Meal Planning 101

Here it is, guys: a crash course in meal planning. This is what saves me time, money, and extra pounds every week.

Healthy eating means something different to everyone. To me, it means vegetables at most of my meals, grains at just a few of them, and plenty of protein. Convenience foods and restaurant meals — especially in the Midwest, where there are just fewer options — don’t easily facilitate this.

Time and expense are big, totally valid barriers to eating healthfully. Learning to plan meals and prep food ahead of time? Game changer.


BARRIERS

Eating nutrient-dense meals is important, and the cheapest way to do that is to make the meals yourself. While swinging through the McDollar menu drive-thru on the way home may be cheaper than grocery shopping and cooking, the calories you’re consuming are totally empty. Buying a kale and romaine salad with chicken, chickpeas, bell peppers, and avocado could easily be $8-12. You can make it at home for WAY less money. You just may have to eat it for a few days in a row to use up all the ingredients.

Eating healthfully is more expensive. It just is. I talk about this issue here, but processed food is full of sugars and starches because those ingredients are dirt cheap. Leafy greens and lean proteins are costly, especially when compared to the $1 frozen T.V. dinner.

I am so fortunate to be able to afford nutrient-dense food. This does not escape me. Not everyone can budget for seven salads a week, because seven sandwiches will be cheaper.

Making a thoughtful grocery list can save money, as can shopping around to find the cheapest place for your staples. I rely on Aldi, a bargain grocery store, and have saved so much money shopping there.

Classic Caitlin meal prep: a big batch of chili or soup that will only taste better as it sits in the fridge. (This is sweet potato, black bean, and quinoa chili from What's Gaby Cooking.)
Classic Caitlin meal prep: a big batch of chili or soup that will only taste better as it sits in the fridge. (This is sweet potato, black bean, and quinoa chili from What’s Gaby Cooking. All ingredients from Aldi.)

Time is another factor in eating healthfully. It takes longer to grocery shop and cook than it does to eat in the cafeteria at work or hit Chipotle on the way home. I choose to spend multiple hours on the weekend planning, shopping, and prepping food for the upcoming week. I enjoy this, so it doesn’t often feel like work (although sometimes it does).

By carefully planning my meals, making an intentional grocery list, and keeping essentials on hand, I’m able to make (mainly) wholesome meals for G and I for the whole week.


SOLUTION

Meal planning can be overwhelming and intense the first few times. It’s full of a dozen little mental calculations: how much rice do I need? Do we have eggs? What about bananas? Which nights am I working late?

I was terrible at first: buying too much, planning to make dinner every night of the week (ha!), forgetting to plan something for breakfasts or snacks.

What follows are the details of how I meal plan. Everyone does this process differently, and a million little factors determine what will work best for you. How many people are you cooking for? How many times do you eat out each week? Do you mind leftovers?

To help you answer those questions, I’ve made a meal planning worksheet. The instructions for use are at the bottom of the post, and you can download the worksheet here.

meal-planning


MY MEAL PLANNING ROADMAP

Friday: Over lunch, I plan meals for the upcoming week, Saturday-Friday. I save complicated or time-consuming recipes for the weekend and rely on old faithfuls and no-recipe meals during the week.

I also give thought to lunches and breakfasts. Grant leaves for work very early, so I pack breakfast and lunch for him every day. If I don’t plan ahead, it’s easy to run out of food mid-week.

By Friday, I typically have a pretty good idea of what our calendar looks like for the upcoming week (happy hours, doctor’s appointments, whatever), so I can plan around that.

Saturday: I review the meal plan I made the day before, check my fridge and pantry for the ingredients I need, and add what’s missing to my grocery list. I use this app. I don’t 100% love it, but it gets the job done. Similar items, like freezer and produce, sort by color-coding, and you can create different lists for different stores (Aldi, Hyvee, Trader Joe’s).

Quantities are one thing that really screwed me up when I first started meal planning. I never bought the right amount of produce — always too much or too little. Now, I have it down. Since I know that I eat one romaine heart for lunch every day, and Aldi sells romaine hearts in packs of three, I should buy two packs. Easy peasy.

I go shopping at Aldi first, getting as much as I can there. I follow up at Hyvee, which is on the way home, and grab the one or two things I can’t get at Aldi. This varies from week to week, but is usually a specialty item, like Larabars or kombucha.

When I get home, I immediately do some prep. I open packages of meat and divide them into fridge and freezer packs. If I need one pound of ground turkey for the coming week, but bought a three-pound pack, I’ll freeze two pounds and put the remaining pound in a container in the fridge.

Other examples of quick prep that I do at some point before Sunday evening: make big batches of rice or quinoa, freeze brown bananas for smoothies, chop squashes and other hearty vegetables, roast and shred chicken, make soup in the crockpot, and mix dry ingredients for oatmeal.

Prepped ingredients smiling at me.
Prepped ingredients smiling at me.

I put everything in glass containers (I have these), so I can see what’s in the fridge when I open it.

Planning our meals and prepping food on the weekend is the only way I can make meals after work while also leaving plenty of time for after-work plans, T.V. time, and more.

My commute takes about 45 minutes, and knowing what I’ll be making for dinner once I get home calms my mind and allows me to unwind more quickly. My non-office time is sacred, and I want to get the most out of the hours before bed. 

This may seem like a lot of work at first, but it runs like clockwork once you’ve practiced a few times. Some of you probably think I’m crazy for devoting this much time/energy/thought to meal planning, but to each their own, dudes!


MEAL PLANNING WORKSHEET

The worksheet has three sections: planning notes, days of the week, and extras. They can be used any way you please, but I’ve listed some ideas below.

Planning Notes:

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I thought about making my handwriting *perfect*, but that’s just not realistic.

I use this space to map out what makes the week unique. Some questions I think about:

How many people am I feeding at each meal? My answer is almost always two, but sometimes we’ll have family over or Grant will be away for a meal.

Which meals am I packing to eat away from home? Lunches for work? Breakfast to eat after an early-morning exercise class? Healthy dinner before a cocktail party?

What do I want to snack on?

Which nights will I rely on leftovers? If I’m getting home late, or if there’s a T.V. show on I do NOT want to miss the beginning of, I’ll often plan to eat leftovers. That may mean that I double a recipe I’m making the night before, or I’ll plan on eating hummus, crackers, and veggies for dinner.

What’s the weather going to be like? Do you want to grill or eat soup?

Are there ingredients I need to use up? Leftover veggies from the week before? Meat that’s almost been in the freezer for too long?

What are my nutritional goals for the week? If the week before has been full of wine and cheese, I’ll plan a very veggie-heavy week of meals.

Days of the week:

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Link to the Cheez It-flavored roasted chickpeas here. 👅

I note what’s for dinner each night, accompanied by any relevant notes or reminders.

Extras:

extras

Here’s where I note which snacks are easy to grab and what quick lunch and breakfast options there are. Some examples: cans of tuna and garbanzo beans for topping salads, hummus and rice crackers, nuts, smoothie packs in the freezer, and baked sweet potatoes.

Happy planning! Comment below or tweet/snap/email me if you have questions or comments! My contact info is here.

Caitlin

Caitlin

Hi, I’m Caitlin! Thanks for reading. If you're new, here's a little about me: I'm a writer, editor, eater, and reader living in the Kansas City area. When I'm not working my 9-to-5, I'm cooking without a recipe, exploring the city, and probably procrastinating. I start from scratch each morning: progress is way more important to me than perfection.

Connect with me on Instagram and Pinterest, and subscribe to The Fruitful Blog for tips on intentional living, meal planning, and more.
Caitlin

Latest posts by Caitlin (see all)

Author: Caitlin

Hi, I’m Caitlin! Thanks for reading. If you're new, here's a little about me: I'm a writer, editor, eater, and reader living in the Kansas City area. When I'm not working my 9-to-5, I'm cooking without a recipe, exploring the city, and probably procrastinating. I start from scratch each morning: progress is way more important to me than perfection. Connect with me on Instagram and Pinterest, and subscribe to The Fruitful Blog for tips on intentional living, meal planning, and more.

2 thoughts on “Meal Planning 101”

  1. This is great, Caitlin! For awhile there I was KILLING IT with meal planning and then when my husband and I jumped back into rehearsals in the evenings, things got a bit crazier, but I’d really love to get back into it. I hoping this post will help jump-start my efforts!

    Thanks, lady!

  2. I love this! As much as I love meal planning and cooking, I am terrible at the grocery shopping process – why do stores have to be so big and consistently out of like the one item I need for a recipe? Many a time I have wasted wandering around the produce section to try and find that sprig of rosemary or piece of shallot that I need. Love the printable as well!

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