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The Beginner’s Guide to Meal Planning

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Thinking about meal planning? Maybe it sounds like a great idea but you don’t know how to set up a meal plan. Or maybe you’ve tried (and failed) too many times to count.

While meal planning is a great concept, there’s more to it than just writing a couple of your family’s favorite dinners on a calendar.

A couple weeks ago, I tried Hello Fresh for the first time. It was delicious, the whole family loved it, and it kept me out of the grocery store. But one of the meals didn’t work out as well as planned (despite my best meal planning skills).

I invited my mom and grandma over for dinner with the full intent of eating the second my son got home from school. Then we had to go get haircuts and the kids started their first swim lessons. Yes, all in one evening.

Everything lined up perfectly in my planner. Unfortunately, it didn’t line up so well in real life.

I took twice as long to grate the carrots (who grates carrots?!?). Then it took longer than usual for our haircuts. Even though my mom and grandma helped find swimsuits, towels, and shuttle my kids around, we completely missed my daughter’s swim lesson and we were 20 minutes late to my son’s.

Making homemade, healthy meals every day can be a struggle. There’s the 4:30 p.m. “I forgot to thaw something out” problem. Then there’s the “I don’t have time to cook before swim lessons” issue. And then there’s the “my kitchen is such a mess I don’t even know where to begin” problem.

Instead of just giving up and ordering pizza three nights in a row because you didn’t create a plan or needed a faster way to get food on the table then grating carrots, there’s a simpler solution.

Here are some things to know about each of these options to help save time, money, and still prepare healthy meals each day for your family.

Meal Planning Made Easy For Busy Moms

Meal planning can be a great way to get simple meals on the table quickly.

What is Meal Planning?

Before you can start your meal prep, you need to plan your meals.

Meal planning is simply figuring out what meals you are going to make for the next day/week/month. It can be as detailed as you want, although the more information you include in your meal scheduling, the better off you’ll be.

By starting with meal planning, you will know what and how to better meal prep. This is going to help save you time because you aren’t running to the supermarket every day trying to figure out what to get for dinner that night.

You already know the meals for at least a week beforehand. Here is a rundown of how meal planning works, although there is a lot of room for variation.

How Long Should You Plan?

The first thing you should decide is exactly how much meal planning you want to do and how far ahead you want to plan.

Think about how much time you have for meal planning and prepping, how often your family likes to switch up recipes, and realistically what you can spend at the supermarket or what you have in your pantry for these meals.

You should also consider how much room you have in your refrigerator and freezer. Planning three weeks ahead of time is fine for the schedule, but you might not be buying food for this long if you don’t have somewhere to put everything.

When you are just starting out, try to plan for just one full week and see how it goes. This should include all meals and snacks your family will eat for that entire week, including breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, and desserts.

It includes meals you will prepare at home with leftovers, lunches your kids and you will bring to work or school, and any extra items you need, such as bringing brownies to the local potluck or any other special occasions.

How Do You Start Meal Planning?

If you’re not sure how to start planning your meals, you can make it easy by taking stock of what is in your kitchen. Take note of everything in your pantry and refrigerator, write it down, and see what meals you can make from those ingredients.

This should be a good start, and then all you might need are some filler ingredients. You may have almost all the ingredients you need for homemade biscuits, so you know you can have a meal that uses those biscuits as a way of saving money and time.

Once you know what you already have, start thinking about your family’s favorite meals, but don’t forget about considering how each of those meals will be prepared. If you know you will be pressed for time, try to think of freezer meals you can make ahead of time or that can be made in the slow cooker all day.

How Detailed Should Your Meal Plans Be?

Once you have started listing some meals you would like to make during the week, try to be as detailed as possible. If you think you will have leftovers from a chicken dinner in order to have lunch for 2-3 days, note that in the plan!

This helps you reduce how many lunches you need to prepare, which further saves you a lot of time when it comes time to prepare your different meals for the week.

After listing the meals, make another list with all the groceries you need to purchase. Do a quick pantry/fridge/freezer inventory to make sure you’re not buying anything you already have.

If you want to keep your menu organized, get my free printable meal planner!

Do Meal Plans Need to be Flexible?

While planning every meal is a great way to save time during the week, there are going to be some situations where it doesn’t go quite as you planned. Make sure you leave some room for flexibility in your meals and meal planning.

For example, you might have a day where you want to go out to dinner because your spouse got a big promotion and you want to celebrate. Don’t hesitate to celebrate just because you planned to make spaghetti that night. Just readjust your schedule and make it another night.

You may choose to only plan four or five dinners each week, leaving room for leftovers, pizza night, etc.

Meal planning is meant to simplify the process, not restrict yourself too much.

Should You Include Leftovers?

Always try to think about leftovers or using certain ingredients in your meal plan that can be used for multiple meals.

If you know you want to make chicken and dumplings and are going to buy a pack of chicken breasts, buy more than you need and freeze them. This lets you have enough chicken for that meal, but also for chicken soup, salads, sandwiches, or other dinner ideas.

Another idea is to batch cook. For example, if two meals call for ground beef, cook enough for both recipes at the same time. I love using my Instant Pot to batch cook chicken, ground beef, and other “meal starters.”

You’ll save money and time by having extra ingredients and leftovers on hand.

How is Meal Prepping Different?

Meal planning and meal prepping are often confused, but these are actually two entirely different things.

With meal planning, you know when (and what) to make in the future.

When you meal prep, you actually buy those ingredients, then start getting certain aspects of the meal prepared, so that very little needs to be done each day when cooking time arrives.

What’s for dinner?

✅ Know what to cook TONIGHT
✅ Save 💲 at the grocery store
✅ USE all your leftovers

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    What Are the Types of Meal Prepping?

    There are two basic elements to meal prepping: chopping vegetables and putting ingredients for meals into containers and actually cooking some aspects of the meal and freezing them.

    You can do one or both of these options depending on how much time you think you will have.

    Some people simply do the prep work, such as getting all their veggies chopped up, rice measured, and snacks into portion baggies to be used during the week. Others actually cook the casseroles and chicken, and then freeze them so that dinner just involves popping them in the oven.

    MyFreezEasy, one of my favorite meal planning and recipe apps, uses this principle to make ahead freezer meals. As you’re preparing the recipe’s ingredients, put half in a separate freezer bag or disposable pan. Then freeze one of the meals for a later date.

    Organize your freezer meals

    ✅ Label your recipes

    ✅ Save the cooking instructions

    ✅ Prevent freezer burn

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      Get my printable freezer meal cutouts to simplify your freezer meal prep.

      Which Containers Should You Use?

      When you are prepping meals, you need to be careful with the types of containers you use. These containers are not just storing the ingredients and cooked food items, but they also keep the food fresh in the refrigerator or freezer for an extended period of time.

      Here are some recommendations for food storage containers:

      Choose containers with airtight lids.

      Make sure that your containers keep the food fresh with airtight lids. If you intend to use Tupperware-type containers, try filling them with water, then turn them upside down and make sure no water leaks out. This is a good way to tell how fresh your food will be in the containers.

      Try storing items in mason jars.

      Mason jars are perfect for storing certain items and meals.

      For example, if you like to take salad to work, try putting each day’s salad in a separate container. Choose the wide-mouth containers and add the denser items at the bottom. The greens should always be at the top so they don’t get wilted or weighed down. Keep your salad dressing in a separate container.

      Be careful with plastic storage items.

      Plastic is fine to use, but you should know what type of plastic you are using. Make sure it is refrigerator, freezer, microwave, and dishwasher-safe. Also check that the plastic containers don’t have any BPA, which can be dangerous, especially when adding or cooking food in these containers.

      Consider casserole dishes that work for both baking and storage.

      When you are cooking bigger meals ahead of time, use multi-purpose casserole dishes. Use glass dishes that you use for baking, but that can also be used for storing food in the freezer. Just make sure you let the dishes cool before freezing them or they might crack.

      Tips For Meal Prepping

      Meal prepping is a great way to simplify family dinners and get food on the table quickly.

      As you get started with meal prepping, there are some other things you need to keep in mind.

      Follow these simple tips for prepping your meals after you are done with meal planning:

      • Cook all your meat at once.
      • Label every container so you know when to use it.
      • Note what prepping is being done for leftovers.
      • Use ingredients that can be prepped for multiple meals.
      • Get freezer bags together with ingredients that will go in the slow cooker.

      Meal Ideas For Prepping

      Here are some different meal ideas that work perfectly with meal planning and meal prepping.

      Put together different overnight oatmeal jars.

      To get some healthy breakfasts prepared, add overnight oats to multiple jars, one for each day of the week. In addition to the oats, you can add different toppings for each day. Some toppings to consider include cinnamon, sugar, slivered almonds or other nuts, dried fruit, berries or fresh fruit, raisins, and granola. 

      Roast your vegetables beforehand.

      To get vegetables ready for lunches and dinners throughout the week, spend one day roasting all the vegetables at one time. Choose vegetables with about the same cooking time, roast them together, then place in containers and freeze them.

      Use a vegetable spiralizer instead of pasta.

      To make healthy, low-carb meals and meal prep at the same time, consider using a vegetable spiralizer. This takes vegetables like zucchini and squash and creates pasta out of them. Spiralize your veggies on a Sunday, then save them for the week’s ‘pasta’ meals.

      Bake all of your meat, then freeze portions for each meal.

      Free printable freezer inventory checklist to organize and keep track of the contents in your deep freezer.

      Decide what meat you want to use for multiple meals, then bake or cook it all at the same time. Do this in the oven, slow cooker, or even Instant Pot. Chicken breasts, fish filets, and strips of steak work great for this.

      I’ve also had really good luck making an entire freezer meal with the meal plans and recipes in MyFreezEasy. Just make sure to keep track of your freezer meals once you store them in your deep freezer (get a free printable freezer inventory HERE)!

      Keep salad veggies and toppings in one container.

      For your salads, you can make it faster to put them together by having all of the greens and vegetables together in containers. Keep all your greens in one big container, and all the chopped veggies, cheese, and other toppings in another container.

      Knowing the difference between meal planning and prepping (and creating a meal plan that works for your family) will save you so much time when getting dinner on the table.

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