After many years of planning meals more on the fly than with forethought, and feeling the need to reduce my anxiety and stress in every area possible, I started working on meal plans last November. My first goal was to attempt to plan meals for 2 weeks in advance. As we live in the country, have 3 growing children/teens, and have 2 refrigerators, we like to buy enough dairy and fresh produce to last as long as possible and 2 weeks seemed easy enough.
Four months later, I was planning meals between 3-4 weeks in advance. The pandemic restrictions hit our area in March, so planning for shopping every 2 weeks meant that we could self-isolate for 14 days easily enough. My goal changed to wanting to plan on shopping every 3 weeks. (I am still working on this.)
Before we started school on September 1st, I sat down at the end of August with my old meal calendars, cookbooks, and newly printed blank calendars, and started to rethink my system. I am a big fan of ‘work smarter, not harder’. Here is what I’ve learned in the last 9 months that has enabled me to preplan our meals for the next 4 months in advance:
- Don’t plan meals for every day of the week. Leave yourself some space for changing up your menu or going out to eat.
- Based on how many people you are feeding and the size of the recipe, you may or may not have leftovers. This will affect the next night’s supper. Knowing which meals give you leftovers and which don’t helps in planning future meals. If you can double a recipe and freeze half, it will help for those days when you are short on time. Keep track of those freezer ready meals and work them into your rotation. (we’ll talk more about the rotation in a bit)
- Sit down with your recipe books and list a variety of supper meals. They can be meals you make from scratch or freezer ready, even take-out! (No judgment or guilt here!) I have even added in breakfast meals in my next quarter. If you live in a place with extreme seasonal changes, like me, you might wish to list some meals for hot/cold weather. I tend to rely more on the BBQ when it’s too hot to turn the oven on. The instapot and crockpot can also be used and any stovetop meal works well. We also love to eat more ‘all in one’ salads (like a Big Mac Salad or Russian Taco Salad) in summer.
- List your side dishes for each meal or any special topping you will need that you don’t usually keep stocked.
- (Here comes an INFJ fun part. 🙂 ): Think about how often you’d like to eat each meal. Do you want pizza every 3 weeks? Would Hamburger Soup be enjoyed every 10 weeks? No worries if you can’t decide – nothing is written in stone (I write out all my meals in pencil so that I can make changes as needed). Go ahead and sort your meals into the number of weeks that you think you’d like. (For example, under 3 Weeks, I might have pizza; under 4 weeks, I might have fish & chips with coleslaw, hamburgers & salad, meatballs & rice; under 6 weeks: Big Mac Salad … etc.) My meal repetitions begin at 3 weeks and go to 10 weeks. You do you.
- Take your holiday meals into consideration and jot down what you think you’d most likely make.
- Taking protein choices into consideration (do you really want to eat tuna 3 times in a row?), take your designated meal calendar (I find free printable calendar pages work wonderfully) and begin to fill in the squares.
- Fill in your holiday/special meals first.
- Consider if you have evening plans on a regular basis that require a faster/easier meal on those nights. Fill in accordingly.
- Try to account for a regular grocery shopping day if you can.
- Try to plan for the meals requiring fresh produce to be made nearest to after you have gone shopping. The meals that use canned or frozen produce can be saved for those meals served in the days just before going shopping. You may find that you can even stretch out your shopping trips to 3 weeks or more, with only a quick milk and eggs run inbetween if needed. (This is my current goal. The coming winter weather will affect when we go get groceries, as we try to go on the most mild days and want to avoid snowstorms. I find that having powdered milk is very helpful to keep on hand. (and chocolate syrup in case the kids have to drink it). I try to make my baking and quick bread recipes with powdered milk so that the fresh milk lasts longer. Another option is to purchase ultra-filtered milk (like a lactose free milk) – they have a long shelf-life – or even a carton of nut milk – if you are trying to stretch out the distance between shopping trips.)(This comes in pretty handy during a pandemic. 😉 )
- Try to keep variety in your weekly meal plan. You probably wouldn’t want to eat 3 varieties of a noodle casserole in one week.
- It is easier to start with the shortest rotation meals first and then work your way out, BUT, you may wish to alternate a short with a very long and then space out your 4-7 week meals between. I found that most meals are on a 5-7 week rotation and because I have so many to choose from, we may not actually eat them ‘every 5 weeks’. They may get pushed further away on the calendar. Similar meals, like tuna or salmon roll ups, can be alternated with each other. I have both on a 6 week rotation, but as the only change is the tuna/salmon, they actually end up being on a 12 week rotation.
- I write all the meals in pencil and include the number of the weeks rotation it is on (circling it). This way, if a meal gets pushed back, I can take note and work it back in, in the future. I have also started to keep track of skipped meals on a sticky note. This may affect future meal rotation numbers. (If we don’t eat Sloppy Joes (6) tonight, maybe it should be changed to a (10) week rotation?) If I do change a meal up, I keep track on the calendar. It’s all about learning the pattern of what works best and adapting as needed.
The perks of pre-planning include: much less ‘what should I make?’ stress; better budgeting as you can buy just what you need and also keep your eye out for sales on items you will need in the future that have a long shelf-life; and knowing well ahead of time if you need to pull the chicken out of the freezer to defrost!
One of the best things about all of this is that you can adapt it to any diet you need to. If you want to try Whole30 or Keto or Dairy/Gluten-Free etc., you just slot the meals in and make it work for you. And if you want to encourage others in your household to cook, you can plan for specific meals for them to make.
I’d love to hear your thoughts and tweaks if you try this out!