I can’t seem to remember what our meals were like prior to learning how to meal plan. I’m sure it was a black hole of Hamburger Helpers, mac and cheese, and hot dogs.
I do, however, vividly remember my first experience with meal planning.
We had recently left our professional careers for something new, and in so doing had to drastically revise our financial spending and budget. We lived 20 miles away from town and it no longer made financial sense to run into town on a whim. Every trip and gas expense was accounted for and needed to be worth their while.
I knew I had to start this 180° mindset shift with a plan. As I started to research how to save money, live on a budget, and the entire world of couponing I happened across an incredible resource. The Money Saving Mom blog saved me when I was a tad overwhelmed with the concept of revamping our budget, planning meals and coupons galore.
Crystal Paine, the wife and mama behind MSM, shared her real life experience with raising a family on a tight, tight budget. And she broke the immense task and changes into doable, actionable steps. I discovered her freebies that included several templates for meal planning.
That, folks, is where meal planning began for me. All of sudden a huge task seemed relatively simple. I felt like I had a jumping off point to get me started.
Over time our meal plan has shifted and changed, I’ve tried out a variety of styles of templates and it seems I keep coming back to the meal plan templates I’ll be sharing with you today. I personally prefer a weekly table format that lists all three meals. I simply print two copies and I have a two-week meal planner to work with.
I’ve revised ours a bit and made it purtier for y’all; you can check it out by clicking on the button below:
So, I won’t lie to you. There is a bit of a learning curve, as is to be expected when you are training yourself to do something new. It takes a minute to get in the habit, you tweak things along the way, and you definitely have to put in some time and energy to plan out your meals. But I can tell you, in utter honesty, that I feel like the outcome absolutely supersedes the energy you put into it.
Basic Meal Planning Steps
Meal planning is seriously so in-grained in me at this point in my life that it actually took some time for me to brainstorm how to break it down into the basics for newbies.
So, here goes, here are my top tips for getting your meal plan set up. Keep in mind, that all these tips are in reference to my twice-monthly meal planning and grocery shopping system. When I plan meals, I do so two weeks at a time.
- Cross Reference Your Calendar: The first thing I do when I sit down to put my meal plans together is check out what events we have coming up on our personal calendar. I don’t like to set myself up to fail, so I’ll pencil in any events or occasions we are attending so as to not plan to cook those nights. And if I know a certain day is going to be really busy for me, I’ll choose an easier-to-fix option for dinner that night. If I know we have company coming, I’ll consider what is easy to throw together or have on hand ahead of time. It really is all about thinking ahead and planning for success.
- Shop Your Pantry and Fridge First: I know, this concept may sound a bit silly, but I’m always surprised at what I find in my pantry and freezer that I totally spaced having. So, first things first, I open up the doors and take a gander at what I have to work with. I jot down anything that is close to expiring to be sure that I utilize it in the meal plan at some point. Then I’ll consider any other staples or items I have on hand that I would like to try out over the next couple of weeks. I also typically have some leftovers from the previous meal plan in the fridge or freezer, so I be sure to pencil them in to the coming meal plans as well.
- Choose Your Recipes: The next logical step is to gather up the recipes you plan to make over the next two weeks. All you need to do is Google meal planning to find that there are several schools of thought on this idea. Some bloggers will suggest having a daily theme for dinners throughout the week to help you simplify the process (i.e. Monday is meatless, Tuesday is tacos, Wednesday is Italian, Thursday is leftovers, and Friday is pizza). Others recommend saving your favorite recipes online or in a binder to grab as your go-to meal options. My style, at the moment, is neither of these. I like to constantly change things up and try new recipes out. We have no system or themes, no true favorites that keep popping up (unless you include tuna sammies, I guess those are a favorite we tend to utilize). For the most part, I pick new recipes for my meal plans.
- Utilize Leftovers: Now I know what some of you are thinking after the previous tip. And no, I don’t make something new every night. In fact, I’m lucky if we try 2-3 new recipes a week. That’s because leftovers don’t scare me. In fact, I consider it a fun challenge to recreate meals from leftovers. Generally speaking, we’ll cook large portions of a new recipe (sometimes doubling or tripling it to make it last), and then plan for leftovers the next day, and a revamp of those leftovers the following day. My go-to quick change-ups for leftovers include making some sort of salad out of the meal or adding eggs and creating a unique scramble with leftover meat and vegetables. Of course I’m open to lots of ideas on this front, in fact I usually just get online and find something I can make work out of what we have on hand. And Wildland Man is pretty gifted at coming up with good eats on his own from any leftovers we have in the fridge. Leftovers certainly don’t have to be boring, and the more you are willing to utilize them, the less often you have to cook complete meals from scratch.
- Fill Out Your Meal Plan: Now that you’ve considered what events are on your calendar, what you have on hand at home, what recipes you want to try out, and how you plan to utilize leftovers you can actually put your pencil to the paper and fill out the meal plan. Or I suppose you could type it out or even use a digital planner, but I’m a bit of an old soul. And though my generation is just as hooked on technology as others, I prefer to bust out my pencil and eraser and get crackin’ on my meal plans. I also really, really like to cross off the days after they are done. There is just something so satisfying with crossing things off a list isn’t there? I blame my mother for this OCD complex of mine. (Mama, if you are reading this… I love you!)
What Works for Me
As mentioned earlier, the meal planner I’m sharing with you today is based on my twice-monthly planning and shopping system. So, it is a two-week at a time planner. And 2 two-week meal plans equals four weeks, or one month!
If you decide to give this system a go in your home, I think you’ll find that you end up adding your own flavor to the mix over time. You’ll shift and tweak things, customizing them to fit your personal needs and circumstances. My hope is that my posts will simply provide you with a starting off point.
Oh, and my meal plans in real life are not nearly as pretty as these photographs presume. There are scribbles and cross outs, arrows representing flip-flopped meals and I even include notes to remind me of events we have going on, certain nutrition goals I’m implementing and even reminders to drink my water. Your meal plan can be whatever you want to make it. You simply just need to start somewhere.
I’ll add notes to remind me when to pull things out of the freezer the day before a recipe calls for them. I also like to include specific ideas for my husband’s lunches during the week, and I’ll even add the days I want to bake treats for care packages or special occasions to my meal plan.
In case you were wondering what a typical meal plan here at the Country Wife household looks like, here’s a sampler for y’all (and please, don’t judge me based on my meal plans):
Breakfast: Scrambled Eggs with Breakfast Potatoes
*Bake 2 Loaves of Gluten-Free Bread (Freeze One for Next Week)
Dinner: Gluten-Free Garlic Toast with Gluten-Free Pasta & Basil Marinara, Chicken Asiago Sausage & Ricotta
Breakfast: Left Over Eggs & Breakfast Potatoes
Lunch: Left Over Gluten-Free Garlic Toast & Salad
Dinner: Left Over Gluten-Free Pasta & Salad or Steamed Veggies
Breakfast: Left Over Eggs & Breakfast Potatoes as Breakfast Burritos
Lunch: Gluten-Free Tuna Sammies
Dinner: Left Over Pasta & Garlic Bread and/or Salads
Lunch: Gluten-Free Tuna Melt
Dinner: Hamburgers on Gluten-Free Bread with Sweet Potato Oven Fries
Breakfast: Coffee & Left Over Breakfast Burritos
Lunch: Leftover Hamburgers & Fries
Dinner: Cheeseburger Salads & Fries
Lunch: Leftover Burgers & Fruit
Dinner: Elk Roast & Veggies
Breakfast: Scrambled Eggs with Guacamole & Bacon
Lunch: Leftover Elk Roast on Salad
Dinner: Leftover Elk Roast and Veggies & Sautéed Greens
Breakfast: Leftover Eggs with Guacamole & Bacon
Lunch: Leftover Elk Roast Open Face Sammies
Dinner: Pasta with Steamed Shrimp & Butter Parsley Sauce
Breakfast: Guacamole on Gluten-Free Toast
Lunch: Green Smoothie or Leftover Elk Roast Sammies
Dinner: Leftover Pasta & Butter Parsley Sauce with Salads
Breakfast: PB & J Gluten-Free Toast with Tea and Honey
Lunch: Leftover Pasta & Butter Parsley Sauce
Dinner: Hummus & Roasted Veggies with Pita or Naan
Lunch: Leftover Hummus and Roasted Veggies on Salad
Dinner: Loaded Baked Potatoes
Breakfast: Hummus on Gluten-Free Toast & Coffee
Lunch: Greek Yogurt, Nuts, Fruit & Granola Bowls
Dinner: Leftover Loaded Baked Potatoes as Twice Baked Potatoes
Breakfast: Cereal or PB & J Gluten-Free Toast
Dinner: Gumbo over Rice & Veggies on the Side
Breakfast: Protein Shake or Greens Smoothie
Lunch: Leftover Gumbo & Veggies
Dinner: Breakfast for Dinner (Pancakes + Bacon + Eggs)
You’ll notice that I like to include a plan for each meal of the day. I am specifically trying to implement some healthy changes in my life these days, so for me, it helps to have each meal planned out. I may not always stick to it 100% of the time, but having it planned and knowing I have everything to make it helps me to make healthier choices throughout the day.
You’ll also notice I’m not always super specific on my meals. For example, one day just lists elk roast and veggies for dinner. To me, that means I’ll need to set out the roast from the freezer ahead of time and Wildland Man will season it however he desires and the veggies will be a side dish, totally depending on what we have on hand and what is in season. Generally, a veggie side dish around here is roasted or grilled.
I really hope seeing how I put together my two-week meal plan and sharing my templates with you has helped you feel like you can get going with this whole meal planning concept.
I have found that I generally prefer two styles of meal plans; depending on our circumstances and the mood I’m in. I’m sharing both with you today.
The first one is more of a calendar/table style with all three meals for each day of the two weeks represented. This one is my current go-to at the moment.
The second one is a list-style format. It is simply a three-column list for breakfast, lunch and dinner in which I’ll jot down 7-10 recipes to make over the next two weeks for those meals. This style of meal planner is what I typically use when I need a bit more flexibility built in to my schedule.
So, what are you waiting for? Give meal planning a try today. And let me know what you think!
Of course, if you missed the intro to this series, do check it out here:
Won’t you join in on the conversation (or rather, please just start one…) by commenting at the bottom of the page?
Have you ever tried meal planning? What tips can you share on the process?
Do you think you’d like to try meal planning two weeks at a time? What benefits do you see for your family?
I’d love to know what you think about my sharing of these freebies with you… Do you like them? Are they useful to you? Would you like to see more? If so, what kinds of freebies would you be interested in?