Meal Planning 101

I get a lot of questions about how to plan meals for the week successfully. How could I possibly know what I will want to eat come Friday? What if I don’t have time to cook the meals I had originally anticipated making? How can I ensure the food I buy doesn’t go bad before I get a chance to eat it?

It can seem like a daunting task to take one single trip to the grocery store and expect to eat for an entire week. Like many things, there’s an art to meal planning. If you know the rules and stay organized, meal planning can make healthy eating a breeze.

To answer all your meal planning questions, I want to share with you the process I take to plan my weekly meals every single week before I go grocery shopping. I am 100% a type A personality. I make lists and schedules for everything. Like everyone else I have battled with the best way to meal plan. I have run out of food mid week leaving me eating out the rest of the week, I have over-purchased food and thrown it all away unable to eat it fast enough, I have ambitiously planned to cook 7 meals a week resulting in poor food choices when I don’t have time to make them, I have even made daily grocery store trips waiting last minute to decide on what I will eat for the day.

After much trial and error I now have meal planning down to a science. I’ve broken down my thought process into 12 easy steps for you to follow including an example of what I planned to eat this week.

Step 1: Choose one thing for breakfast and eat it all week. Buy enough ingredients for 7 days.

Example: This week I have decided to have a green smoothie with coffee every morning. I will need enough coffee and creamer for the week as well as 7 bananas, about 7 cups of spinach, and about 7 cups of almond milk.

Step 2: Plan to eat dinner leftovers for lunches throughout the week.

Example: I will make sure my plastic to-go containers are all clean and easy to find to take my lunches to work.

Step 3: Purchase a few easy grab-and-go items for snacks (fruits, veggies, yogurt, nuts, granola bars, etc.). Use sales and coupons at your grocery store to help you decide on items.

Example: I do 90-100% of my shopping at Whole Foods. At my grocery store this week Granny Smith apples, Satsumas, and Greek yogurt are on sale. I’ve already got some fruit in the fridge so I’m going to pass on buying any additional fruit. I have coupons for sweet potato chips and popcorn. I will buy these items for snacks throughout the week. I also want to make a recipe I found for Coconut Cranberry Pecan Balls. These will make a good snack as well.

Step 4: Take a brief inventory of your kitchen.

Example: In my kitchen I have 2 yellow onions, a red onion, a shallot, garlic, green onions, kale, spinach, parsley, oats, a can of black beans, can diced tomatoes, a spaghetti squash, 2 pumpkins, a kabocha squash, quinoa, a zucchini, almonds, sunflower seeds, grapes, blackberries, 2 satsumas, and an apple.

Step 5: Determine what produce is in season and look at your local grocery store sales and coupons.

Example: It is the end of November in Illinois. Apples, citrus, onions, garlic, root vegetables (carrots, parsnips, potatoes), greens (kale, spinach, chard), and winter squash are in-season items that come to mind.

Step 6: Browse cookbooks, recipes, and website for meal ideas that fit the above criteria.

Example: I browsed cookbooks (especially my favorite cookbook Clean Food), blogs, and websites for recipe ideas.

Step 7: Decide on 5-6 dinner recipes for the week leaving 1-2 days planned for leftovers or dining out.

Example: The 6 recipes I chose this week are Shiitake Mushrooms and Bitter Greens in Phyllo, Vegetable Quinoa Soup with Garlic Crostini, Mahi Mahi with Roasted Kabocha Squash with Kale, Spaghetti Squash with Beef Quinoa Meatballs, Chicken Pesto Pizza, and Veggie Burgers with Sweet Potato Fries. Don’t forget I also want to make Coconut Cranberry Pecan Balls for a snack.

Step 8: Look at your schedule and make sure your dinner recipes correspond well with your activities. This is the the most important step!

Example: My schedule this week includes 2 days off, 2 days I will be home by 6PM, and 2 days I am working late. I know on these days I will not want to cook when I get home at 9PM. So I need to have something easy for Will to throw in the oven and have ready when I get home. He can bake the pizza one night and the spaghetti squash the other night. I will have to assemble the pizza and cook the meatballs ahead of time for this.

Step 9: Choose one healthy dessert recipe to make for the week.

Example: I chose to make Teff Ginger Molasses Cookies this week in the spirit of the holidays. While I would love to buy Teff flour, I have a coupon for $1.00 off an Arrowhead Mills product. Arrowhead Mills doesn’t make Teff flour, so I’ll buy Brown Rice Flour instead and substitute it in the recipe. The recipe makes 2 dozen cookies so between the two of us this is plenty of treats for one week.

Step 10: Determine steps in your recipes that you can do ahead of time and plan a day of prep on your day off.

Example: One of my days off is tomorrow, Sunday. I can assemble and cook my phyllo pockets (either refrigerate or freeze), cook my meatballs (cover and freeze), make my chicken pesto pizza (cover and refrigerate), make my veggie burgers (cover and refrigerate), and make my Coconut Cranberry Pecan Balls and Ginger Molasses Cookies. I can also clean, rinse, and cut any fruits and vegetables I will be using later in the week.

Step 11: Make a grocery list. Write down exactly how much of each item you will need and organize your list by grocery store department to speed up your shopping trip.

Example:

  • Produce
    • 7 bananas
    • 20 shiitake mushroom
    • 3 carrots
    • 1 head garlic
    • 1 package basil
    • 1 package fresh thyme
    • 1 package fresh rosemary
  • Bulk
    • 1 package pine nuts
    • ¼ cup dried coconut
    • 1 cup dried cranberries
    • 1 ½ cup pecans
    • Almond butter
    • 1 cup quinoa
  • Diary
    • Coffee creamer
    • 4 Greek yogurts (they are 2 for $3 this week)
    • 1 package goat cheese
    • 1 ball fresh mozzarella
  • Meat/Fish
    • 1 lb grass-fed ground beef
    • 1 chicken breast
    • 1 lb mahi mahi (on sale this week for $12.99 lb)
    • Bacon (coupon for $1.00 off)
  • Grocery
    • 1 box almond milk (coupon for $1.00 off)
    • Vegetable broth (coupon for $1.00 off)
    • Yeast
    • Brown rice flour (coupon for $1.00 off)
    • 1 jar tomato sauce
    • 1 bag sweet potato chips (coupon for $1.00 off)
    • 1 bag popcorn (coupon for $1.00 off)
    • Ketchup
  • Bakery/Specialty
    • Loaf bread (coupon for $0.50 off ciabatta)
    • White wine (will look for sales)
    • Coffee (freshly ground – enough for at least 1 week)
  • Frozen
    • Phyllo dough
    • Sweet potato fries (coupon for $0.55 cents off)

Step 12: Go shopping! Stick to your list and don’t forget to take your coupons and reusable grocery bags with you!

Example: A recap of my shopping trip: Almond milk wasn’t available, but this wasn’t a big deal because my coupon also worked towards rice milk, so I simply bought that instead. Fresh shiitake mushrooms were out of stock, so I bought dried – I can rehydrate them later. I also picked a coffee flavor that was on sale this week. I bought 10 dates from bulk on impulse – I may have left over bacon, goat cheese, and basil to make a yummy treat later this week! I found that Cupcake Chardonnay was on sale $1.00 off, so I bought a bottle. I also bought a 6-pack of sale White Winter Ale for any football games that come around this weekend. In total I spent $113.48 on groceries. I saved $7.05 with my coupons. I try to spend under $100/week on food for the two of us. My most expensive items this week were the mahi mahi, wine, and beer. All of which I could have easily done without or traded the mahi mahi for a cheaper tilapia – had I not bought the alcohol or mahi mahi I would have saved $30 putting my total under an ideal $100 mark. Oh yeah, and I was only at the grocery store for about 45 minutes – it was a pretty painless experience with my list!

So I know what you are wondering now. How much time does it take to plan all of this? It usually takes me about an hour to plan my week. It may take you longer at first, but you’ll get faster at it as you get the hang of the process. Keep in mind that your time is being well spent as you will be preventing the headache of thinking about what’s for dinner later in the week!

Click here to read about tomorrow’s Preparation Day.

Click here to see the Meal Planning 101 Recap after the week is over.

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