Meal planning might sound like an intimidating concept. But I promise you, if this isn't something you’re already doing, it can be a game changer.
I’ve been planning meals for most of my adult life and on the rare occasion that I don't, I find myself struggling to come up with what to make or not having the necessary ingredients on hand.
Having my meals planned out gives me peace of mind as it’s one less thing I have to worry about the end of a long day. In addition, meal planning can help cut spending costs, save you time at the grocery store, reduce food waste, and ensure you are getting a balanced and healthy meal.
Follow these tips to help you get started.
1. Start small. If meal planning is new to you, try planning out two meals per week and slowly building up from there.
2. Get inspired. Unless you enjoy making the same things week after week, spend time finding new recipes. Pinterest, cookbooks and magazines as well as friends and family are all a great resource for recipes. If you find a recipe you like, save it so you can make it again.
3. Plan your menu. This may seem obvious, but having it in writing makes a big difference when it comes to implementing your ideas. List out your meals for the week on a piece of paper, in the notes section of your phone, or on a calendar.
As you plan your menu, keep in mind any activities or events for that week. If you know Tuesday’s are hectic, that may be a good night to plan for a slow cooker meal that doesn't require a lot of your time. Also consider nights you may want to dine out.
4. What's on sale? Browse your grocery store ads to see if you can make any adjustments to your menu. If you are planning to make chicken noodle soup but see that ground beef is on sale, make chili instead. You’ll satisfy your soup craving and save money.
5. Create theme nights. This can help take out some of the guesswork when planning your menu. Try Slow Cooker Sunday, Meatless Monday, Taco Tuesday, Pasta Wednesday, Take-out Thursday, or Fish Friday. Other ideas include: breakfast for dinner, pizza night, appetizer night, burger or sandwich night, global cuisine night, or soup night.
6. What do you already have on hand? Take note of what’s in your pantry, fridge and freezer. Doing so will not only give you ideas for your menu but will also allow you to use up those items that may otherwise go to waste. For example, I know I have taco shells, carrots, and spinach that all need to be put to use. Knowing that, I’ve already got two meals planned - tacos and soup.
7. Make your grocery list. After you’ve listed out your meals for the week, go through each recipe, one at a time, and list out the ingredients you’ll need to purchase, including the quantity of that item. It is also helpful to organize your grocery list based on the layout of the grocery store.
8. Meal prep. To save time later in the week, set aside 1-2 hours after grocery shopping to prep portions of your meals. Consider chopping vegetables, shredding cheese, boiling eggs, browning ground beef, and cooking chicken breasts.
9. Plan for leftovers. Don't be afraid to cook too much. Leftovers can be used as a meal for another night, lunches throughout the week, or they can be frozen to use at a later date. Foods that freeze well include spaghetti sauce, chopped vegetables, shredded cheese, soups and casseroles, and cooked meat.
At the end of the day, the magic of meal planning is that there is no wrong way to do it. If you do what works for you, then you’re doing it right.
For recipes and more information on food storage and food safety, visit www.food.unl.edu.
Jordan Luxa is a Food, Nutrition and Health educator for Nebraska Extension in Washington County. She can be contacted at 402-426-9455, firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit the Washington County Extension website at www.washington.unl.edu.