatable from things I'm positive I'll have on hand, because some days what I have planned sounded fantastic at the time but feels like my soul is being sucked out of my eyeballs at the mere idea of having to do that work *today*.

8. All of this is a million times easier when it involves two adults that are equally interested in good foods and good health than it was when there were picky children (and a picky ex) in the mix.  Back then, any meal that didn't lead to at least one exclamation of "You're trying to poison me!!"  was a total victory.  I tried, but I outlasted that battle - I didn't win it.  For those of you still struggling with that, be nice to yourself! Do what you can, don't stress what you can't, and take heart - someday you'll be able to eat like an adult again.


As we enter June, both Michael and I are realizing that some bad habits have crept back up on us over the winter.  Instead of avoiding wheat, we're eating it a couple times a week while making mild comments about how we really should stop this, because we feel better without. We're giving in on packaged 'convenience' foods that aren't particularly convenient, because it seems easier even though we know it isn't. We're re-experiencing weight gain, GERD, inflammation - and we know good and well why, but...  holidays! And travel!  And ...because.

Summer is a good time to reboot,  I think - we're at the half way point of the year (and just before my birthday), which I think is a good time to renew our resolve and goals.  It's fresh produce season, so there are plenty of delicious, colorful and nutritious alternatives to processed boredom.  Even eating out, it's much easier to find fresh alternatives in restaurants that it might be in winter.  And no holidays that can't be handled easily by still eating in a way that promotes well-being rather than fights against it.

So all that said, here's how I currently mealplan:

1. I worry about dinners only (see above for why this needs to change).

2.  I keep a page for each month in the program The Journal. I've used this for years to handle all manner of information, and I love it a lot.  Sadly, at this time they don't have a version that syncs to a Kindle or iPad, so after I've laid everything out, I copy it over to Evernote, so I have it when I'm out shopping.

The page is quite simple - June, for example starts out like this - simple blanks, along with notations on events that will impact dinner options:

Sn    1

M    2
(my birthday - not cooking!)

T    3

W    4
(Relay grocery delivery)
(dinner out with Alex)

Th    5

F    6

S    7
(Baltimore - dinner at L's)

3.  I take into account what fresh produce we're receiving, what meat and other protein sources we have on hand and what we need, and then start filling out the week (and generally, a couple weeks, although I refer to my plans each week to make necessary shifts as things come up).

4. I try to fill out a couple favorites, a couple new recipes, and a couple days where I don't have to cook (either planned leftovers or meals out).  I will plan for 7 meals, but it isn't unusual for one to wind up not happening - we either have more leftovers than intended or something comes up that keeps me from being able to cook as planned. Planned meals that don't take place are reshuffled into the next week, especially if perishables are involved.  For that reason, when possible, the 7th item is ideally something that involves pantry/freezer items that can wait as needed.

5. Dates are malleable.  It isn't uncommon  to decide that Wednesday's meal will be much better if it happens on Monday, etc.  The days of the week are a reference, not a mandate.

6. I add any pre-prep that needs to happen on the day before of day of. Marinating, taking down frozen items, etc.

7.  I add items I need to my grocery list, and schedule in shopping/delivery time prior to needing those items.  My list also includes regular items (milk, eggs, etc) and pantry stock as it runs out.  My grocery list is pretty much completely up to date at all times, which allows us to 'run to the store' without a lot of last minute decision making.

My finished result for this week - and this turns out to be a ridiculous week full of eating out - looks like this:

Hardy Meal Plan, June 1-7 

Sunday    1
Spicy Tomato Chicken Soup (from this month's Tiffin Trove Box)

Grain-Free 'Corn'bread topped with Cheese

Monday    2
(my birthday - not cooking!)
I have no idea, and have not been told a thing! Not even sure if it's eat out, order in or he's cooking.  Mystery Date!

Tuesday    3
Zucchini Noodles, tossed with Sauteed Celery, Carrots and Onion

Wednesday    4
(Relay grocery delivery)
(dinner out with Alex)

We're getting together with an old friend at our favorite Thai restaurant.  I could say I don't know what I'm having, but I do, because it's irresistible: Red Coconut Curry with Chicken, Jalepenos, Basil and Bamboo Shoots. Drool....

Thursday    5
Masala Salmon (from last month's Tiffin Trove box)

Friday    6 
(Dr's Appt)

Tossed Salad

Sunday    7
(Baltimore - dinner at L's)

Going up and either eating at a friend's house or eating out 
(plans about what haven't been finalized yet)

This is likely to be the most challenging day, in terms of choosing something to eat that is within our intentions - but social gatherings and good times with friends trump ideal eating for me!


Starting next week, I'm going to work on incorporating lunches into our meal plan, and once I've developed that habit and it's working for us, start adding breakfast.  Eventually, I may even include planned snacking (because that is my particular devil!), but  I want to make these changes a bit at a time so I don't get overwhelmed. 

I figure if we can alter our habit over the summer, it may be well in place before the (delicious) pitfalls of Autumn rear their annual heads.

I'd love to hear your ideas for meal planning - how you do it, what you've learned?  And because we can all always use some great ideas, feel free to share in comments what your plan for the week is, too!

I'm going to make this a weekly thing this summer, every Sunday, and maybe some of the other authors here will also share their meal plan ideas.  We each have our own different ways of eating as well as different dietary needs, so between us there is a lot of variety!

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  1. What a wonderful post! Not only did I get a lot of great ideas about meal planning (we are AWFUL!! we never remember to thaw anything, and its always figuring things out at a time at which we are already hungry for it to be DONE!) but I love that you included the links to the programs you use.

  2. I do something similar to this and it is so useful. Like you, the weeks I fail to meal plan get us into difficult situations at dinner time and grocery shopping is ineffective. For us, with kid schedules and a two-career household, it's essential that I pay attention to the calendar so that planned meals don't take longer than the time/energy we'll have on a given evening. I am a paper girl, though - the list is posted on the fridge for ease of view, although I do nothing decorative with it. Tonight we're having a marinated turkey loin, mashed potatoes, grilled bell peppers, and a green salad with heirloom tomatoes and a homemade vinaigrette. The whole thing will take about 30 minutes to get onto the table - perfect for Monday night. :)

  3. Thanks for your ideas. I also laugh when I see those print out meal planning sheets. They look so beautiful, but I just use a note on my iPad and confer with it and change things all the time.
    This is my first time on your site. I'm excited to see a person who is trying to meal plan healthily as well. My husband is prepping to be a scout leader on a backpacking trip and so I'm trying to come up with even healthier meals that will keep us full because he's trying to get into better shape.
    I have written an entire post about meal planning for people with different tastes.
    I still clicked on your link because, while I wrote an entire post, I still need more ideas and motivation :) I'm going to start following your blog on Google Reader so hopefully I can get more ideas.
    My rule with new meals is only 1 new recipe a week in the planning. Otherwise, I may end up with multiple meals in a week that don't work out quite as well... or take way too long... or are just an unexpected hassle.
    Thanks again.
    Ironically, I'm a bit worried about tonight. I actually made a new recipe for lunch and there aren't any leftovers and I really only plan 1 meal a day.

  4. One of the things I have learned is that everybody meal plans differently, and everybody can do it right. You have to figure out what works best for you, even if it seems against conventional wisdom. Hello from Thank Goodness It's Monday.

  5. I laughed when I read #7. Yes, when life catches up on my day, it's all I can do sometimes to get that wonderful recipe made and on the table.

    On the other hand, I find I do better if I make only 1 or 2 parts of the meal and use leftovers for the rest. Somehow it doesn't seem as much work.

    Thanks for linking up at Motivation Monday!

  6. I finally just started meal planning - well after all the children have left the nest. I'm not great at it, but I keep plugging away. So far, dinners only. I made mine on a 2nd calendar and set it up as a recurring event so that next year, even if I don't decide to follow it, I have something to start with.

  7. Thanks for sharing this on Mostly Homemade Mondays! I've selected YOU and this post as the FEATURED BLOGGER! Tomorrow morning head over and pick up the button to display on your blog. And, don't forget to link up a few more of your favorite posts! Thanks again for partying with us :)

  8. Love your post. Planning is the most difficult part for me.

    I make notes on my iPhone, I also compile ingredient cards to avoid shopping and forgetting a necessary ingredient to a recipe. Michael Rulman gave helpful information when he said think about tomorrow's dinner today. Roast 2 chickens instead of just 1, that way you can have a great dinner and that extra chicken you can make pasta, enchilada, or some other easy dish. I have found that helpful.


  9. I have been meal planning off and on for a while. I try to do it for a month at a time, although we don't always stick to it. I love lists, so I do mine on paper. I start by taking freezer inventory so I know what meats I have to work with. Then I see what dry/canned goods I have, plus refrigerator items like cheese and sour cream. I like to make one soup night a week and Friday's is homemade pizza night. Some months I include one night a week for casseroles as well. I fill in our favorites like spaghetti and tacos about twice a month. Then fill in the pizzas and soups, trying to do a different one for each week. Then I just fill in the rest of the month with meals I know we like, adding one or two new ones to try. This week's menu is. Sunday, came home from camping so picked up something on the way. M- chicken,veg, pasta soup. T- hamburger green bean potato layered dish with corn bread on top W- chicken/pasta/broccoli/white sauce casserole. Th- pork fried rice F- hamburger, olive maybe pineapple pizza and S- homemade corn dogs and french fries.. Hope this helps someone. :)

  10. I have always been a meal planner. Since I've gotten older I don't write it down, but do it in my head. One of my daily rituals includes taking out what ever meat we might be having for the evening out of the freezer. Usually pick up what I need at the grocers the week before. Every now and then might need to run in and grab a fresh item I need. Thanks for sharing with SYC.

  11. My meal planning is now changed forever. You have given me the best tips ever. I never ever thought of doing some of the thing you mentioned but I will now. Much thanks.

  12. Have you ever considered keeping an ongoing rotating meal planner in Google calendar? It's incredible flexible and you can send reminders to yourself. set it up once (with room to add in a certain amount of new recipes that you are comfortable with) and all you'll ever have to do after that is make small adjustments. I wrote a book that you might find helpful and it is on promo for only 99 cents - I'd love to hear what you think of it!

  13. Nice Post!!
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