Meal Planning 101

By Emily Hulse, MS

Recently, I was asked to give a lesson to a church youth group on the topic of Meal Planning Tips.  This took me a little bit back to my days of when I worked at UNL Extension with the Nutrition Education Program (NEP); we did a lot of lessons with both groups and individuals on this important topic.  Regardless of age and stage of life, I think that meal planning is an area in which everyone is open to more ideas and tips (including myself).

Here’s my top 5 tips:

1. WRITE IT DOWN! – The weeks where my “menu” chalkboard on my pantry door is blank and looks like it does in the picture below are disasters when it comes to successful, healthy family meal times.  The weeks where I don’t plan out my meals and then write it down, are weeks where we end up eating out more often than we would like, making multiple trips to the grocery store with kiddos in tow, and cause me more stress overall.  Plan your meals out at least one week at a time and find the best place for you to write it down.

Menu planner

2. PLAN YOUR MEALS AROUND THE GROCERY ADS, MAKE A LIST, AND SHOP ONCE A WEEK! – In Extension NEP terms, we would call it “Stretching your Food Dollar.”  How do you make your monthly food budget go further?  Well, one way is to look at the weekly grocery ads and plan you meals around what is on sale.  It’s common to hear “but fruits and vegetables are so expensive” – I always tell people every week though there is certain produce that is in season and is on sale.  When looking at the grocery ads and planning around them, we can see what food is on sale and see what recipes those could be included in.  The other week I was in a hurry and made the mistake of not making a list and writing down the ingredients needed for my planned recipes –  just took my cookbook along to the store.  Well, needless to say I think the trip to the grocery store took twice as long as usual (my husband teased me when I got home and asked me how many of my friends I saw at the store that night) because I was flipping back and forth between the pages of the cookbook and having to go back and forth across the grocery store.  I told him it was b/c I didn’t have a grocery list made up beforehand.  Also, I find that if I go to the store once a week (instead of multiple times) I spend less money b/c I don’t grab other unnecessary items every time I run into the store meaning to just grab an item or two quick.  The other reason is when I try to purchase produce for more than one week at a time – some of it seems to go bad so that’s why I buy fruits and vegetables for one week at a time.

3. ASSIGN THEMES TO EACH DAY OF THE WEEK! – Often times it seems like many people get overwhelmed with trying to come up with a weekly planned menu.  Thinking where do I start?  There’s too many recipes to look at on Pinterest or in my oodles of cookbooks.  One tip I have is to assign each day some sort of “theme” and this helps you narrow down your options for coming up with a recipe for that particular day.  For example, Sunday is normally my crockpot day, one of the days a week is some type of soup/sandwich combo, another day of the week is normally a meatless meal day (which helps stretch your food dollar too – by doing something with beans, eggs, etc.), one day a week is a salad night, etc.  It’s helpful b/c then I know okay this week I need to decide on one crockpot recipe, one soup recipe, one meatless recipe, one salad, etc. This changes depending on the season usually too.  For example, in the spring/summer, I have more grilling “themed” days and not soup and such.  Also, take into account your work/family schedule when assigning these themes to the different days.  For example, I do my crockpot and meatless meal recipes on our busiest nights of the week.

4. COOK ONCE, EAT TWICE! – Plan your meals based around key foods that are prepared in larger amounts for use in one recipe the first night and then an entirely different recipe within the next night or two.  This is different from making large batches and just eating leftovers.  For example, yesterday I cooked a turkey breast and we had sliced turkey and sweet potatoes. Tonight, we are using that turkey to make grilled turkey wraps. This tip helps save you time – which is something all of us need more of, right?

5. PREP WHAT YOU CAN AHEAD OF TIME! – Normally most of us have our really busy, busy days and then maybe a few days a week that aren’t quite as jam packed.  On those days, take advantage of the few extra minutes you have and prep what ingredients you can ahead of time.  For instance, the other week I mixed up all of the dry ingredients for some pancake mixes (pictured below) to have on hand and put them in a Ziploc bag so I just had to add the liquid ingredients when I went to make them for a quick meal.  I also mixed up all of the dry seasonings for my turkey and placed them in a container the night before so that the morning before church I could hurry and get the turkey in the oven.  Or it might be browning your hamburger meat the night before to use in a pasta bake the next day.

Food saving

Happy Meal Planning!

        What tips do you have to share?  We would love to hear them.


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