When you’re on a budget, meal planning can be your best friend. But it can be daunting when you start searching for the best ways to do it and come up with websites that seem to insist on you making all of your lunches in jars or spending an entire Sunday chopping celery that you’re not even sure you want. Rest assured though, there are many ways to plan your meals for the week in a way that you’ll actually stick to it (and still actually enjoy the process cooking and eating all of it).
It’s a common misconception that meal planning is complicated.
But it’s only complicated if you make it that way. Unless it works for you, you don’t have to label leftover containers for each day or make it so strict! The best way to make a new routine work is to start small and not get too ambitious. We love shooting for the stars as much as the next person, but if you think you’re going to start roasting a chicken every weekend to use in various recipes throughout the week and you’ve never even turned an oven on before, it’s not gonna fly. (That said, roasting a chicken or some veggies on the weekend will make cold lunches easier.)
The fact is, meal planning is only has to be as hardcore as you want it to be.
1Be real about what meals you want.
One of the best things about meal planning is you can really eliminate food waste. But not if you’re not real about what you really want to eat. Do you normally just have a light, on-the-go breakfast? Have a standing dinner date mid-week with your bestie? If you love it, don’t change it. And don’t forget to plan for those midnight snacks!
2Make a master grocery list.
Meal planning does require some cooking if you really want to cut costs and food waste. Take a look at your pantry. Stock up on the basics, like spices you like (or want to try), tortillas, canned goods, grains — all that good stuff. It’s an expensive trip, for sure, but once you have all the basic ingredients you need, you won’t be able to make an excuse about sticking to your Tuesday night dinner plan just because you don’t have a red onion or something.
3…and then make another grocery list.
This is the hard part. Look up recipes online that sound good and see what you need for them. Don’t forget to add a treat in there for yourself. You are adulting, after all. You deserve a reward.
4Prep right away if you can.
There are things you can do to make life easier, and although it can be a pain when there’s Netflix to be watched, try to take some time right after the grocery store to prep. How much you do will depend on how serious your meals are. Maybe you actually cook and package your meals.
A good basic step, especially for salads and things later on, is to wash and cut your produce. You don’t want to open up an avocado on Sunday for Tuesday, obviously. But you can chop onions, rinse and dry your greens, and cut up some pineapple for breakfast days in advance. When you come home from work mid-week, the task of cooking is less daunting. You also now have ready-to-go ingredients to toss into omelettes and salads
5Leftovers and the freezer are your best friend.
Don’t be scared of leftovers! You can up-cycle them for breakfast and lunches the next day. If you make a big vat of soup or a lasagna or something, you can freeze the leftovers for later (like, way later) and they’ll be just as delicious. Likewise, a bag of frozen peas or shrimp (if you’re into that sort of thing) are good investments. You toss a handful of those into a pot of cheesy fettuccine, and you have a gourmet meal for basically nothing.
6Don’t be strict.
Just because you’re meal planning doesn’t mean you can’t get take out for dinner or have any fun. Actually, if you’re being honest and know that you’re definitely going to get some Thai takeout at least once a week, that counts as a plan! Don’t kill yourself.
7Delete your accounts.
But, if you want to really train yourself, you might want to delete your food-ordering apps. (You can still use the browser version for that Friday delivery.) If you want to make sure you’re eating the packed lunches at work, only take so much money out with you every day and leave your debit and credit cards (if possible) at home. That way, when someone tempts you with happy hour drinks and nachos, but you really wanted to make the most of your grocery shopping, you can stick to your guns and take a rain check.
It’s all trial and error when it comes to meal planning. Being real about how much effort you want to put into it and what you want to get out of it is the first step to making it work.