Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Meal Planning on a Budget!

Today's topic is a huge one for me, so I will try to keep it as simple and easy-to-digest as possible. We will dive into WHY I plan my meals, HOW I meal plan, and included at the end will be a sample meal plan as well as a free printable for you to use for your meal planning pleasure. I know, I must really love you guys.

Why I Plan My Meals

1. Less stress. Without a doubt, meal planning lowers my stress level. There isn't much worse than having a super busy day, cleaning up after kids, breaking up fights over who gets to wear the light-up princess shoes, and then realizing it's 5:30 pm and you have no meat thawed out and NO IDEA what you are making for dinner. Having it all planned out and mostly prepared is definitely less stressful.

2. Less time. Personally, I find it much easier to spend one or two larger chunks of time cooking and preparing everything, as opposed to spending a moderate amount of time each evening. Not to mention the time it takes just to decide what we are having to begin with. I enjoy having that much more time in the evenings to enjoy with my family, and not having to dig around in the pantry and freezer trying to piece ingredients together for a meal. Having it all planned out means I look at my calendar, grab the containers labeled for that day/meal, and simply cook it. It really does save so much time! 

3. Less money. I find that when I plan our meals, I am actually USING the items I buy at the store and not letting them go to waste. Rather than piecing together a bunch of random items, I'm looking at what I have on hand first, and then creating my grocery list. This means my grocery list is SMALLER (and less expensive!). It used to be that I would sit down at my computer, find a bunch of yummy looking recipes, and make a list FROM SCRATCH. I wasn't trying to find meals based on the things I have already, or trying to stretch certain ingredients over multiple meals. This also means I was piling more food on top of what I already had, and things were getting overlooked and going bad - which meant I had to throw it away. What a waste of money!

How I Plan My Meals

1. Check what is already there. When creating a meal plan I find it easiest to take a look and see what I have on hand already (I stock up on items with a longer shelf life when they are on sale). For instance, when creating my next meal plan I started out by writing "quinoa, brown rice, pasta shells, spaghetti noodles, & tortillas."  Seriously, that is what it says in my journal. I have other items, too, but these are items that I knew I could plan meals around. You may have things like chicken, pasta sauce, carrots...it could be anything!

2. Research meals with those ingredients. I know it sounds silly, but this is what I do. I literally pull up Google or Pinterest and type, "easy quinoa dinner," or something to that effect. I look through the search results and try to pick one that has ingredients that are cheap or that I already have. For example, my quinoa search turned up a recipe for Chicken Broccoli Quinoa Casserole. I knew I would be buying chicken, and I already had a bag of frozen broccoli as well as chicken stock. Which leads to my next point...

3. Write down possible meals. While I'm researching, I write down the meals that look like good contenders. I also write down the ingredients I would need to buy to make the meal. The meals with common denominator ingredients are the ones I end up picking. (ex: If I need to buy potatoes, I will try to pick 2-3 meals that use potatoes so I don't waste any and I can stretch that particular ingredient). If that is confusing, hopefully it will make more sense when I list my sample meal plan below.

4. Finalize the plan. To complete my plan, I list the days of the week (two weeks worth), and I start to fill in meals where I see fit. I try not to have pasta two similar meals on consecutive nights (so no back-to-back pasta or Mexican-themed dinners). This takes some trial and error (and lots of marks through my list), but eventually I have a complete two-week meal plan.

5. Shop and prep. This one is fairly self-explanatory, but I want to note that when I grocery shop I only buy what is on my list. Occasionally I will find a really good deal and pick something up on a whim, but for the most part stick the list. I also check ads before I shop to make sure I am getting the best deals. (I won't go out of my way to save fifty cents, but I will go to a couple of different stores if I am saving a significant amount of money). Going to Aldi for my produce saves me enough money that it is worth the extra trip. After I get home, I cook ALL of my meat and cut up fruits and veggies. I check my plan and separate/season the meat according to what meals I have planned, add veggies to the it if the recipe calls for it, put it in a freezer bag, and label it with the name of the meal and the date it will be eaten.  It's awesome to have everything prepared and labeled so I can just grab it, pop it in the oven, put my feet up & relax! Who am I kidding? I have three kids! I try to relax, nonetheless :). Any leftovers we have are used for lunches, and having all of the meat divided beforehand really saves money and calories.

Now, on to the really good stuff! 

Here is what my next meal plan looks like:

You can see that planning meals has left me with a super short grocery list for two weeks of dinners! I have all other ingredients on hand, and (hopefully) won't have to go to the store again for another two weeks. It's fantastic!

Eventually I will have all of the recipes for these meals posted (I tweak all of them to make them my own, and make my own spice blends), but for now, hopefully this is helpful enough. If you really want any of the recipes before I have the posts prepared, just leave me a nice little comment listing which one(s) you want, and I'll reply with the recipe! It just won't have pretty pictures included :).

You can download a blank copy of this meal plan HERE.

I hope this helps those of you who are new to meal planning, or just looking for meals to add to yours!

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