If you have never been much of a meal planner, I encourage you to grab a cup of something steaming and delicious, and sit down to join me as I discuss how I use meal planning to keep our meals cheap and nutritious!

There are two things that I really love about meal planning:
1) It helps me to be purposeful in what my family is eating, in order
to meet nutritional needs by including a wide variety of foods and by
seeing where I can improve our menus.
2) It helps me to keep costs low, by reducing waste, planning ahead, taking advantage of sales and seasonal deal, etc.

That said, allow me to explain how it works for me:

One of the best things I did for my meal planning a couple years ago was to sift through all of my recipes and cookbooks, and to make a list of healthy meals that my family enjoyed. It took me quite a few hours to compose, but it has been worthwhile. One of my future projects is to actually revamp the list, in light of changing eating habits, new favorite recipes, etc. By creating this list, you are already on your way to making meal planning simple and stress free!

When I go to meal plan at the beginning of a 2 week period, I will sit down with this list (and with my newer cookbooks, whose recipes haven’t been added to the list yet), and begin to look for recipes that sound interesting. A few things that I keep in mind as I chose are:

  • What foods are seasonally available and at their cheapest right now? Fresh greens and tomatoes and peppers in summer, root vegetables and squash and potatoes in winter, etc.
  • How complex are the recipes I am choosing? I don’t mind a couple of more time intensive recipes each week, but I prefer most of them to be relatively simple- there should be a balance.
  • What do I currently have stocked up in my freezer and pantry? For the most party, I use the "pantry principle" (can’t remember where I heard that term, but I like it), preferring to stock up my non-perishables according to what deals I have and what extra money I have in my budget to purchase items in bulk, etc. This way I am always using items that I have gotten for the best bargain, rather than being ruled by my menu plan and having to purchase items at their most expensive.
  • Nutritional balance- do I have a good mix of recipes using different protein sources (beef, chicken, fish, legumes- each around 1-2 times a week)? This helps us to get a variety of nutrients, as well as keeps the budget more manageable with some vegetarian meals thrown into the mix.

Based on these criteria, I choose 7 meals and arrange them according to our weekly schedule (I may choose a crock-pot meal for a Sunday or a day when we will be out for part of the day, or need to find a cost-effective but delicious meal to serve to a family that we will be hosting, etc.). These days are not set in stone, either. If I forgot to take out the meat or cook the beans for a particular meal, I will simply switch days. I try not to do this very often, but I don’t allow myself to get stressed out about the need to do this once in a while. My meal plan should serve me, not the other way around!

Here are some suggestions to get you going:

  1. Sit down and pull out all your cookbooks.
  2. As you leaf through them, begin to make a list of the recipes that your family likes the best (keeping nutrition in mind), and mark the page and book that they are from.
  3. Store your list in your planner, homemaking binder, or start a new menu planning binder if you prefer. Just somewhere safe and useful, where you will always be able to find it.

That is your assignment for today! Come back tomorrow for a continuation of this menu planning post…

(And go visit Frugal Friday for more great tips!)