How to Effectively Meal Plan During a Pandemic
This year has turned our world upside down. The stability that we so loved; gone. We need some sort of structure, now more than ever. One way that I love to implement structure in my life is through meal planning. I’m passionate about this because I absolutely love food, but it can be downright expensive, and grocery shopping can be daunting most of the time because we’re constantly thinking about what to buy, where to buy it, the cheapest price for it, and whether we’ll even use it to cook something. It doesn’t take much for the grocery bill to skyrocket if we’re not paying attention. But don’t fret, there is a way to take control of your food pantry and cut the grocery bill by significant amounts!
Here are five easy steps to help you get started:
TAKE INVENTORY OF YOUR FOOD SUPPLIES
This step can take quite a bit of time, but it’s simple enough. Take inventory of everything you own in your refrigerator, food pantry, and freezer. Think of yourself as a manager in a grocery store. The manager takes inventory to keep in mind which items are available, need to be replenished, or are expiring soon. If you don’t know what you currently own, you won’t know what to buy, often resulting in overcompensation by buying food you already have.
Simple ways you can do this is through a spreadsheet, free templates online, or apps! I personally like to use a paper template that I found on the Internet, which I inserted into a sheet protector and write on with a whiteboard marker to easily erase and change quantities/items. I do this [INSERT FREQUENCY HERE], but depending on your living situation, you might want to do it more or less frequently.
MEAL PLAN RECIPES USING ITEMS ON HAND
Okay, now you know what you have. So what? Now comes the slightly more fun part, you can research recipes that utilize the items you currently have! There are tons of recipes online, which you can find on various websites such as Pinterest to allrecipes.com. Find and print 5-10 recipes that your family loves and stick them in a binder. I personally use Pinterest quite often, which is where I find majority of the recipes. I plan on a weekly basis, but some people like to plan monthly, which is totally fine! I prefer the flexibility of a weekly meal plan, but some people prefer meal planning once for the whole month and not having to worry about it later on.
Setting your grocery budget can be a daunting task. How much do I budget for my family? What if I have teenagers who eat me out of home and home? What if I have picky eaters? These are just some of the questions that I hear from people who have struggled to keep their grocery budget under control. Start by analyzing your spending habits. You can do this by calculating how much you spent on groceries over the past three months by looking your bank or credit card statements. If that number surprises you, (take a deep breath, it will be OK) I recommend targeting at least half of that number and then adjusting it until you find your perfect number. For example, if you are a family of four and are spending $1000 each month on groceries, aim to spend $500 moving forward and then slowly adjusting that number based on your family's needs.
This is my favorite part. Shopping for groceries should be fun, not daunting! With the right amount of structure put into place, you can totally make it enjoyable.
First, make a list of the items you need in accordance with your next week’s meal plan. Remember to check your updated inventory to see what you have! Then, pick a specific day where you will shop for groceries and try to adhere to this day as much as possible. I grocery shop once a week on Saturdays. Now, go to your favorite (but affordable) stores and do the actual shopping. I personally love to go to wholesale stores and farmer’s markets to ensure I obtain a balance between affordable, but fresh and high-quality products. Try not to shop more than once a week! We’re all victims of impulse-spending (don’t tell me you haven’t felt those instincts where you just had to buy that delicious box of cereal on display). Fewer shopping trips means less risk of impulse spending, and those impulse purchases can add up very quickly, even if you think it’s just $5 more this time. Plus, if you really want it, you can allocate some room in your budget so you can buy it next week!
MEAL PREP AND COOKING DAY
Congratulations, now is the time to cook! Plan your meal prep and cooking days. You do not have to cook every single day! Pick 3-4 days to cook your meals, and then you can eat leftovers on the rest of the days. When you cook, double the recipe and save the second batch in the freezer for a future dinner night. For example, Mac and Cheese is one of my favorite foods to make from scratch but it takes a lot of time to prepare. I’ll make two batches and freeze one in a freezer safe sheet pan and throw it in the freezer. I can take it out on a busy day when I do not have time to cook.
Remember, the trick is to be intentional with your shopping list and planning your meals. The prep and cooking times do not have to be time-consuming. It is also a great time to experiment with new recipes and have FUN.