Tuesday, October 28, 2014

10 Meal Planning Tips For Beginners (Using Real Food)

Are you a beginner who'd like to start meal planning, but the idea of actually doing it makes you want to pull out your hair? I'm with you! Check out my post for some easy tips to help you ease into the habit of planning so you can start wasting less food, saving more money, and stressing less about what's for dinner.

New to meal planning or strongly dislike it? I know how you feel! That's why I'm sharing my best simple tips for easing into the meal planning habit (I prefer weekly instead of monthly) so you can save money, stick to a budget, eat healthier & waste less food. Start with one thing and work up from there so you're not overwhelmed!

The idea of planning out a whole month's worth of meals makes me want to pull out my hair. It's probably why I've run away from every single monthly meal planning organizer I've come across. Here's the problem: I love to cook and hate wasting food, but don't relish the thought of having all of my meals planned out (or doing it myself). 

However, when I don't plan ahead for my meals in some form or another, I'm left with three situations:

  1. When I finally decide what I want to eat, I'm out of certain ingredients so I have to make several trips to the grocery store.
  2. I'll buy an ingredient or two for a specific recipe, and then never use in time before it expires.
  3. It's late and I don't feel like cooking, so my only choices are take-out or frozen pizza.

In years past, the above situations were the norm for me. I didn't plan ahead and I didn't prioritize cooking or the food in my home. This type of behavior costs a lot of money in the long run

You waste money on food that expires before you can consume it, use up extra gasoline on multiple trips to the grocery store, and overspend eating expensive take-out food that's usually cooked with over-processed ingredients. 

I wish I could say that these days are completely behind me, but they're not. Despite my love for cooking real food recipes, I get burnt out in the kitchen. There are days when I just don't want to cook. Or, I have a busy day and by the time early evening rolls around, I have no meat thawed and I'm out of certain pantry and fridge staples. 

Life happens. 

But here's what I'm doing to combat this. I'm making a deliberate effort to stay organized and plan at least a week ahead for my main meals. Baby steps!

Because planning my meals is finally becoming a norm in my home, I thought I'd share some of my own tips for keeping home-cooked food on the table.

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10 Meal Planning Tips For Beginners (Using Healthy Real Food)Ten Meal Planning Tips For Beginners (Using Healthy, Real Food) 

New to meal planning or strongly dislike it? I know how you feel! That's why I'm sharing my best simple tips for easing into the meal planning habit (I prefer weekly instead of monthly) so you can save money, stick to a budget, eat healthier & waste less food. Start with one thing and work up from there so you're not overwhelmed!

1. Stick to Recipes You Know

If you want to begin meal planning for real and really make it a habit that sticks, start with recipes that you know and love. They'll take you less time to fix and ensure that you'll eat the leftovers. 

My all-time favorite easy/lazy meal for weeknights that I've been making for the past 10 years is this Sheetpan Dinner with Smoked Sausage, Potatoes & Peppers. It only takes a handful of ingredients, a bit of chopping & seasoning, and the oven does the rest of the work for me.

Make sure you have ingredients on hand for a recipe or two like this (something super easy that you love) and you'll be set. Then, when you're reading to switch things up, go to tip #10. 

2. Make Batches of Food That Can Be Re-Purposed into Several Meals

I don't about you, but I love leftovers! Most dishes taste even better the next day because the seasonings and flavors are more pronounced. But for folks who hate the idea of eating the same dish twice over (aren't we blessed to have that opportunity?), fixing meals that can be transformed as leftovers is key. 

Some of my favorites are meats like slow cooker whole chicken (roasted or rotisserie are also great), slow cooker pork shoulder, and slow cooker pot roast

For example, the first night we'll eat chicken breast with roasted veggies and a starch, then I'll shred the rest of the chicken meat and use it for a big leafy salad with red wine vinaigrette or maple balsamic vinaigrette, creamy stovetop pasta, hummus naan wraps (sooo good), and casseroles over the next few nights.
Need more ideas for using leftover meat? Check out my 30+ Easy Leftover Chicken Recipes round-up for plenty of inspiration.

Simple Meal Planning Tips For Beginners Or Folks Who Want To Save Money & Waste Less Food

With the pulled pork (carnitas) - pictured above, I'll usually serve it with cilantro rice the first night, then make street-style pork tacos, Chipotle "knock-off" burrito bowls, cheesy tortilla baked casseroles, BBQ pulled pork sliders, and lots of other meals with the leftovers. Large batches of rice and beans can be stuffed into squashes or bell peppers and baked to make a whole new dish.

The pot roast can be turned into a leftover pot roast stew or shredded to make French dip-style sandwiches with melted cheese and toasted bread. It's also really good on oven-baked nachos with different cheeses, sauteed onions, and pickled peppers. 

Those are just a few ideas to get you started!

3. Plan Your Meals Around Foods That Expire Soonest

Coming home from the local market or grocery store with lots of fresh foods feels great, but can soon turn into regret if you let a piece of fruit, a head of lettuce, a package of chicken, or a carton of dairy sit too long without using it up. 

The best way to avoid this is to keep a running list of perishable foods on your fridge and plan your meals around them. When fresh food is the focal point of your meals, it's less likely to get pushed into the back of the fridge or the far reaches of your pantry only to wilt or mold.

It's also smart to store your foods properly so you can increase their shelf life and prevent food waste

4. Keep a Running Inventory

Earlier this month I made a written inventory list of my pantry, fridge, and freezer. I spent a day sorting through, cleaning out, and tossing expired stuff within each section of my kitchen. I'm not afraid to admit that I found stuff in my freezer from over a year ago! Obviously, this was long overdue.

Restaurants and businesses keep thorough inventory lists, so why shouldn't we? It's the best way to know exactly what foods are on hand, what you really need to buy at the store (versus impulse shopping), and how much you're spending and consuming monthly on groceries. 
And if you know exactly what food ingredients you have on hand, meal planning becomes MUCH simpler. Most importantly, it helps reduce or eliminate waste, which will save you lots of $$$ in the long run.

5. Invest in Kitchen Equipment For Batch Cooking & One-Pan Meals

To be honest, cooking the majority of your food at home can be time-consuming. When you switch from buying stuff for making real food recipes instead of prepackaged items, your kitchen will transform into a space occupied by ingredients instead of ready-made food. This can be daunting when you're tired or not feeling well. But, have no fear! You don't have to cook three times a day every day. 

The key to overcoming this real food hurdle without sacrificing delicious homemade food is to cook smarter not harder. 

One of the best ways to achieve this is to invest in high quality, reliable kitchen equipment that allows you to cook in large batches and craft homemade staples that can be used to quickly build meals later on. 

Some of my favorite and most helpful kitchen equipment: 

6. Keep Your Freezer Stocked with Homemade Staples or Wholesome Convenience Foods

To make mealtime easier, stock your freezer with a mixture of homemade pantry staples and store-bought ingredients to build meals quickly. For example, every time I cook homemade beans or rice, I make sure it's a larger batch. 

After the first few days, I'll portion the leftovers into quart-sized freezer bags (usually 2 cups per bag) and lay them flat before freezing so they take up less space. 

When I need a quick meal later on, I can pull out a bag or two to use in white chicken chiliground beef & chorizo chilisausage & veggie soup, or cabbage roll soup

Here are some foods I regularly keep in my freezer:
  • kielbasa sausage
  • grass-fed ground beef
  • ground chorizo, breakfast sausage & ground Italian sausage
  • wild-caught fish fillets (salmon, Mahi Mahi & assorted white-fleshed fishes)
  • homemade chicken broth or beef broth
  • veggie scraps & peelings (to make homemade broth)
  • raw nuts and seeds (it extends their shelf life)
  • bread (like local sourdough for sandwiches & English muffins for breakfast or dinner)
  • bell peppers (I dice & flash freeze them when they're on sale)
  • assorted block cheeses (I shred it myself)
  • fruit, especially berries and bananas (for smoothies & baking)
  • grass-fed butter (I stock up when it's on sale)

7. Decide What You're Eating the Night (Or Week) Before

To prevent the dreaded 6 p.m. scenario where you stare at the fridge, trying to conjure up a recipe to make last-minute, do this: plan your dinner or breakfast the night before. 

It sounds too simple, right? 

It doesn't matter what you plan (it could be a box of mac n' cheese with veggies and protein thrown in), just pick something. Come the next day, you'll know exactly what ingredients you have to work with, which will eliminate stress and allow you to actually enjoy the cooking process.

Or better yet, create a weekly meal plan. That way you only have to sit down for 30 minutes once a week to think about this stuff. It also makes grocery shopping waaaaay easier. You know what you're making for the week & what you need for the recipes, which means less unplanned trips. That saves you money and brainpower.

Love pen & paper? Me too. For the past year, I've been using a blank 8.5 x 11 sheet of printer paper to write out my meal plan + what I need to use up in my fridge and buy at the grocery store. 
It's simple & it works; however, if you have a monthly or weekly planner that you love, that's a great place to keep everything all in one place. 

My absolute favorite planner that I actually use is the Emily Ley Simplified Weekly Planner (which has a spot for meals). You could also keep it simple and use a whiteboard on your refrigerator OR some daily planner sticky notes

8. Be Flexible

In the spirit of reducing waste and stress overeating, make your meals flexible. For example, embrace leftovers when you make a large dish, fix breakfast for dinner on a night that you're tired (like an egg breakfast casserole, waffles, or pancakes), or allow what's in season and on sale that week to dictate your meals (like tomatoesgreen beans, strawberriessweet potatoes, or asparagus). 

This also goes for recipes. Instead of forgoing a recipe because you don't have all the required ingredients, make do with what you have and craft something new.

Recipes pictured above: Sauteed Asparagus with Garlic, Butter & Parmesan (left) & Homemade Creamy Chicken Noodle Soup (right)

9. Make a List of Your Favorite Pantry Staples and Always Keep Them Around

Think of foods or cooking ingredients that can be used in a variety of ways and don't perish quickly. Or, foods that you use frequently in several different recipes and don't often waste. 

This will be different for everyone. 

Keeping your unique list of foods on hand makes it easy to plan a meal on the fly, the night before, or even weeks ahead. That means one less grocery trip, which saves you time and money.

For example, I almost always have these staples in my home for meal building:
  • fresh onions
  • fresh garlic
  • red or gold potatoes
  • dried pasta (I love this Einkorn wheat pasta
  • jarred pasta sauce
  • canned tomato sauce & fire-roasted diced tomatoes
  • basic dried spices such as: sea salt, whole peppercorns, Italian seasoning, garlic powder, crushed red pepper, oregano, thyme, rosemary, bay leaves, paprika, cumin, Ceylon cinnamon, allspice, homemade taco seasoning, lemon pepper seasoning, turmeric
  • fresh carrots and celery
  • canned wild-caught tuna & salmon (for salmon or tuna patties)
  • white rice or frozen riced cauliflower
  • einkorn wheat flour & unbleached all-purpose flour
  • canned beans
  • jarred olives & pickled veggies like jalapenos or pepperoncini (great for sandwiches, pasta, pizza, and meat & cheese platters
  • canned coconut milk (for pasta, egg casseroles & soups - it comes in handy when you're out of regular milk)
  • coconut oil 
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • avocado oil (good for high-heat cooking, baking & DIY beauty stuff)
  • balsamic vinegar, apple cider vinegar, white or red wine vinegar
  • brown and yellow mustard
  • raw, local honey
  • real maple syrup
  • homemade barbecue sauce or my favorite jarred brand without HFCS

10. Incorporate New Foods & Recipes a Few Times a Month

While meal planning brings structure to a chaotic life, it can also introduce boredom. To prevent eating the same meals every week for months on end, make an effort to try a few new recipes each month. 

One of the greatest pleasures of a real food lifestyle is enjoying seasonal foods. Seek out recipes with fresh vegetables, fruits, and herbs that are readily available at the moment. They'll taste better and cost you much less since they're in season. 

I'd like to hear from YOU!

What's your favorite tip for planning your meals ahead? Do you have anything in particular that you struggle with the most?

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The original main photograph used in this post was taken by Webvilla. I obtained it via Unsplash and used it via this creative commons public domain dedication; however, I have since then updated the post with my own photographs taken of food from my farmers market (9/7/2017).

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