Guide to Fast and Easy Meal Planning

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I have tried and failed at long term traditional meal planning.
  1. It takes so much time – which I never have enough of.
  2. Using other people’s recipes – I can never find the right ingredients and spend so much time trying to find a substitute…
  3. Or the ingredients they recommend are way too expensive for our budget.
  4. Plus we have two particular eaters in our family that prefer their favorites.

Meal planning on a diet is a time suck

Most times I’ve tried meal planning based on whatever diet I’m trying, but cooking two different menus means way too many leftovers and I end up eating said leftovers because I just can’t waste food (hence the reason I need to lose weight)!

So I had to really rethink our meals in terms of what we need to get out of it and how to make it all work. Here is the criteria I had to work with:

    • Must be fast and easy to prepare
    • Can’t cost a lot
    • Have to be flexible based on what is available in season
      • or on sale
      • or what we actually want to eat
    • Could be easily tailored for dietary needs or preferences
    • Rolls over to another meal to cut down on leftovers

It’s exhausting just trying to think of a work around for a decent meal plan… but then I realized, I was already using what’s best for us… we cook from the pantry. I just needed to make sure we stock certain items and tweak the menu or recipes a bit to fit ALL our criteria.

Work the combos of all your favorite meals

Now it may seem daunting, but when you think about it, if you have everything on hand, you could make almost anything. Consider the menus from a Chinese kitchen, they have hundreds of dishes listed, but really it’s always using the same ingredients… It’s really just about the combinations. Plus, they literally can get a meal to you in 15 minutes or less if there are no other orders in front of yours, and if you make it yourself you can make it extra healthy!

cooking at home
Photo 102268329 © Victoria Shibut – Dreamstime.com

But why limit us to just Chinese food? When you think about it and break it down, almost any recipe can be simplified if just to make your daily life easier! When it comes to sauce or seasoning, think in terms of the type of cuisine or flavor – American, Chinese, Mexican, Italian, Indian, French, etc. Plus there’s no reason you can’t mix things up they way YOU like it!

A – Protein
B – Vegetables
C – Sauce or Seasoning
D – Carbs

You don’t have to have all four, you could go with 2 or 3… depending on how you feel or what’s available.

Examples of meals using 2:

Homemade mac and cheese for simplicity and comfort (C & D)

Sauteed veggies with garlic and soy sauce (B & C)

Examples of meals using 3:

Chicken and mixed vegetables with butter and garlic (A, B & C)

Tomato based vegetable soup with bread (B, C & D)

Pork with cream of mushroom gravy and potatoes (A, C & D)

Initially this might take a little time, trying to figure out the go-to meals and favorite flavors, then simplifying so it’s easy to keep up with. I am a personal fan of simple meals that have a few ingredients for everyday eating… saving the more elaborate recipes for special holidays.

Save yourself some time and make a little extra to roll over into a lunch or dinner for the next day depending on how much is leftover …

If you have a lot and think you might not get to eat everything by the end of the week, put it in the freezer! Save it for a day you are extra short on time and just want to heat something up. If you have bits of different meals, but not enough for everyone to eat the same thing… have a leftover night!

There are also so many ways to remake your meal! With a little tweak, you could have a different meal every night without leftovers. When I was growing up, Grandpa always had fried rice Saturdays… I can’t believe some of the things he put together, but somehow it worked!

So what are some examples of what to stock and what you can make?

Create your shopping list to stock your pantry

Once you get an idea of the favorite meals and what you can cook up quickly, you just need to make your shopping list of your basics. You might want to take a current inventory first, then consider how much you might actually go through. For example, I like to get a lot of crushed tomatoes or spaghetti sauce because I can use that in so many dishes.

TIP: frozen veggies are great, already prepped, no added sugar or salt, you can use what you need and save the rest.

If you’re on a budget, don’t feel like you have to get everything. I like to prioritize and choose what can make the greatest variety of meals. If the price is not right, I won’t get it. I’ll wait until there’s a sale and try and stock up then, especially with shelf stable items.

meal planConfession, I am addicted to spreadsheets

I made a sheet in google docs where I can see exactly what I want to get. It allows me to notate which store, details about any specials (like the day of the week it’s available), the price and how much I want to get. This will give me a rough estimate of how much I’ll be spending. I can choose to cut back if necessary.

When I’m ready to shop, I can either select only basics, the store that I’m at or just the column of what I need. Once you have everything stocked, cook what you like from your pantry! I can open up google docs on my phone and see my list when I’m at the store. From my computer, I reset my list for the next trip and do it again. I like seeing everything all together so I know exactly what I am spending from all the stores. Shopping with my spreadsheet from my phone is doable, but not super practical.

But I don’t like spreadsheets…Out of Milk shopping app

The only app that I found that even comes close is Out of Milk. I can add prices and set the units whether it’s by the package, each piece or an ounce (useful if you are comparing prices). I put my categories from my google sheet into the app under “My Pantry List” then created separate shopping lists by store. The bar code scanner unfortunately has never worked for me… and though I deleted their default categories, it will often add my new item back to a default list… I just drag it to the correct category.

It’s great for giving totals by store (you can even turn off the tax), but it won’t tell me how much I might be spending overall. I have been working to keep a tight ship when it comes to food and shopping since Dad had his stroke. When we are busy and need fast food, we tend to make unhealthy choices and it costs so much more! Since we stopped eating out, we have saved a ton! But what I saved has been going towards the medical bills so we aren’t out of pocket as bad. As soon as it’s over, it will go towards replenishing our house fund.

Prepping the meals

layer your foodsWhen you put it all together, it could be as easy as a quick stir fry in the pan over rice… or a simple marinara sauce with noodles… If I’m thinking ahead, I can put something in the crock pot and it’ll be ready by dinner… but then there are those days when I get hung up with work and I need something really quick, that’s where our trusty pressure cooker comes in!

I love these instructions for Instant Pot chicken breasts from Marjorie at A Pinch of Healthy because it is so simple and easy. I’ve changed it up with different seasonings and it always comes out great! I save the juices from the pot to make a gravy, season other dishes like you would chicken broth or make a soup. It’s not a full on stock or broth, but why throw out the delicious drippings?

TIP: don’t mix things like pasta and sauce together, keep them separate so they can be used for other meals. Layer on your plate or bowl for that meal. You can leave out the things that the picky people don’t like… and can still use what’s left for other future meals.

But if you want to try something that will really knock your socks off, try some of the umami recipes from Amy + Jacky like this Instant Pot Pot Roast. This is not a recipe when you are short on time, but it is well worth the time to make it! Yum!!!

…and then there’s the diet

diet meal planRemember I mentioned I was trying to lose weight and sucked at it? Been that way my whole life… every dieting meal plan had me cutting out something. While the weight would come off, I couldn’t keep it going and always ended up binge eating. I found I didn’t need to stop eating carbs or fat or sugar…

I really enjoy my food and trying new things… so giving up certain foods just hasn’t worked for me. I’ve been working on healthy substitutions that everyone can enjoy without sacrificing flavor. I’ve cut back on processed foods in exchange for home cooked healthier versions. Don’t get me wrong, I still cook from my well stocked pantry and plan ahead… but my choice of ingredients and recipes has changed. I can enjoy the holiday dinners with all the satisfaction and none of the guilt.

Ultimately, this no-plan meal plan has been the easiest for me to maintain with work, taking care of the house and home schooling. This is definitely something you can do scaled down for college even if it’s just you so you don’t eat just ramen and rice all the time!

Any new ideas? There’s always room for improvement!