Meal planning used to completely elude me. For the life of me, I could not wrap my head around not letting my stomach decide what it wanted to eat that day. Of course, this was before I had my first daughter. Nowadays, I can’t see how I functioned for so long without it.
Meal planning isn’t just about eating the same thing over and over. Rather, it involves being strategic with two things that you cannot afford to waste: your time and your money.
When I first began meal planning, I made so many mistakes. I now understand that while there is no right or wrong way to plan your meals, you do need guidelines to help to make the process as smooth as possible from start to finish. And there are a few things you should keep in mind to make that happen.
Consider allergies, picky eaters, and portions.
My preschooler has a peanut allergy and even though I enjoy a classic PB&J every so often, I simply do not include this in our meal plan. My preschooler is also an extremely picky eater, whereas my toddler is not so much. I am mindful of the things she likes and I keep a running list of her preferences along with alternative food options for her. This way, I’m not thrown off my game while planning for the weeks to come. If there’s an ingredient she can’t or doesn’t want to eat, I can just refer to this list for easy swaps.
Again, my preschooler is picky, so I usually give her a fair amount of portions to choose from. My toddler enjoys double portions, so I usually mix his up with fruits or extra veggies. The point is, anticipating their appetite allows me to plan to buy the right amount to feed us all.
Budget your money (and your time).
I budget about $80 a week for the four of us. This amount varies, as sometimes I have ingredients left over from previous shopping trips, which allows me to save money. I roll over any leftover funds into the next week’s grocery budget or use them to buy extra fruit. Depending on your family structure, you may roll your excess funds into another category in your budget. But personally, I prefer to keep my “food” budget for food only.
My preschooler is in ballet once a week, and I’m taking college courses. So, depending on the week ahead, I create a meal plan that leaves room for error in our busy week to come. In other words, I have backup meals for those over-the-top busy days. We have to eat regardless of how busy we are, so I’m mindful not to get into the habit of running to McDonald’s when we’re short on time.
Create fun, easy-to-remember themes.
One of my favorite activities with my preschooler is sitting down to come up with food themes for the days of the week ahead. One week, for example, she came up with “Sticky Sunday” and wanted fish sticks. It was cool to see her associate the food name with the day of the week — it was also easy for her to remember.
Daily food themes make it easier to brainstorm ideas for meal planning. With so many options for meals, choosing and planning what to eat for the week can be tough. I’ve found that creating a theme for the week narrows down your options, making it easier — and more fun — to plan for the week ahead.
Have some go-to recipes on hand.
I keep a running list of quick, easy, and nutritious meals on Pinterest. This list is my go-to for meal planning. It’s so important to have a list of recipes so that I can easily see what I could swap out or include to make sure my kids are getting a good mix of veggies and fruits. When I’m stumped for what to prepare for any given week, I can easily reference my Pinterest board for ideas.
But in our digital world, I’m still a fan of pen and paper. I love pulling out a notebook and jotting down ideas for the week, too. If my preschooler tells me how much she enjoys a snack from her school, I make note of it so I have ideas for the weeks to come.
Make sure you have plenty of storage.
If we have leftovers, we store them in glass Pyrex containers. This is usually my lunch for work the next day and keeps me away from spending money at local eateries. And if I don’t eat the leftovers at work, they become a quick after-work meal, before I start dinner.
If you’re going to meal plan, you’re going to need containers. Make sure you have plenty on hand for quick and easy leftovers.
In short, here’s how I meal plan for a family of four:
- I create daily themes with my pre-schooler.
- I plan for two weeks at a time.
- I shop sales and stay within a budget for ingredients we don’t already have.
- I wake up early to meal prep for the day.
Below you can find an example of a week’s worth of meal planning. The biggest benefit to meal planning, aside from having a handle on your finances, is being able to spend quality time with your little ones and have their input matter.
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