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Meal Planning 101

Hello Villagers,
As we begin the new year, it’s time to start thinking about those pesky New Year’s resolutions. Eating and being healthier often make the top ten list of resolutions made. These are easy to think about when we are in holiday vacation mode, but can become quickly difficult when our busy schedules set it. That’s where meal planning can come in handy. Plus, if you are one of those people who also said they want to get organized in the upcoming year, this will help you check that item off your list too.
Meal planning is the process of mapping out your family’s meals and snacks for a given time frame. The benefits of incorporating meal planning into your schedule include saving money with a well planned grocery list, saving time (thanks to meals mapped out, some of the prep work done early, and minimal trips to the grocery store), and lowering food waste. This also minimizes the number of times dinners are planned on a whim, which in our household results in not-so-healthy fast food or quick grabs from the grocery store.
This process varies from family to family and even season to season, depending on how busy we are. When my children were smaller, I could plan a month at a time with a neatly typed calendar that would hang on the fridge. Now that they are older and we have practices, games, and school events, I plan weekly with my chicken scratch on any paper I can find, but by-George, it is done. Here are some things to think about as you get going:

1. Think About Your Schedule

This is an important one. Take time to sit down with your family’s schedule to determine which days you have ample time to cook and which days you will shuffling tiny people to various places and need a quick meal. Personally, I like to plan large meals that require a lot of my time and energy on the weekends when I have the extra time and a husband home to take charge of the kiddos. The busier weekdays are reserved for crock pot meals, freezer meals, dinners that can be whipped up in 30 minutes (possibly while holding a baby at the same time), or leftover nights. Crockpot meals are fantastic because you can throw everything into the pot, hit start, and dinner is good to go 8 hours later. If you aren’t keen on a lot of leftovers, freezer meals are the way to go. I tend to split casserole type dishes into 2 8×8 pans instead of using a 9×13. I cook one and then freeze the other for busy nights. And of course, who doesn’t love a good leftover night. My kids love being able to pick out their favorites from the past few meals and it’s pretty easy clean up.

2. Write Out Your Menu

I like to think that my brain can hold a lot of information and that I will remember everything, but these days if it doesn’t get written down, it will be forgotten. This includes my meals for the week. I’ve have had to throw away a shameful amount of food because I forgot about meat or vegetables that I had in the fridge. I didn’t have my meal plan written out, so it went bad. When I’m writing my menu I like to include any side dishes, bread, or fruit too. This really helps when it comes to creating your shopping list.
When creating you menu, think about meals that may allow you to prep for meals down the road. For example, if I am browning some beef for a taco night, I can brown extra for lasagna later in the week. This is especially great for vegetable prep and the amount of time saved really adds up.

3. Grocery Shopping

Using my freshly made and super detailed menu, I usually do two drafts of my grocery list. The first includes every single item I could possibly need when making my chosen dishes, this includes all spices and staples that I swear I have in my pantry. Once this finished, I actually look through my pantry and fridge to see what I already have. While this may seem like a waste of time, I can’t tell you how many times I had to make a second trip to the store because an item didn’t make the list because I swore I had it or I wound up with 5 cans of the same item because I didn’t realize what was lurking on the back shelves of my pantry.
Sadly, I have my grocery store layout memorized (though they occasionally shake things up and it drives me crazy). This is super handy when making my grocery list because I can group things together, making shopping much more efficient. If you have not wasted brain space with this sort of information like I do, you can always group similar items together and that usually does the trick.
After my fourth kiddo, I started to use either Kroger Clicklist and Walmart’s Pickup for my grocery shopping. If you are super busy and haven’t tried either of these services, I highly recommend them. You simply order online, reserve a pickup time, and a nice lady or gentleman will bring your groceries to your car. It has saved my tons of time, tons of money (thanks to minimal impulse buys), and tons of frustration since I don’t have to drag 4 kids through the store. Kroger does charge roughly $5 for each pickup and Walmart is free as long as you spend over $30. Other stores have this service too, but these are the only one’s I can vouch for. (Just so you know, I’m not getting paid to say these nice things, this service is truly a life saver for me right now)
I hope this information has been helpful. If you have any tips or tricks that you use, please post in the comments below.

Jessica Barnes, PhD, RDN, LD

Dr. Jessica Barnes received her PhD in nutrition from Texas Woman's University. Her research focused on food preference development and creating materials to help preschoolers become familiar with healthy foods. She has worked with families and communities as a clinical and community Registered Dietitian Nutritionist.

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