7 Steps to Organized Meal Planning for Crisis Time or Anytime
I have been thinking about blogging about meal planning for a while. With the coronavirus pandemic currently a part of our everyday lives, there isn’t a better time to talk about it.
I’ve been a Professional Organizer for eighteen years. I’m also the ‘head chef’ in my family. One of the most vital organizing systems I’ve created in my home is the meal planning I do for my family.
Why do I meal plan?
I grew up with my mom planning our meals–I witnessed the benefits of planning ahead. As a single woman (an elementary school teacher living on a tight budget) I shopped, packed my own lunches, and planned dinners according to the needs of my schedule. Now, as a wife and mom, good nutrition, multiple family food allergies, and a busy lifestyle make meal planning a necessity to stay on top of our food needs.
Why is it important to meal plan?
We eat every day. Multiple times a day. To live. There’s no getting around that…
Anything we do multiple times a day, every day should have some kind of automation so we don’t have to constantly be thinking about it.
Meal Planning is a multi-step system and organizing strategy designed to take the every-day-multiple-times-a-day thought process of ‘what-are-we-going-to-eat?’ out of your head and put it onto paper or your favorite digital tool.
You want to avoid organizing your sock drawer–OK. I’ll give that to you. But, please–don’t avoid meal planning. Especially now.
Why is it important to meal plan NOW?
In the time of coronavirus, food shopping is considered an essential trip outside of your home. For safety reasons, we’re supposed to stay out of public spaces as much as possible. This is not the time to be running to the grocery store for a forgotten ingredient or because you can’t think of what to cook for dinner.
Meal planning is a time management strategy but now, it is also a safety measure that will ensure you spend as little time as possible food shopping in public. You’ll also know exactly what recipes you’ll be making, what foods you’ll be eating, and when you’ll be eating them–one less thing to think about every day when we have so many other recent lifestyle changes to juggle.
*If you currently do most or all of your food shopping online due to age, illness or personal choice, it’s even more important to take the time to create a meal plan for you and your family.
If you’re a beginner to meal planning (or any other organizing) I advise you to start small, start easy, and start where you are. I want you to have the tools necessary for meal planning–not only for the sake of good nutrition, saving money and time, but also to keep you safe.
What are the benefits to meal planning?
Besides promoting healthier eating, meal planning saves you time, money, and stress.
With meal planning, there’s no need to take time out of your day to run to the market, find a parking spot, grab a few items, stand on line, come home and eat later than you wanted to. Meal planning will put hours back into your life!
With a meal planning system in place, there’s no need to pull out a menu and order last minute takeout–often more expensive than a home-cooked meal. Fewer trips to the store mean fewer opportunities for impulse shopping which can add up to hundreds of dollars a year. With many people out of work at this time, meal planning is a necessary part of tightening up a budget.
This coronavirus pandemic is causing us to feel more stressed than usual. Our brains are working on overdrive. With that being said–we HAVE to eat. But, we don’t have to keep all that food-knowledge in our head. Meal planning takes the everyday decision-making out of your brain.
“Your mind is meant for having ideas, not for holding them,” says David Allen (the founder of the Getting Things Done work-life management system). Bluntly said, (by me)–your brain is not a storage device! We already have enough swirling around up there–we shouldn’t keep any more information up there than we need to!
Are you ready to learn how to meal plan? Great! Follow the steps to help you get organized for meal planning…
My Seven Step System for Meal Planning:
Step 1: Do a Brain Dump
Take four separate pieces of paper. Write the word ‘breakfast’ one one, ‘lunch’ on the next piece, ‘dinner’ on the third, and ‘snacks’ at the top of the fourth piece of paper.
Take a few minutes to do a ‘brain dump’ of what meals/snacks you like to eat and write them on the appropriate papers.
breakfast = almond butter on a bagel, blueberry pancakes, and syrup, cereal with milk and fruit
lunch = chicken nuggets and french fries, turkey sandwiches and chips, cheese sticks with crackers and baby carrots
dinner = chicken cutlets/steam-in-bag veggies/rice, spaghetti and meatballs
snacks = dried apricots, Oreo cookies, pretzel rods
Step 2: Ask for Ideas
Gather the members of your household and ask them to brainstorm their favorite meals in each of the categories and add them to the appropriate lists.
Everyone eats? Everyone gets a say!
*In the time of coronavirus–remember to also list out meals you may be cooking for/delivering to family and friends. You’ll need to add those ingredients to your shopping list, too.
Step 3: Start Meal Planning
Now that you’ve written down meals that everyone likes to eat, it’s time to start meal planning!
Two things to consider:
what recipes you want to make
how many days you want to plan for–two? Five? A whole week?
It’s now time to take out a new piece of paper (to plan out your meals) and consult those four pieces of paper from Step 1 and Step 2 for ideas on what meals to plan for.
As an example, let’s create a one-day sample meal plan using the meals from above:
breakfast: cereal with milk and fruit
lunch: turkey sandwiches and chips
dinner: spaghetti and meatballs
Next, make a list of foods in each meal:
breakfast = Cheerios, almond milk, raisins, banana
lunch = sliced turkey, rye bread, lettuce, mustard, Baked Lays
dinner = box of spaghetti/sauce/chop meat for meatballs/garlic & butter/Italian bread/salad items (lettuce, cucumber, etc.)
snacks = Rold Gold pretzel rods
Whether it’s one day or a whole week, do the above exercise for each day you are planning meals for.
*It’s important during this coronavirus crisis that you be in the supermarket as infrequently as possible for everyone’s safety. Please try your hand at planning out a few of your meals. If you’re not used to doing much cooking or meal planning, start off planning for 1-2 days and slowly work your way up to a week’s worth of meals. Don’t stress about this–start where you are.
Step 4: Take Inventory
After listing out all the food items you’ll need for the meals you’re planning to make, it’s time to take inventory and see if you already have the ingredients for those meals. Take the list from Step 3 and a pen and carry it to your fridge, freezer, and pantry area(s). If you already have the item at home, circle it on your list–no need to buy it (unless you want to stock up on more while at the store). Any items not circled will be added later to your Shopping List.
*If you’re using a specific recipe, take time to review it to determine what ingredients you’ll need.
Step 5: Shop at Home
You don’t always have to start from scratch. Meal planning can also start at home. It’s a time, money, and stress saver to meal plan with…
items that are about to turn green and fuzzy in your fridge
items that have been in your freezer long enough to have a few ice crystals on them
items in your pantry that are about to expire
items on sale at the supermarket
Maybe you have mushrooms that have 1-2 days left in them. Plan to make mushroom omelets for lunch or chop the mushrooms into the sauce to go over spaghetti and meatballs. Or, maybe on page 3 of your supermarket’s sale circular, you see that chicken cutlets are on sale. Consider buying enough to make chicken-based meals once a week for a month.
Add these ‘shop at home’ and ‘supermarket sale’ options to your meal plan for the next few days. This is not the time to let food go to waste!
Step 6: Put it on your Calendar
There’s a famous time management quote that says, “What gets scheduled–gets done.” Let’s combine that with David Allen’s quote from above about how your brain is not a storage room. Take your meal planning ideas out of your head and put them on your calendar!
What day do you want to make that spaghetti and meatball dinner? What day next week do you have a 4 pm Zoom call?
Take out your calendar and organize those meals you just spent time planning for.
Some things to consider…
Do you want to eat meat and vegetarian meals on alternating days?
Do you want to create ‘theme nights’ such as Meatless Monday and Taco Tuesday?
Which days do you want to cook? Which days would you prefer to support a local restaurant with a take-out meal?
Do you think you’ll have enough food for a ‘leftovers night?’
All good questions to ask yourself while scanning your calendar and meal planning for the days of the week ahead of you.
*In the future (after the coronavirus pandemic is over) your schedule may include days/nights where you’re working late, your son has to be at baseball practice, or your daughter has a dance class. Check your calendar for those events and plan to make on-the-go and quick-prep meals (or takeout) on those days.
Step 7: Make Your Shopping List
You’re ready to make your shopping list! Grab a long piece of paper or your phone (whichever you prefer) and start listing out the foods you’ll be needing to purchase for your pre-determined amount of meals.
Here are two ways to do this:
List out your foods by category (an easy place to start–especially for beginners)
List out your foods by supermarket aisle (for advanced meal planers and/or those who are familiar with the aisles of the stores they shop in).
Listing foods on your shopping list by category can look like this:
Ex: spaghetti and meatball dinner from above (with a box of spaghetti already in your pantry)
Cans/Jars/Boxes: spaghetti sauce
Bread: Italian bread
Meat: 1.5 – 2 lb package of 85/15 ground beef
Produce: lettuce, cucumber, fresh garlic
Listing foods on your shopping list by supermarket aisle can resemble this (using my local ShopRite as an example):
Ex: spaghetti and meatball dinner from above (with a box of spaghetti already in your pantry)
lettuce, cucumber, fresh garlic (my store opens into the produce section)
1.5 – 2 lb. package of 85/15 ground beef
butter (dairy is the last aisle in my store)
This infographic spells out the basics…
Congratulations! You’re a meal planner! The more often you do it, the easier it will become–I promise! And over time, you will notice your meal planning efforts saving you time, money, and stress–now in crisis time and anytime.
Be safe. Be healthy. Be a meal planner!
This content was originally published here.