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Meal planning. It seems easy enough. Just jot down a few succulent dishes for the week and then peruse the local farmers market for fresh, local ingredients while sipping your pour over chai latte.
Unless you’re a parent. In which case, meal planning for beginners means rooting around for a frozen over chicken carcass in the back of your freezer about ten minutes before dinner and praying the microwave gods thaw it instead of cook it.
And my gawd, were there always this many nights in a week?
It is exhausting to even think about scheduling meals a week in advance, purchasing all the right things at one time, and not letting them spoil. But trust me, actual meal planning is the best thing I have done to reduce my time and food waste.
Plus, if I don’t put in the time once a week to plan I will have the same exhausted overwhelmed panicked feeling every single night when I don’t know what to cook. Now that I’ve been planning awhile, I even enjoy it, or at least I don’t dread it. I’ve found ways to make it relatively easy and I can try out new recipes.
Here are my Top Meal Planning for Beginners Tips to save you time and money.
Top Meal Planning for Beginners Tips
Make Tech Work For You
I have tried a few meal planning apps and by far my favorite is the Paprika Recipe Manager for iPhone, or for iPad. The only downside is that its a paid app. The mobile version is only $5 but you’ll have to pay $20 for the desktop version if that’s your jam. But I use it constantly and it saves me at least that much money in food waste, so I find it worth it.
The great thing about Paprika is that it is accessible from all your devices. It has a browser feature so you can search the web for recipes to download, and it easily converts most web pages to user-friendly recipe cards. Since I get most of my recipes from the web, I just copy the url to my clipboard. When I launch Paprika, it automatically asks if I want to load the url I copied. Super easy supper.
Of course you can manually enter in a favorite recipe if it’s not available on the web. Then you can categorize recipes so they’re easy to find later, plus all the recipes are searchable.
Parika will scale the recipe amount up or down as needed, automatically increasing the measurements for you. This is a lifesaver for me since math is not my strong suit, particularly when two little ones are at my feet demanding attention while I attempt fractions.
Paprika also has a calendar so you can assign a recipe to a certain day, and add a note if you want to indicate making something that’s not a recipe per se, like salad.
Organize Your Shopping List By Store and Aisle
Since I go to at least two grocery stores a week (Costco and either the local food Co-op or a big name grocery store), I like to organize my items by store and by location in the store.
My main categories are Costco, Produce, Dairy, and Bulk (so I can know what containers to bring to reduce my packaging waste with everything needed in those categories listed below as a sub-task. Then I have random stuff at the end of the list (bread, crackers, cereal, etc) loosely organized by aisle.
This saves me a ton of time while shopping, especially at Costco where if you miss grabbing something in one section it can feel Herculean to go back for it.
Paprika has a grocery list function but it’s not as customizable as I’d like, so instead, I use the free version of Todoist. Todoist is cloud based so you can invite your partner to edit your shopping list so they can add items as well. Then I just swipe to check things off as I go through the store.
Assign Meal Themes to Nights of the Week
Themes for various days help automate the menu planning process. Instead of coming up with seven unique ideas for the week, I just have to find something to fit the theme category for that day.
Some people do Meatless Mondays, Taco Tuesdays, etc. We are meatless 4-5 days a week, so we do Freezer Fridays, Seafood Saturdays, Serious Sundays (where my husband gets to make something complicated), Mexican Mondays, Try it Out Tuesdays (new recipe!), Whole Wheat Wednesdays (pizza or pasta), and Throw it Together Thursdays (whatever leftovers we have since I shop on Fridays).
These themes work for us, but you can have fun coming up with themes that work for your family. Try Thai Tuesdays, Wacky Wednesdays, or a Kids’ Choice day, and change it up if a theme isn’t working out or you get tired of it. But having some guidelines when you sit down to plan makes it go so much faster.Try Thai Tuesdays, Wacky Wednesdays, or a Kids’ Choice day for your meal planning!Click To Tweet
Plan Spoiling Meals Earlier and Freezer Meals Later
Meal planning for beginners works best if you look in the fridge and freezer to see what you have to work with before you sit down to plan. Then pick a recipe for the first part of the week that will use up food you already have in the fridge. That way you avoid wasting something if I bought too much of it the week before or if you called an audible and went out for pizza instead of cooking.
Also, as you can see from Seafood Saturdays, I plan to use spoiling items like seafood as early as possible in my meal plan week. I do the same with veggies, knowing that spinach doesn’t last as long as cauliflower.
Then as the week wears on, I plan pasta or freezer meals in which the veggies or proteins can be a little less fresh. Also, if we skip these later meals, I won’t have too much unused spoiling product to use up the next week, and I won’t be sad about wasting an expensive item like salmon.
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Build in Some Flexibility
Life happens and sometimes you just need to hit up the local taqueria instead of cooking your planned meal. Or maybe a recipe is funky and makes way more than you intended so you have tons of leftovers to use up (or freeze for a future Freezer Friday!). Meal planning does create some rigidity in that you aren’t just cooking whatever the mood strikes you to cook.
But that rigidity can actually create more space for creativity. Knowing that you already used up your expensive seafood or meat earlier in the week frees you up later in the week for calling a take-out audible without feeling wasteful.
Having a “Throw it Together Thursday” type day allows you to pretend like you’re on Chopped and creatively construct a meal from whatever you need to use up for the week. Ad libbing on only one day, as opposed to every single night, can be fun instead of exhausting.
Switch Up Who Plans the Meals
After following these meal planning for beginners tips you will become the house expert in meal planning. But just because you are good at meal planning doesn’t mean you should always do it. If your partner has any interest in planning, cooking, or shopping, for the sake of Pete, encourage it by switching roles weekly or monthly.
Send him or her this article to get them started and watch them get better and better at meal planning. They’ll appreciate how much effort you put in, and also feel some ownership over the meals so they’re more likely to enjoy them. Plus, you might get some great new recipes you would never have picked on your own. You don’t have to do everything yourself! This is a refrain I need stitched on a pillow, stapled to my head.'You don’t have to do everything yourself!' I need this stitched on a pillow, stapled to my head.Click To Tweet
Meal planning is such a great way to feel like you have some measure of control in your week. What a rare feeling for the busy parent! But it can feel like a chore week after week if you don’t have a good system. Following these meal planning for beginners tips will make your planning go much faster and save you time and money at the grocery store.
Do you meal plan regularly or fly by the seat of your pants? How do you “pantsers” do it? What tools do you use to plan meals or grocery shop? Let me know in the comments!
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