As you'll recall, we talked about basic meal planning a few weeks ago. That version of meal planning is quick and easy, but still saves you the hassle of having to run to the grocery store at the last minute and helps you make healthier food choices. Now that you've had some time to practice, we're going to take it a step further. Advanced meal planning uses the same principles, but takes a few more considerations into account. Advanced meal plan is a bigger time investment, but your return is going to be less wasted food, which means a lower grocery bill.
Here are the questions you'll want to ask yourself when you do your advanced meal plan:
- What do you currently have in your pantry, fridge and freezer? If you're running low on anything, you might want to stock up. Or maybe you found a roast hiding in the freezer that will be great this weekend (score!); better pick up the other ingredients you'll need to make that meal. You might also use the ingredients you already have on hand to help inspire your recipe choices (maybe that half-used package of dried black beans will remind you to try that delicious-looking black bean soup you pinned awhile back).
- How long have your current food items been there and when do they need to be used by? If you've got something that needs to be used ASAP before it's past it's prime, maybe you'll want to plan a meal that uses it up so you don't end up having to throw it out.
- What do you want to cook? This is the same as you've done before. Buy the ingredients you'll need for meals you decide to make over the coming days.
- Will the meals that you plan to cook have any leftovers? This can make a big difference on how many meals you plan to make, especially for a couple or small family (as you will likely have more leftovers). If that lasagna you're making will last for 3 or 4 meals, that might mean that you'll want to plan for a couple fewer meals to cook over the week, or you might want to freeze the leftovers to use later. OR...
- Can you cook any extra ingredients from these meals to use for another meal? Maybe you'll make a roast chicken one night. Why not roast 2 chickens (almost no more prep time) and use the second chicken in other meals (soup, enchiladas, quesadillas, etc.). This is called "planned leftovers".
What about the actual process of doing the meal planning? This is going to be different for everyone.
I myself am not a paper person (I get tired of endless scraps of paper filling my purse, jacket pockets and car). I also like to maintain a bit of flexibility, so I don't specify which days I'm going to make which recipes. My system is as follows:
- I browse the food I have on hand. I make note of things I'm running low on that I need to buy.
- I come up with a list of dishes I'm going to make, making sure not to forget side dishes.
- I look through my recipes and note all the ingredients I need (this may require a few more looks in the fridge or pantry to double check if I have something or not - it's never fun to get to the store and think "wait, do I have a can of tomatoes, or did I just use the last can last week?")
- I make my grocery list on a phone app. Specifically, I use Out of Milk on my Android phone. I tried a few other apps, but this is the one that stuck. I like it because it allows you to share the list with others, so Hubby has the ability to add items to the list without having to text or call me (although this we rarely use this feature anyway). It also lets you sort your groceries into categories that you define yourself, in whatever way makes sense for you (I separate mine into areas of the store - produce, dairy, meat, etc.).
I typically only plan for supper meals. I always have lots of breakfast foods on hand and lunch usually consists of leftovers or something else I pull together from staples. It will likely be more important to plan for lunch if you typically don't have leftovers or have a number of family members that are packing lunch to work or school.
I know this system won't work for everyone. Some people may prefer to hand-write a list, and some might want to type it into a computer spreadsheet. I have made up a meal planning and grocery list template that you can print out and use if you wish. Try a few different systems and see what works. It doesn't matter how you do it, just do it. Trust me, it will pay off!