I can usually search through the freezer and pantry and pull together some sort of meal, but I find it stressful not to have at least a basic meal plan for the week.
Styles of Meal Planning
You might find you fit into more than one of these, depending on the week.
Daily Decision/Eating Out - This is where you decide each day what you want to make and run to the grocery store for anything you need to make the meal. Or, you just pick something up for your meal. This could be take-out for dinner, a quick run for a fast food lunch, or breakfast out of a vending machine.
Super Pantry - This is when you keep a very big stash of food in the pantry and freezer so you know you can pull together several meals. Your pantry rivals a small grocery store.
Loose Planner - This is my most common method. You make a list of the meals you have the ingredients for. You then just choose from the list when you have to decide what's for dinner.
Calendar Planner - Not only do you make a list of meals, but you know exactly what day you will be having each meal. This is helpful if you have a busy schedule. Sometimes this is necessary because on busy nights you need quick meals, other nights you have time to do more cooking. And, it allows you to plan for the reuse of leftovers.
Which Style Is Best?
Obviously, there is a time and a place for each style. Each one has its pros and cons.
Daily Decision/Eating Out - This is nice when you find yourself craving a particular food at the end of the work day or when you feel exhausted and just need to order pizza. However, this method can lead to wasted time stopping for groceries several times during the week, overspending (because we never only buy what we came for) and often leads to some unhealthy eating.
Super Pantry - I love having my freezer and pantry stocked well enough that I can skip a trip to the grocery store and still be able to pull a few meals together. However, the food that lives well in the pantry is often processed, so you must pay close attention to what you are stocking up on. There is also a high likelihood of food waste. If you've ever cleaned out the pantry and ended up with a box full of expired foods, you know what I mean.
Loose Planner - I love the flexibility of having planned meals, but still knowing I can pick and choose when I want to make them, depending on time and mood. This is my favorite method because I love having options. However, when making this list, you do still have to consider the calendar to be sure there is a combination of quick meals and more complicated meals. This method can cause an issue if you have fresh ingredients that don't get used in time, and you may miss out on some opportunities to repurpose leftovers.
Calendar Planner - There was a time in my life when I used this religiously, and I still do it quite often now. It allows me to prioritize meals that use perishable food, be sure quick meals are scheduled for nights when we have plans and leftovers can be planned for reuse as lunch or a new dinner.
How Do I Meal Plan?
1) During Summer and Fall, I stop by the Farmer's Market and buy what looks good.
2) I then take inventory of what's in the freezer and pantry, making note of anything I need to use up before it expires.
3) I look at the calendar to see how busy we will be in the upcoming week. Noting any days I can make bigger meals or cook ahead, as well as evenings when I know we need quick meals.
4) I consider easy breakfast options (oatmeal, yogurt, eggs).
5) Depending on what's going on, I decide what style of planning I need for the week.
6) I come up with 3-4 lunch/dinner ideas and make a shopping list. If possible, make extra servings of dinner to use as lunch the next day.
7) If I am using the Loose Planner style, I post the list of meals on the fridge. If I'm using the Calendar Planner style, I write the meals on the calendar.
Meal Planner Printable
I created this simple Meal Planner Printable for you. Okay, in truth, I made it for myself...but then I had a friend make it pretty for you.
This printable gives you a place to think through the ingredients you have on hand, plan the meals and write out your shopping list so you can be sure you have everything you need to avoid unplanned grocery runs. If there is a particular recipe you plan to make, make a note of it on the back so when the time comes you can easily find it.
Decision fatigue is a real thing. We have so many choices to make every day, it can be exhausting. If decision fatigue plagues you when it comes to choosing dinner options, I have a few suggestions.
1) Make a list of some of your favorite meals. Just list them out. Include links to recipes if that is helpful. Then when you are trying to decide what meals to have for the week, just pick a few off the list. You might have a Summer list and a Winter list if you eat seasonally. I bet you can easily come up with 25 meals in less than 10 minutes. Spend a little more time and come up with 50.
A few years ago I bought a recipe box and began to write out our go-to recipes. Many of these are not dishes that I actually need a recipe for, but it acts as my list of meals when I need inspiration and also allows other family members to make dinner.
2) Have a weekly meal pattern. Something like this:
One pot Thursday
New Recipe Saturday
Then when you sit down to meal plan, you have an outline. I'm not saying eat the same vegetarian dish every Monday or the same taco every Tuesday. Be creative. (Taco ideas - regular ground beef tacos, fish tacos, pulled pork tacos, shrimp tacos, black bean & butternut squash tacos).
3) Planned leftovers. Every weekend, cook a couple of big meals that will feed you through the week. Maybe a big lasagna and a pot of soup. Maybe a pot roast and chili. Decide and cook once, then eat all week long.
I Would Love to Hear From You
Let me know in comments how you meal plan.