Planning meals each week is something I’ve done my entire adult life, and I believe is something everyone should get into the habit of doing. Whether you’re planning meals for an entire family, just yourself, or merely listing the restaurants where you’ll be eating during the week (for those who don’t cook), making some kind of game plan reduces waste, stress, and expense.
I’m one of those lucky bastards who only cooks for my husband and myself, but even that presents some challenges. My husband occasionally goes on “diets” where he’ll cut out an entire food group (carbs, meat, both, whatever), which means I have to plan meals that I can either adapt for him, or two separate meals altogether. We also like to stick to a budget, so whether we eat the same things or not, it’s important to us to reduce waste and keep things relatively inexpensive.
So to help everyone get on board for a week of organized grocery shopping, I have a few tips I’m going to share with you to make planning meals for one or an army much smoother!
Meal Planning 101
1. Take stock of what you already have first!
Go through your kitchen and figure out if you already have things to make a meal or two. If you have a fully stocked pantry like I do, you could easily create meals out of what’s already in the house. This reduces the amount of waste, and also reduces your weekly grocery bill. We also have a small kitchen with no pantry, so we just don’t have the space to store doubles (or triples) of extra things!
Meals don’t always have to be brand new, gourmet affairs either – some nights, a couple pork chops, some rice, and a vegetable/salad will do. Even better if you already have it in the house – it’s one less meal to buy!
2. Plan around your week’s schedule – and be realistic.
When planning your meals for the week, be realistic about how much time you’ll have to cook each night. Each household is different – some people have their weekends free to make a huge, elaborate meal, or pre-cook meals for the week, and others are barely home. Keep in mind what your schedule looks like, and choose meals accordingly. Don’t forget to check if you’ll have nights out too – no point in planning a meal for a date night out!
On a busy night, consider having a “leftover night,” where people can feed themselves out of what’s lingering in the fridge whenever they’re home. On less busy nights, make a meal you know will stock up the fridge with leftovers for those busier nights. If you live alone, consider prepping things for the week ahead on Sundays. I also used to do prep work (chopping, measuring, precooking, etc.) on Sundays when I lived alone, and it cut down on the dreaded “I’m hungry but don’t feel like cooking” feeling!
3. Use theme nights…really, I’m not joking here.
I know, theme nights sound like something a Pinterest user came up with to mommy-shame other parents for not being better organized or thoughtful. All kidding aside, I really do use theme nights – even for just two people. I mostly do this when I hit a wall with planning meals (because cooking burnout is real, people), and need something easy. Many of these double for “use the fridge” nights, since things like salads, soups, and pizzas can be adapted to include leftover veggies, meat, and other things left in the fridge. Crumble up meatloaf on a pizza? Use leftover garlic bread as croutons? Why not!
Some examples of theme nights I use:
Taco Tuesday (thanks Lego Movie!), Brinner (Breakfast for Dinner), Soup Night, Pizza Night, Salad Night, and what I call DIY Night (aka “Make Your Own Dinner I’m Tired Night”)
4. Try something new each week (but have the pizza guy on speed dial just in case).
I know the bulk of what I’ve been talking about falls under the “use what you have” and “do what you know” categories, but at least once each week you should break that rule. Cooking should be fun once in a while, and I find trying new things is what keeps it fun.
Try a new recipe, cook with a new ingredient, or try a new spin on one of your old classics. Of course, try to keep this to a night where you have more time (rushing through a new recipe is…well…a recipe for disaster). I’ve found a lot of great new meals by doing this!
5. Make a list…and check it twice!
Making a grocery list is crucial! Whether you write it on paper, take notes on your phone, or use an app, it’s important to take it with you so you’ll come home with what you need – and won’t end up back at the store throughout the week for things you forgot! This is very important if you’re on a budget – make a list, stick to it, and avoid returning to the store when you’ll be in a hurry and tempted to impulse buy!
I like organizing my list by categories, based on how my store’s organized. I group all the produce together, meats, dairy, etc. so I don’t miss things while I’m in each section. There’s nothing more annoying than heading to the checkout, only to realize you forgot bananas back on the other side of the store!
This is also a good time to double check your pantry, spice rack, and fridge to see if you need to stock up on any staples. Don’t assume you have everything you need – check so you don’t start making chili and realize you indeed ran out of beans (I’ve totally done that)!
There you have it! I’d like to say I do this every week, and I certainly try to – but lately, I’ve started planning meals for the week about an hour before we head to the store. Thank goodness for theme nights, or I would come home every week with chicken nuggets, ice cream, and cereal for dinners!