A few of you have mentioned you’re in a cooking rut or you’re trying to figure out your meal planning strategy. I thought I’d share a few things that help us as we plan our meals.
1. Start at home base.
I keep a list of meals that I know nearly all of us will eat and/or are inexpensive to make. A few things on our home base list…
- Pasta + Arrabbiata Sauce (or simple tomato sauce)
- Scrambled Eggs + Pancakes (most often these Banana Oatmeal Pancakes) + Fruit
- Chicken & Apple Sausages + Sweet Potato Wedges
- Fried rice
In our pre-gluten/dairy-free life, our list also included things like…
Your home base list might include your famous chili, baked potatoes, Friday night pizza, a slow-cooker roasted chicken, or “clean-out-the-fridge” soup. You can also include meals you can pull from the freezer. Soups and stews work really well for these. I tend to make a dish (or double it) and then freeze some for leftovers on a rough night. Some of our faves are…Butter Chicken, Pumpkin Taco Soup, Chicken Lime Soup, and Slow Cooker Beef Stew.
Having a home base list means you can build in some variety without breaking the bank or overwhelming anyone at your house resistant to trying new foods (like my toddlers). I make 2-3 new meals per week and fill in the rest of the meals with things from my “home base” list.
We’ve found that from a planning standpoint and a budget standpoint, it’s worked really well for us to make dinner our fun (or “variety”) meal. We try 2-3 new recipes per week for dinner, and keep our breakfast and lunch pretty much the same. This has a few advantages:
You don’t have to spend 1,000 hours planning every last detail of every meal or all day in the kitchen. The breakfasts and lunches are fairly automatic. You follow a basic outline, and rotate through a few options, meaning you just need to check in with which ingredients/staples you’re low on and add them to your list. This might mean you make a batch of granola that will last a week, or stock up on oatmeal or maple syrup. The next week, we might need to pick up some eggs, or make a batch of roasted veggies. You can take care of those things in a single swoop and bam. Breakfast and lunch are planned.
I find this is especially important for people working on completing a Whole30, elimination diet, or making a transition to cooking meals from scratch (often after an allergy diagnosis, etc.). You feel like ALL YOUR TIME is being sucked up by planning and cooking every component of every meal. When you adopt a pattern like this, you really cut down on your kitchen time, and the mental energy you have to devote to meal planning.
3. Embrace leftovers.
I don’t mean eating leftovers All Day Every Day. But I cook a new dinner 4-5 days per week and we have 1-3 nights of leftovers or easy dinners for the rest. Before we had little ones, we ate more leftovers (or froze half of the meal for another night down the road). We rarely eat out as a family, so nearly all our dining dollars go toward meals cooked at home, and I want to make them count! On nights we go on dates out, our kids happily eat something easy like yogurt, toast, fruit, sandwiches, or hot dogs. I don’t stress about it.
4. Write it down.
I try really hard to plan our weekly meals on Sunday or Monday. I go grocery shopping on Wednesdays (our grocery store has double-ad day where you get last week’s deals and this week’s deals!). I usually throw in a Costco run for the other things we need, and we may pick something up here or there if we forget it. Having a list written down means that I don’t get to 5:00 and suddenly feel like “OH, NO! What are we having for dinner!? The fridge is empty!”
I do this with an open notebook, my Pinterest boards or cookbooks at the ready, and a show on most of the time. I write down the meals I’m planning on making and what their ingredients are. I then use that to make a grocery list. I keep a menu on the fridge for reference and planning, and it keeps things running smoothly. Pick a day and time you can commit to and try it out for a few weeks.
I love this list pad by Knock Knock. It’s magnetic, so it hangs out on our refrigerator in my line of sight. (I found it at World Market, but you can also find it at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and !ndigo).
A note on budgeting…
I rarely use coupons. I don’t price-match. My BEST money-saving tips are to buy whole foods and shop with a list. I rarely buy anything pre-cut or prepared because it’s cheaper to do it myself. I buy meat or pantry staples in bigger amounts when they’re on sale. This works for us, though I have lots of friends who do their best budget work with coupons and price-matching. Figure out what works best for you!
I do most of my shopping at Sprouts. They have excellent produce prices, Double Ad Wednesday (you get last week and this week’s discounts), and carry the best variety of gluten/dairy-free products (like coconut yogurt and gluten free pretzels). I tried price-matching at Walmart for a while, but found that I was price matching nearly 100% of my list to Sprouts’s prices, so it just made more sense to shop at Sprouts. It has. And I love Sprouts so much more.