December 29, 2017

Meal Planning 101: Setting Up for 2018

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I won’t claim to be an expert, but I will tell you that I’ve honed a system for meal planning that has taken so much stress and frustration out of my routine. And yes, it does involve getting set up for the entire year. Don’t feel overwhelmed – an hour or two of time the first week of January is all it takes. If you’re interested in giving it a try this year, read on:

Step 1: Choose your tool

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Planners are such a personal choice, I’m not going to say you MUST pick this-that-or-the-other. However, I do have some strong suggestions:

  • Get one with a 12-month length. My system works best this way, and I really feel like it’s worth it, whether it’s a dedicated meal planner or a life planner.
  • Make it portable. You don’t have to take it to the grocery store every time, of course, but once you get into the swing of things, you’ll be surprised at how often meal inspiration hits you, and it’s nice to be able to write it down right away
  • Try a few. If you aren’t settled on a planer system right away, don’t give up if the first one or two you try just don’t work, for some undiscernible reason. There’s a reason there are dozens of planners and brands and styles. Something different works for everyone.

Step 2: Make your list

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This is your master list of all the meals you know your family will eat, at least most of them, most of the time. Make sure you can add to it throughout the year as you discover new winners. Throughout the year you will pull from this list so you don’t have to “come up” with fresh ideas out of the clear blue. Mine is just a random list in no particular order. If you want to put them in a more organized system, such as style or length of cook time, that’s a great idea. But a simple list works for me.

NOTE: Make the list. Trust me. I have a deep kitchen drawer stuffed with cookbooks that only get referenced a few times a year – when a recipe I’ve written on the list pops up. Unless you are already in the habit of pulling out every. single. cookbook. (and facebook video and pinterest link) every. single. time. you sit down to meal plan, you probably won’t start now. Make the master list, and refer to external sources when necessary.

Step 3: Choose your favorites

This is why I recommend a 12 month system. This is where we start making headway. I pick out a handful of meals that we don’t/shouldn’t eat too often – because they take all afternoon to make, because they are delicious calorie bombs and we will eat the whole casserole in one evening, because they call for exotic ingredients that hit our budget – but that we do love eating, and I scatter them throughout the year.

For example: I pick lasagna, and I write down “lasagna,” on the 3rd Friday of every quarter. Then I pick out Chicken Pot Pie, and I write it down on the 6th Friday of every quarter. Etc. Depending on how many of those types of meals you have, you can have 20 or 30 dinners already “planned” before you even get to that month in real life.

Step 4: Come up with “hints”

Friday nights are (usually) crock pot nights here, because our schedules mean we eat dinner separately. Thursday nights are family Bible study night, which means I make a big entree we share with 3 other families. Saturdays and Sundays are either takeout or something simple like frozen pizza. With those already set, that only leaves me 3 or 4 days a week where I need to actually plan a meal each session. And then some are already planned, because of Step 3! See? Less work in August because I put in the extra work in January. When you figure out your “hints” to help you segment your weeks and days, it flows much more quickly!

Step 5: Give yourself flexibility

You might be thinking: “How can I plan meals 5 and 6 months away? I don’t know what I’ll feel like tomorrow, or even next Tuesday?” When you start each meal planning session – whether it’s one week, two weeks, or an entire month - the trick I’ve found is to use a rubric for planning each set of meals. Ask: How many beef meals are we eating? How many poultry? Fish? How many Italian, how many Mexican, how many comfort food, etc. Keeping a mix/balance in each set of planned meals allows for some “spur of the moment” wiggle room, because one your meals are planned, you can buy all the ingredients you’ll need, and have them on hand.

And there you go! The framework for a solid start to meal planning for 2018. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask! I also post many of my meals on instagram now, @jacilikestoeat.

If you have your own tips and tricks to share, feel free to leave them below and share the wealth Smile

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