Meal Planning 101

I’ve been meal planning off and on for the last several years and during that time I've done a lot of searching for pre-planned weekly meal plans that I could simply follow along with… and I have found some pretty good ones along the way.  The problem is that the few I had found that I could follow "pretty" closely were for just 1 week or at best 4 weeks - I need a little more variety than that.  And I’m guessing that, like me, most of you are here more for a little inspiration rather than an intent to follow my plans exactly.  So, whether you're tweaking one of my existing weeks or starting from scratch here are some things that I find work well for me:

1) Get some inspiration - and keep track of it! 
If you're flipping through a magazine, browsing through Pinterest, or craving one of your favorites, find somewhere to jot your ideas down.  I use the memo feature on my phone if inspiration hits while I'm out and about, I have a "Recipes to Try" board on Pinterest and I dog-ear magazines.  When it's time to meal plan I gather up all my inspirational sources so that all those ideas are fresh in my mind.

2) Check your fridge and the flyers
Are there any ingredients in your fridge that have to be used up?  Anything on sale at your favorite grocery store?  Did you take a trip to your local farmers market and pick up something new to try?  If so, browse your favorite recipe sources to find meals to incorporate those ingredients.

3) Determine how many meals you're planning for
Lunch and Learn at work?  Anniversary supper?  Scratch off any days that you know you don't have to cook!

4) Pick the right number of lunches or suppers from your inspiration list
Keep in mind recipes that will make enough for 2 meals.
Note:  I have stopped here, picking up the ingredients I need for these meals and then just cooking them as I go, making what I'm in the mood for (or feeling up to preparing) at the time.  If you do this make sure to keep your list posted somewhere that you can easily refer back to.  Also, beware that you might be missing out of some opportunities to cut corners.  For example, if you're having rice for supper one night and again for lunch in the next day or two you could double your rice and save yourself a step down the road.

5) Use a template to map out when you'll eat what
Using a template, like the one below, plan out when you're going to have each meal.  Before you start filling in the meals jot down what's going on each day (eg. Soccer practice at 6 - need something quick!).  Once you have all the blanks filled in do a mental review of each day to see if you need to juggle anything around.  For example would it work better if you had the chicken salad sandwich the day after you have chicken for supper?
Don't forget breakfast and snacks.  Even if you have cereal every morning for breakfast and an apple and granola bar every day for snacks make sure they are noted somewhere on your plan so that they don't get forgotten on your grocery list.

6) Plan out any preparations that can be done ahead of time
This is key to making the most of your time!  Can you precut anything for the next day?  Marinate some meat?  Pre-measure and mix spices?  Can you make extra of anything (chicken, rice, pasta, etc...) to use later in the week?  This will save you time and also help you feel less frazzled trying to get supper on the table.

7) Make a list and check it twice!
Write down ALL the ingredients you need to make each recipe in your plan.  Make sure if the same ingredient is used more than once that you note a sufficient quantity.  Once your list is made do a walk-through of your kitchen and cross off anything you already have.
Tip:  I find it useful to break my grocery list into departments (Produce, Deli, Meat, Dairy, etc...) to make grocery shopping easier.  I've attached a template below.  This way before I leave one department I can double-check my list and hopefully save myself some back-tracking!

8) Post your meal plan somewhere visible
Make sure your meal plan is not just tossed on your counter where it might be scooped up with recycling.  Post it somewhere where the whole family can see it!