Lessons from a Month of Meal Planning

I used to diligently plan my meals each week, but I fell out of the habit about five years ago. I felt like I’d developed a good repertoire of recipes I could prepare from the pantry and fridge — but overlooked how much brainpower is needed for decision-making. Since then, I’ve fallen into the habit of wandering into the kitchen at 6, already a little hungry, and trying to decide what to make for dinner. At that point, maybe I’ll muster the energy to cook something healthy (doubtful), maybe I’ll declare it burrito night (good odds), or sometimes figuring out what to make and actually cooking it feels like too much work and I’ll resort to eating out (more often than I want to admit). This adds up to a lot of food going to waste, more money spent on food, and less healthy meals.

I’m not alone in ambitious grocery shopping; the average American household tosses 25% of the food that they buy. Last summer I tracked my food waste for a week and figured out I was tossing a lot of produce and dairy that went bad before I used it.

So, to save money and waste less food, and hopefully eat healthier, I decided to start meal planning again.

My Meal Planning Process

Being a graphic designer, I made myself a snazzy worksheet to plan my meals. (You can download a different meal planning guide from The Kitchn, or even just plan it out in a notebook or planner.) I picked a specific day of the week, and time, to do my meal planning to try to make it a habit. (If/when Imperfect Produce starts delivering to Kirkland, I’ll coordinate my planning with the delivery date.)

meal plan

My first meal plan — I got a little overambitious

I have a big collection of recipes saved online, but have a hard time remembering to make them. Each week I look through some of my back catalog, and pick some recipes to try that are seasonally appropriate. Then I save any online recipes to my meal planning Trello board so I can pull them up quickly on my tablet when it’s time to cook. (If you like doing things totally online, check out this guy’s Trello meal planning process.) If I need more recipes, I’ll pick one or two cookbooks to pull from, and bookmark the pages with a little post-it flag.

Finally, I hang the meal plan on my fridge for easy reference all week.

How Did My First Month of Meal Planning Turn Out?

Over my first month of meal planning, I spent 25% less at restaurants than usual — and that was with some “oops” nights where I ate out when I hadn’t planned to! By planning lunches, I had a better sense of when we would have leftovers or when I’d need to prepare something special, so both my husband and I ate out for lunch less.

A meal plan from the end of the month

Lessons from Meal Planning

After a month of meal planning, I’ve learned a few things to make the process go more smoothly:

Meal Selection

Preventing Food Waste

  • Peek in the fridge to see what food needs to get eaten, so I can plan meals (early in the week) that use those ingredients. If I don’t want to use those ingredients, I can freeze them.
  • Including one “odds and ends” meal, like an omelet, casserole, fritatta/quiche, or minestrone, can be a good way to use up the little bits of veggies left over from other recipes earlier in the week.
  • If I choose one recipe that calls for fresh herbs, I should also try to pick a second one because most recipes use only 1/3 to 1/2 of a bunch (unless I’m making a sauce like chimichurri). Same goes for ‘specialty’ dairy like buttermilk.
  • Often one or two nights a week don’t go according to plan — so I just carry over those meals or ingredients to the next week.

Designing a Meal Plan I Can Follow

I can get over-excited about trying new recipes and choosing meals that take a long time or a lot of energy to prepare. I try to set myself up for success by choosing recipes I’ll actually make, anticipating that I’ll have less energy when it comes time to cook.

  • I’d prefer to make a one-pot recipe rather than three smaller dishes, especially when I’m trying something new.
  • Two or three complex / slow-to-make dinners seems to be my max, and I should fill the rest of the week with easier dinners like pasta, minestrone, or burritos. I’m going to try designating a couple go-to meal days (like Taco Tuesday) to make the planning process easier.
  • Pick a backup easy, healthy dinner that can be made using pantry staples, to serve as a fallback if I don’t feel like making what I planned.
  • I’ve noticed that Tuesdays are a low-energy day for me, for whatever reason, so I try to pick an easy dinner for that night.

Following My Meal Plan

Grocery Shopping to the Plan

Making time to go grocery shopping’s an essential step — without the ingredients, it’s easy to fall off my meal plan.

  • Double-check pantry staples that I need before I go grocery shopping. One night, I couldn’t make the tuna salad sandwiches I’d planned for lunch when I discovered I had less than a teaspoon of mayonnaise left in the jar! (You can use this printable shopping list (pdf) to remind yourself to do this.)
  • Bringing the actual meal plan to the store, not just your shopping list, is helpful because if the grocery store is out of something you know whether that ingredient was essential to the dish you had planned. For example, one week I wanted to make mushroom gravy but they were all out of mushrooms — so I decided I could just make plain gravy. Another time, the eggplants all felt mealy, so the eggplant-centric dish I had planned wasn’t going to work out.
  • The QFC where I shop often has potatoes, squash, apples and bananas in their “imperfect produce” section, so I’ll make sure to check it if any of my meals call for those. (Four honeycrisp apples with minor bruises for $1? Yes please!)

Meal Prep

Meal prep is so worthwhile, because there are certain aspects to a dinner that will make me balk the night of, like peeling a butternut squash or cooking brown rice (ugh, it takes forever!). If I can take care of the time-consuming or frustrating tasks on the weekend, it will take me less energy to follow through with my plan on a weekday when I get home from work tired and hungry. I’m trying to make Sunday evenings a regular time for weekly meal prep.

Cooking the Meals

  • I’ll let myself jump around during the week, and cross off meals once I’ve made them.
  • It seems like I forget to buy an ingredient almost every week. Sometimes it’s something I can omit, or sometimes it’s an important ingredient that calls for a change in plans. This is where having an easy backup meal picked out is handy. (I could also transcribe my grocery list into this format, organized by part of the store ;))

Over to You

Do you plan your meals? What are your favorite meal planning tips?

Want to start planning your meals, but need a little more help? Check out The Kitchn’s Meal Planning guide.