Meal plans and I have somewhat of a hot/cold relationship—when I’m in the depths of planning meals regularly, I’m REALLY devoted to the practice (and eager to share all the benefits with anyone who will listen), but when I inevitably fall off the bandwagon from time to time (sometimes for long stretches of time), I start to resent the idea of a meal plan in much the same way I resent counting calories when my weight starts to creep up again—in other words, I know that it’s good for me and that I’ll feel better once I do, but I still don’t want to because it’s, well, not fun and takes effort.
After finally getting over the hurtle of the first trimester of pregnancy recently, however, I was desperate to make a change, as our grocery and eating out bill had skyrocketed (since I never feel like cooking those first 3 months that I’m pregnant and our meals are basically based on whatever craving or aversion I’m feeling at the moment). During that first trimester, I still had been going to the grocery store weekly as was my norm, but since I hadn’t been planning meals around what I was buying, we just ended up wasting more than we should and stocking our pantry with a bunch of random odds and ends.
The last half of January I was finally starting to enjoy the benefits of being in the fourth month of pregnancy, and I was determined to actually stay within my grocery budget for the month too (for once), which basically meant I couldn’t go grocery shopping for those last two weeks. Now, when I am being good about meal planning, two weeks without grocery shopping isn’t a big deal, but when such a decision is arrived at without any forethought (in other words, I didn’t plan out that final shopping trip in January very strategically), let’s just say that our meals by the very end of January started to, uh, get a little creative. (And it even involved me making my own whole wheat sandwich bread as I refused to go out and buy any when we ran out.)
My meal planning skills were a bit rusty since it had been several months since I’d last started doing it, so I first approached the blank page of future meal plans with a bit of panic—what were we going to EAT for two weeks? I immediately felt the pull to just forget it all and go to the store for easy-to-throw together ingredients and start meal planning LATER, but I made myself dig in my heels and just do it.
Here was my process:
- Since we are meat eaters (and around 80% of our dinners involve meat), I first took stock of what meat we had lying around. Since we had a lot of ground beef/turkey and canned tuna and a few breasts of frozen chicken, I started there. I immediately started thinking of all the meals we ate regularly that involved those kinds of meat and started making a mental list.
- I like to vary the kinds of meat/protein we have for dinner every night (in other words, I don’t want to eat ground turkey for five nights in a row, even if it’s in five different meals) and I knew that we wouldn’t have enough meat to last those two weeks if we ate it every night, so I assessed meatless options (which usually revolved around beans, rice, and/or pasta, which I checked that we had), once again making a mental list of some options I was familiar with that we ate regularly.
- I next checked our stock of things that needed to be used up quickly, namely, produce and certain kinds of dairy (and a few leftovers that needed to be eaten up).
- After taking note of our general state of affairs when it came to the main components of different kinds of entrees, I started making a list. I started first by penciling in dinners that I’d made so frequently that I knew we had all the ingredients on hand without needing to look up a recipe. (If you’re new to meal planning, don’t try to fill out a whole week’s worth of meals you’ve never made before–you’ll get overwhelmed. Start by making dinners you’re familiar with 3-4 of the nights, doing leftovers, takeout or something like frozen pizza one or two of the nights, and then trying something new the nights that are left.)
- Next, I started flipping through my favorite cookbooks (something that I really need to do more often rather than just relying on tried-and-true favorites or on the Internet to save me), and I found several new recipes that I wanted to try that we happened to have all the ingredients for and penciled those in too. (I also must note that I occasionally came across a few recipes I wanted to try that we DIDN’T have all the ingredients for, but if it was something minor or something where I could make a substitution, I penciled it in anyway.)
- Every week of meal planning, I made sure to give myself a night or two “off” by writing in a super easy option, like a frozen pizza (which we happened to have since my pregnant self was okay with them some of the time and that same pregnant self didn’t want to cook one from scratch), leftovers, or something really fast like grilled tuna and cheese sandwiches or breakfast for dinner. From long experience, I have learned that it’s unwise to think that you’re going to want to/be up for making dinner every single night, so cut yourself a break or two by scheduling in easy options. (This also means that if something comes up on another one of the nights that you didn’t account for, you have a night to “switch” with and you’re not off track.)
Well, other than going to the store for some milk, a couple bananas, and an emergency run for laundry detergent (as we’d run out and had a certain potty incident that we didn’t want to leave in the washer overnight), I was able to make it the last two (possibly even two and a half) weeks of January without going grocery shopping.
Honestly, the biggest thing for me was just committing to it–I knew we had lots of stuff in our pantry, but sometimes I just wanted the easy route rather than having to search around for what to make. When we ran out of bread with over a week left of the month, I was about to break the shopping ban for sure for that, but then I reminded myself that we had plenty of ingredients on hand to make bread (and whole wheat bread, no less), so there was really no reason I NEEDED to go to the store for that.
The last couple days DID require some major creativity though. For breakfast, for instance, we tend to rotate among the same five meals or so over and over. When we ran out of ingredients for most of those meals (and I was starting to run out of eggs), I knew I had to plan carefully in order to be able to provide something every morning. Once again, though, we had enough stuff on hand to make breakfast–my habit had just always been to go for those easier, frequently-made meals rather than getting creative and making something else.
And really, in the end, that’s what meal planning this time around has reinforced for me again—in cooking, as in so many other things, I sometimes just get lazy, which translates eventually to money lost at the grocery store, food wasted, and the inevitable 4:30 scramble of what on earth I should make for dinner (which I start to resent if it happens week in and week out).
Diligently penciling in our meals these past few weeks has given me a certain confidence as dinnertime approaches since I’m no longer racking my brain and trying to come up with something to make, and it also ensured that we stayed well within our grocery budget for the month of January (we only spent around $280 on groceries and all household items like toilet paper, soap, and detergent, rather than the $380-400 we’d been spending when I wasn’t feeling well enough in my pregnancy to plan anything out well). We also wasted FAR less food (more money saved!), and I loved having a fridge that wasn’t so packed that it was overwhelming–by the end, I could clearly see what our (only) options were, and that was kind of liberating in its own way.
Below, I’ve included a month’s worth of recent meal plans to give you an idea of what we’ve been eating and planning to eat (and I’ve included links to the recipe where it’s available online, either through my blog or through another site).
Monday: Tater Tot Casserole
Wednesday: Steak + Salad
Thursday: Chicken Tacos + Mexican Rice w/ Tomatoes
Friday: Frozen Pizza
Saturday: Dinner with Friends (I bring butternut squash soup)
Sunday: Creamy Chicken Noodle Soup
Monday: Grilled Tuna + Cheese Sandwiches
Tuesday: Ground Beef Tacos
Wednesday: Garlic Alfredo Sauce w/ Fettuccine
Thursday: Frozen Pizza + Green Salad
Friday: Lasagna + Garlic Bread (dinner with my family)
Saturday: Creamy Chicken Pasta + Vegetables (dinner with in-laws)
Monday: Mexican Chip Casserole
Tuesday: Mini Cheddar Meat Loaves + Homemade Potato Fries
Wednesday: Grilled Tuna + Cheese Sandwiches
Thursday: Southwest Chicken Wraps
Saturday: Sloppy Joes + Homemade Potato Fries + Corn
Sunday: Pot Roast + Mashed Potatoes & Carrots
Monday: Chicken Potpie
Tuesday: Easy Lasagna
Thursday: French Toast + Fruit Salad
Friday: Homemade Pizza
Sunday: Chicken Enchiladas
You’ll notice that I sometimes include side dishes and sometimes don’t. I’ll often serve a simple side dish (like steamed vegetables or sliced fruit), but if it’s not something that requires much prep, I won’t write it down.
Although I’d intended my January experiment more to be about forcing myself to cut back on grocery spending and sticking to the budget more strictly, it also became an experiment in cleaning out our pantry a bit, which was much needed. If you’re looking to save some money, waste less food, AND reinvigorate (yes, really!) your desire (or at least willingness) to cook again, I highly recommend combining meal planning with a clean-out-the-pantry experiment—you might be surprised at what you discover!