There are lots of great reasons to meal plan. Some reasons for meal planning:
- helps keep food costs within a budget,
- reduces decision-making fatigue,
- minimizes time spent spinning wheels with daily food preparation,
- increases the probability that someone will consume healthier food choices,
- enables those with special dietary needs to satisfy the specific constraints or obligations of their dietary needs, and
- reduces the number of purchases required to put food on the table in edible form (particularly grocery store purchases).
Then there are some not so great reasons to meal plan, such as having a plan for the thrill of trampling it in the mud (I like to pretend I’m a rebel). Regardless of why you want to meal plan, there are lots of good tools and good tutorials out there on how to meal plan. However, after trying many different systems or tools and with a considerable amount of trial and error, I’ve finally found a system that works for me. Other people’s printable worksheets were immensely helpful to me as I was learning. I also used fancy app-based systems, but the startup process was too time intensive for me. I’ve also used the services that do meal planning for me, but I wasn’t able to use them to their highest value, so I quit paying for things I wasn’t using. Nowadays, I use Microsoft Excel. I’ve got it installed on my computer, already paid for. And by saving files, in a few months time, I won’t even have to do major meal planning work because the seasonal stuff will have cycled back around.
The five phases of my meal planning process:
- Inventory/Stock management
- Listing dishes and recipes (aka the library)
- Executing the plan
1. Inventory/Stock management
This is a phase consisting of two parts. First, go through the fridge and pantry to discard spoiled and expired foods. Second, update the inventory sheet to accurately reflect what is on hand.
2. Listing dishes and recipes
This phase is pretty intensive in the first planning period or two because you’re starting from scratch, but after a while, you’re merely adding a few seasonal dishes to your established list of tried and true favorites. I like to start off with 10 to 20 dishes (I’m a big believer in “one pot” dinners) and then add a couple every time I meal plan or get pinspired. But if you like being an entree and two sides kind of meal preparer, the spreadsheets give you the flexibility to do that too.
For me, this is the step that always takes the longest because I do a month at a time. First, I go in and block off the dates I know I don’t have to prepare meals for whatever reason. Then on the days I know I won’t have the time or energy to actually cook dinner or clean in the evening, I plug in frozen pizza (about once a week; I get a supreme so there are some token veggies). Because pizza doesn’t provide leftovers, I plug in some of the dishes my husband has cooked and frozen in for lunches the day after we have frozen pizza for dinner. Then I go through the remainder of the calendar and select a dish from my list that I can prepare for dinner in the time I think I will have available and plug it in for a dinner and lunch the next day. Rinse and repeat that last step as many times as necessary until the planning period has been completed.
At this point, I take a printout of the inventory sheet and the calendar and put tally marks for each item I need to buy to create my shopping list. Then I go and shop. Come home and put everything away.
5. Executing the plan
Print out a copy of the meal calendar and keep in the kitchen. Because of the steady features of this system of meal planning, if something unexpected comes up, I can look down the calendar for the first meal that I can prepare in the time I have available and draw arrows to indicate I’m making an on-the-fly switch. Because of the system in place for the first four phases, there is rarely a need for a last-minute run to the grocery store.
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Meal Planning with Spreadsheets
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