Let’s just clarify one thing straight away: this is not going to be the blog post that tells you how to engage in excessive meal planning, prepping, and investing lots of time and effort into a Pinterest-worthy routine.
This is, however, going to give you a simple method for meal planning that you can adapt to fit your lifestyle and needs. We’re all busy. Many of us live on a tight budget. So if you want to begin this healthy habit and not feel like you’re adding an extra burden, keep reading!
But First, Why Is Meal Planning Even Important?
Simple meal planning has several proven benefits, including positive impacts on your budget, your physical health, and the environment! Let’s briefly unpack each one.
Saves You Money!
On average, Americans eat commercially-prepared meals about 4 times per week. If you cut that in half and eat out 2 times each week, you save nearly $1,000 per year! Another way to look at the data is realizing individual Americans spend an average of $3,000 every year eating out… All those $10 lunches really add up throughout the weeks… And you’re being way overcharged. In order to make a profit, restaurants (including take-out) charge about 300% markup on their food. You’re paying for the convenience of their services for something you could often make at home for WAY less money. (read more about eating out and saving money here)
Better Physical and Mental Health!
It’s no secret that eating out is usually not the healthiest choice. Especially when relying on fast-food for convenience and cheaper options. Processed food and food cooked at restaurants often have more fats, sugars, and sodium than we would have at home. This adds to the addictive nature of these foods. It’s also harder to eat balanced portions when we’re served a certain amount of food and want to indulge.
Research has shown that problematic ingredients used in fast food and restaurants are frequently linked with many health issues. Just to name a few: high blood pressure, headaches, food-related acne and eczema, Type 2 Diabetes, weight gain, bloating, a cloudy mind (trouble focusing), depression, reproductive issues, cavities, and more! (learn more here)
By using the guide below, you’ll be able to give your body more of what it actually needs. Having a plan will also save you time and energy in the long run. What you’re going to eat will be one less thing to worry about!
And trust me, nothing tastes as good as healthy eating feels.
Caring for the Environment!
In 2017, Americans threw away over 38 million tons of food. A crazy majority of this food was still edible and could have been donated to those in need. Social justice and environmental justice are directly linked, and it’s vastly important to reduce our food waste. This conserves the many resources we all rely on to live, reduces methane emissions from landfills (which means cleaner air and water), as well as shares our abundance with others. (learn more here)
And that doesn’t even touch on the excessive packaging problem!
When you meal-plan, you reduce the risk of wasting food AND can make smarter decisions about packaging. If you’re able, you can opt to buy in bulk (cheaper, too!), buy in sustainable packaging (glass, metal, paper, etc), and/or buy more raw foods that don’t even need packaging! If you’re ready to take a step further, you could even buy your ingredients from some local suppliers. This way you’re supporting the local economy and reducing the carbon footprint of your food — traveling shorter distances to get to your plate.
5 Basic Steps For Simple Meal Planning
I’m a busy person — Kevin and I work, we’re expecting a baby in October, we have family and friends nearby… Sometimes, paying for the convenience of eating out feels worth it, right? I get it. I’m not going to tell you to never eat out. That’s not even reasonable advice that I would follow myself.
(psst… wanna hear some of my wasteful confessions??)
However, I do know from years of experience how much better Kevin and I feel when we take the time to eat healthy, how much money we save in the months where we limit eating out, and I’m acutely aware of how much better it is for the environment.
SO, I’ve created a simple meal planning routine that has helped me greatly and will hopefully help you, too! Take the 5 basics below, adjust to your life as necessary, and then the key to success is: PRACTICE. Stick with it. Give it your best. When you feel like you’ve failed, fail in a forward motion and don’t give up. No one’s perfect, but any progress will ultimately pay off!
1. Schedule A Time To Plan
This doesn’t have to take long… But if you don’t make the time to plan, the rest of this whole meal planning thing kinda falls apart. 😉 I like to plan on Sundays. It’s the beginning of my week and I typically know what we’re going to be doing. You may prefer to plan out the whole month at once, but I’m typically not that on top of things. Planning once a week for about 15 minutes works well for me. When is best for you?
2. Shop My Pantry First and Choose My Meals
These two parts are interchangeable. I like to shop my pantry first, then choose my meals for the week. I used to just write down whatever meals we wanted for the week without the first step. But then I found myself buying a lot of ingredients and not using them all.
If you “shop your pantry” — look through your own cupboards, fridge and freezer first — you may be surprised by how many ingredients you already own that could be used up. Once you’ve taken note of this, you can easily hop onto Pinterest (or read actual cookbooks 😉 ) and find some recipes that will use some of those things you already own. Now you’re ready to make your plan and you’ve already saved yourself money and food waste in the process!
Example: If I already have two cans of black beans in my cupboard, a tomato and some rice, then I could easily plan to make burrito bowls one night and only need to buy a few more ingredients!
3. Write Down Your Meal Plan
Once you’ve saved those recipes, you can write down the meals you plan to make for the week. I tend to keep this in my phone using my Notes app, but you could easily use a calendar, regular pencil and paper, or try one of these apps! You are the person who knows you best, so go with what feels natural.
Here are some quick tips for writing out your meal plan:
- Keep breakfast simple: if you don’t mind eating the same breakfast or two throughout the week, it’s less for you to buy and worry about.
- I like to make enough food for dinner so that we have leftovers for lunch the next day! Then I can count on lunches being prepared for the week already, but I don’t need to eat the same meal more than two days in a row.
- Leave some flex spaces: I typically plan for 5 dinners (with leftovers for 5 lunches) a week, knowing that we’ll usually go out 1-2 times or eat something simple, like cereal.
- Don’t forget to plan for snacks! This helps to prevent eating out impulsively when you’re on the go and hungry.
4. Create Your Shopping List Based On Your Plan
This step is super important in saving you money and caring for the environment. If you’ve taken note of the ingredients you already own, then you only need to buy the food necessary to complete your plan. I like to add my shopping list under the meal plan for the week on my phone. This makes it easy for me to keep the plan in mind while at the grocery store.
5. Shop And Stick To Your List
Voila! It’s as simple as that. Of course, this takes time to build the habit and it takes discipline to really stick with your list while shopping. But, the more you practice and stay consistent, the more it will become a routine! (Plus, I’d give you bonus environmental points if you bring your own bags and stay mindful about the packaging you buy while shopping! 😉 )
If you’re ready for more money-saving hacks and eco-friendly tips, try adding some of these into your routine:
Add an extra step to plan around weekly sales at your store and/or planning with coupons. If you shop your own pantry first and then find good deals on some of the ingredients you still need to buy at the store, you’ve already saved yourself more money!
Stock up on staple items. There are certain things we always keep in the house because they’re used so frequently (rice, beans, oats, nuts, etc). Chances are, you may be able to find many of these ingredients in the bulk section or in bigger quantities so you can stock up and save money! If you’re shopping from bulk bins, don’t forget to bring your own bags.
When you buy snacks, divide them up once you get home to make them easy to grab as you run out the door! Making a couple to-go baggies/containers (reusable, if you can) takes only a few minutes but saves you in those hangry moments later…
Got leftovers you don’t want to eat for lunch the next day? Freeze them! Then you can enjoy that meal another time and nothing is wasted.
If you end up with extra ingredients somehow (like when I totally forget to add that tomato into my burrito bowls), just add it into your next planning cycle when you “shop your pantry” once more. If it’s a scrappy amount or on the edge of wilting, see if you could add it into a smoothie or banana bread or make your own veggie broth, etc.
Another added step that saves SO much time later is doing a little prepping ahead of time. For example, when you’re unloading your groceries, set some veggies aside to wash and chop up before putting them in the fridge so they’ll be ready as soon as you need to cook! It’s totally up to you how much you want / are able to prep, but the more you can do in one day, the more you’ll be thanking yourself later.
Finally, if you have the room in your budget and it would save you more time, consider investing in a delivery meal kit service. They’re becoming super popular these days, and many have great options for any dietary restrictions. Of course, I would recommend searching for some in your area that partner up with local businesses to bring you fresh food with a lower environmental impact.
Need some more inspiration and guidance around living sustainably within the kitchen? Check out my related blog posts below!
- Zero Waste Grocery Shopping
- Storing Food Without Plastic and Keeping It Fresh Longer
- How To Support Local Farmers
- What Are Food Deserts and How To Help
Save Money, Eat Healthy, Benefit The Planet
Like I said before, any habit takes time to build — so give yourself some grace. Perfection is not the goal, but balance is attainable. You can do this! Keep trying until you find what works for you and then it’ll become just another routine. I’m betting you’ll find this meal planning habit to be totally worth it after only ONE month. You’ll be able to reflect on how much money you saved, how you physically/mentally feel, and how much waste you personally diverted from the landfills.
Have you given this a try? What have you found? Do you have any meal planning hacks to share? Let us know below!