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What Is Meal Planning?

In a nutshell, meal planning is organizing at least some of your meals ahead of time. If that sounds vague, it’s because there are so many ways to do it, and you have to find the way that fits you best.

Woman-Meal-Planning

You’ve heard the hype surrounding meal planning. Some moms swear by it – or at least advise others to do it. It’s supposed to save you time, money, stress, and even get your picky kid to eat. Sounds like a magic bullet!

But the idea of meal planning can seem overwhelming. What is meal planning, anyway? How are you supposed to actually do it?

What is meal planning?

In a nutshell, meal planning is organizing at least some of your meals ahead of time. If that sounds vague, it’s because there are so many ways to do it, and you have to find the way that fits you best.

Where to meal plan

Some people like to make the meal plans themselves. You can use the pen and paper method, keeping a food plan in a diary, organizer, or even on random scraps of paper. You can also keep a plan digitally, on a spread sheet, digital calendar, or on a notes app.

Or you can buy a meal plan. There are set meal plans that get emailed out, apps, and various websites with member only access.

Of course, here at Real Plans, we’re a fan of our own system. We have desktop and mobile versions of the app, where we provide a meal plan for as many meals as you want, as well as the option to add your own ideas. We can also store your specific recipes for future use.

When to meal plan

Meal plans can be in as far advance as you want, or not. If you walk by a farmer’s market everyday, for example, you can stop there to pick up fresh ingredients for the next day. Planning for a week or two is the most popular option – plan on a Friday, for example, shop on Saturday, and prep on Sunday. You can even plan for an entire month at a time.

How to meal plan

Figure out your flow

Before you plan out elaborate banquets, think about how your days work. When is the best time to cook?

Once a day, once a week, or even once a month? If cooking for a longer period of time, you’ll need freezer friendly recipes. You’ll also need a full day devoted to cooking.

If cooking once a day, when in the day works best for you? Perhaps you are a morning bird and can throw things in the slow cooker in the morning (find out how here). But maybe mornings are a rush out the door and cooking works better if you let an Instant Pot live up to its name. Or a combination, like prepping in the morning to cook in the evening, or prepping in the evening to finish in the morning.

Also think about what kitchen gadgets that you have (or want to have) that will be most suited to your flow. Pressure cookers may be all the rage, but it is only helpful to you if it fits with when and how you cook.

Find recipes

A meal plan has to have recipes, right? Hands up if you’ve ever sat down to meal plan and come up with zero ideas of what to cook.

When you meal plan, sources of inspiration can involve cookbooks, your Pinterest account (how many meals have you pinned and never made?), and blogs. You don’t even have to follow the recipe exactly, but they can remind you of meals you already know how to cook, or something similar that you’ve always wanted to try. The recipe collections are to get the creative juices flowing.

The best source of inspiration, however, is your own family. Ask them to name their favorite five meals, or keep a running list of what your family likes to eat over the course of a few months. Bingo, meals you know your family likes.

Here at Real Plans, we populate your plan with recipes so you don’t have to think about it, but also leave it flexible so you can add your own in. You can also peruse and choose from our extensive collection of recipes, which gets even bigger when you opt for add-ons, bloggers with amazing recipes in your diet type.

Put together the plan

So you’ve figured out your cooking flow, you’ve found sources for recipes, now what are you going to cook when?

A simple way to keep it organized is to have a themed day for each day of the week. Mexican Mondays, Pasta Tuesdays, Soup Wednesdays, etc. Then, when finding recipes, it’s easier to choose from a narrower theme.

For those who eat meat, planning one big meaty meal, preferably with bones, can influence the rest of the week. Roast a chicken (or bone-in chuck roast, or ribs), use leftovers the next day, and make soup from the bones the third day.

You can also use sales as a place to start planning. Look in fliers or online, i.e. without going into the actual store, for smart prices. If there is a great sale or coupon on ground meat or carrots, you can plan shepherd’s pie one day and carrot soup another.

Get the food

Based on your meal plan, create a shopping list of ingredients you need to buy. Make sure to check the pantry for items you already have. You might shop online and have it delivered, order online and pick up groceries, go to a brick and mortar store, or frequent a market, whichever option or combination works for you.

Guess what? Real Plans creates a shopping list automatically, even with imported recipes included in the plan. And on top of that, it’s connected to Instacart, so with a few clicks you can choose your favorite store and have all your ingredients in the cart. Shopping doesn’t get any easier than that.

Execute the plan

This is the hardest part. You’ve put all this energy into planning, but that plan ain’t gonna cook itself.

If actually cooking makes you tired just thinking about it, try thinking of cooking positively. I know, it can get to be a daily grind. But it can also be a way to show that you care enough about your family, and yourself, to take the time to make home cooked meals. It can be an outlet for creativity, a form of art. Even if it isn’t always appreciated by the audience.

Cooking doesn’t have to be limited to you though. You can share your plan – which is super easy with the Real Plan app – so your partner can cook too. Get your kids involved in the cooking (bonus: they’ll be more likely to want to eat it). They can start stirring, peeling, and chopping from a surprisingly young age, and can even make a simple meal by 10 years old, with supervision.

Have a few back-ups

As we all know, life doesn’t always go as planned. Things happen, making your meal plan not possible. Hopefully it’s just one day.

Have a few back-up recipes just in case that are quick to cook and with ingredients you always have around. However! Try to keep them for times you really need them, rather than using them all the time.

Get back on the wagon

Maybe you’ve meal planned before, but got out of the habit. Maybe this is the first time around and you’ve already dropped the ball. Maybe it’s worked out perfectly so far – but something happens and then it doesn’t.

Don’t worry. Figure out what went wrong, what you need to tweak, what wasn’t working for you.

Look into the top 10 benefits of using a meal planning software.

Ask yourself more questions included here, and try again. You can do it. And maybe you’ll find your magic bullet.

Emily Bartlett

About Emily Bartlett

Emily Bartlett is the co-founder and CEO of RealPlans.com. She's also a licensed acupuncturist and practitioner of Chinese medicine, a published author, a wife, and a mom of two. Emily hopes to make meal planning easier and inspire families to share more meals around the table.

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