How I meal plan

Grocery shopping isn’t easy. I like aspects of grocery shopping—mainly, the shopping part. Buying stuff will always be fun for me. The thrill of putting things in the cart, the triumph I feel when I actually find the wheat germ in the country grocery store, the way my heart beats faster when I see Ben & Jerry’s is on sale this week. But the fact that grocery shopping is also a necessary, unavoidable chore is what makes it truly unappealing.

I wrote last year about shopping with a toddler, and it’s overwhelming at best. At worst, it’s stressful, anxiety-ridden, and panic-attack-inducing. So I grocery shop every two weeks. And I find the question I always ask when people say things like this is, “How does she do it?” How do I cook healthy meals for my family every night if I’m only shopping every 14 days? The short answer is: I don’t. The long answer is: I plan ahead, give myself a break once in a while, and my husband helps with the cooking when I’m not home.

I made a biweekly menu planning template for meal planning that I wanted to share with you here. It has space to fill in the date and what meal you’re making for dinner. I don’t plan lunches but usually keep bread, lunch meat, PB&J, frozen chicken nuggets, and SpaghettiOs on hand. You can see now how little I care about lunch. But seriously. When I’m going all-out to cook a meal at night (remembering to defrost the chicken ahead of time is a feat in itself), you can bet I’ll be doing as little as possible to feed my family the rest of the day. Given enough chances, three-year-olds can learn to pour their own cereal. My seven-year-old knows how to grab a granola bar from the pantry on his way to school. I’ll admit to using the microwave to heat up the Easy Mac but that’s only because my kids aren’t tall enough to reach it. The best lunch is one you eat at a restaurant.

Anyway, here’s how this works. At the beginning of the shopping week, I sit down at my desk and pull out my calendar. On my meal template, I mark the evenings I’m working or when we won’t be home for dinner. I work three nights a week and we eat out usually once every two weeks. This means I have to worry about cooking seven out of every fourteen nights. When I’m not home I assign easy things for Chris to make, like tacos, spaghetti, or hamburgers. Not always the healthiest or most creative, but let’s be honest, kids like these meals and they’re quick to make. I’d rather save the battles over beef stroganoff or pistachio-crusted chicken breast for when I’m home and can help with the defense.

Next I pull out my recipes. I should have a recipe binder, but I’m lazy, so I keep my recipes archived in my e-mail inbox and in a thick file folder in my desk drawer. I also have a list written down in my planner of go-tos that I’m comfortable with (i.e., made enough times before not to be overwhelmed by them) and a couple well-loved cookbooks. I pull from our old favorites and try to choose a couple of new ones that seem healthy and appealing. I find the best recipes from magazines like Cooking Light, EveryDay with Rachael Ray, and Real Simple.

Finally, I make my grocery list. I also have a template for this that’s categorized by area of the store (i.e., Meat, Dairy, Alcohol) and I go through each recipe and type in what I need. We keep a running list of necessities on the fridge and I add those to the grocery template as well.

This whole process, from looking at the calendar, going through my recipes, and making my grocery list, takes me about an hour. But people, I have to tell you it’s so worth it. I would rather spend an hour planning meals once every two weeks than be scrambling around in the evenings trying to throw together a half-assed dinner that my family may or may not eat. I’ve done that, I’m not good at it, and for me, it creates unnecessary stress.

Next week I’ll share a sample meal plan so you can get an idea of how much I actually cook and what we eat each night.

What do you think? Is it worth it to plan your meals?