M is for Meal Planning

 I thought I was going to write about young marriage today, but I've gotten a few special requests on unlocking the mysteries of meal planning. I think this is a worthy topic, so here are some tips on planning meals before you're hungrily roaming the aisles of Walmart in the late evening, buying frozen pizzas and bacon and nacho cheese sauce for no good reason.

There are so many reasons to plan your meals. It's more economical and healthy for you and your family. You get more variety in your meal rotations and can try new and exciting dishes. You don't have to stress over what's for dinner. Food doesn't get forgotten in the far corners of the fridge (what did I get that bell pepper for and why is it still in the fridge 3 months later? gross.) and the ingredients you need are always there for you. And my number one reason? It keeps sticking to a budget WAY easier. I can feed my family of three (plus a couple daycare kiddos) for $85- $115 per week, and that includes baking tasty treats and bringing home the always necessary bottle of wine.

It took me a while to get this whole meal planning thing down, but it has been so worthwhile. Especially when our months are tight on cash, which are most months, because I'd rather sack away that money than spend it on unused bell peppers in the fridge. I tried a few different systems but this one works for me. A different style might work for you, but the most important thing is to have a plan. Here are some tips for making your meal planning a success.

Write it Down
I use an excel spreadsheet to plan out my meals, making sure to write down both main dishes and sides for breakfast, lunch and dinner for each day of the week. You can also use one of these nifty planners from budget101.com, but the excel spreadsheet works great for me. Once you have your meals planned, having a visual - like the blackboard pictured above - is a great way to remind yourself (and family) what's cooking tonight and what needs to be taken out of the freezer for upcoming meals.

Stretch your ingredients, not your budget. 
When planning your meals to fit within a budget, try to choose meals that use the same ingredients. For example, if I'm making black bean quinoa burgers for dinner one night, I might put poached eggs with quinoa cakes in a breakfast or lunch slot in one of the following days. If there are carrots in a stew I really want to make, I'll get a big bag and also make carrot cake muffins for breakfast and maybe do a buttered carrot side dish with another meal.

Find Inspiration
There are some sites which offer great examples of $25 or $50 grocery lists like Budget 101 and my new personal favorite Poor Girl Eats Well. But if the food on those menus doesn't sound good, go with the kinds of foods you want to make. When planning your menu, take cravings and family favorites into account. Check out FoodGawker or your favorite food blogs. Scour cookbooks and food magazines. One of my favorite things about planning meals is that it encourages me to try new recipes all the time to spice things up!

Make a List
Once you are done with the planning and have your menu finalized, make your grocery shopping list. I always look in my pantry, refrigerator and freezer first so I know what I already have on hand. Then I go through each recipe and make sure I write down everything I need. Then I add on snacks and drinks and anything else I know we'll need in the upcoming week. Then it's time to shop. I cross off the items on my list as I shop so I don't forget anything. I always strive for one grocery trip a week (two weeks and my fresh produce started going bad), with no extra trips here and there for forgotten or unnecessary items. Get in, get out, and stick to the list.

Meal planning takes a little getting used to, but stick to it and adjust as necessary. Make it work for you. It may not be easy at first, but it is totally worth it. It saves you time and money and so much more. If you have any other questions about planning your meals, just ask. I'm always more than happy to help!