Ashley Does: Meal Planning

One question strikes fear into the heart of many family cooks:

What’s for dinner?

I tell you, that question was the bane of my existence for a long time. Right up until I found meal planning.

I know, I know. Meal planning? Really? I can’t get behind that stuff.

It means research, and shopping, and knowing what I’m going to cook for an entire week – or in my case, month! I can’t make that kind of commitment! I like to eat out. I am not that creative. What if I get bored?  It’s too hard.

Guess what, y’all.

I am doing you a solid writing to you about this today. Learn from me! (Lord, please let there be at least one reader out there who has seen Fired Up and just read that in Nick’s voice. Amen.)

I started meal planning as a way to save my grocery budget and my time. I have 3 kids that eat like 8 kids and a hungry husband. We go through some food around here, guys. Before I started meal planning, I was running to the grocery store several times a week and having that dreaded “What to serve for dinner tonight?” moment far too often. You think planning for a month of dinners is stressful? Try not having an answer for 3 little girls who want to know what and when they’ll be eating. That is stress.

I started out just planning the week. Just having meals that I knew I could make with the ingredients I had on hand. This is how I started making my grocery budget work for me, too. I would only buy what was on sale or what I had a coupon for and create meals to use what I bought rather than picking meals that looked good and going shopping for ingredients, regardless of the ads and coupons. You can do this very easily, you don’t even have to buy a newspaper – just about any store where you buy groceries has an app or an online ad that you can access and even make lists on! (I love Coupon Mom because she always has a list of what is a great deal at which store local to you! She’s pure magic.)

Now that I’ve been at it a while, I plan the whole month in advance. That sounds really daunting, but I promise you it’s not! A few days before payday, I sit down and take stock of what I have in the freezer, fridge, and pantry. I make a list of what I need just to restock my staples first. Then I plan whatever meals I can based on what I have available – for example, pork roasts were on sale last month and I bought 2 of them and froze one, so I have pulled pork on the menu for April.

ShoppingCaroline
The cutest little shopper ever, helping Mama stock up at Sam’s!

Next, I list whatever meals are “special order” from the family, either kids’ requests or something special Joe wants. Usually that means a spaghetti night for the girls and something grilled for Joe. (Easy enough, in Colorado we grill year ’round and the rest of the country just scratches its head at us!)

The last thing I do is start listing meals that sound good to me. This means all the healthy, meatless, and Italian dishes, of course. I use a few online references for inspiration and my final list is usually about 18 dinners long. I always leave a few openings for things like eating out, going to our parents’ house for dinner, and leftovers. (I don’t normally bother with planning breakfast or lunch since basically we always have leftovers or sandwiches for lunch and cereal or oatmeal for breakfast.) I number the list according to which week I plan on making the meal during the month and then schedule meals on particular days when I fill in my planner on Sundays.

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The best thing about this type of meal planning is it’s totally flexible. Can’t find a good price on ground beef? Cancel chili and add something meatless. Found the best deal ever on broccoli? Serve it once as a side and make broccoli cheese soup out of the rest. Even better if you find a smokin’ deal that you just can’t pass up is buy in bulk and freeze it! Then when you don’t feel like cooking one night (or a few…) you have some soup, pasta sauce, a casserole, or a slow cooker ready meal at your fingertips.

You can do this. Start small, a week at a time, and find the groove that works for you. I promise a few hours of stress will save your sanity the rest of the month! I’d love to see what you come up with, find your way back here after your first planning session and comment with what you did!

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