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Time Saving Tip #1: A Meal Planning System

  • January 2, 2024
Are you the kind of person who leaves work late and hits the grocery store trying to find something frantically for dinner that night? Or maybe you dropped one kid off at practice and you're trying to figure out something to make to eat before they get home?
Hey, I've been there - trying to put together meals from the weirdest ingredients left in my pantry. Or wandering aimlessly around the grocery store trying to come up with something inspired and healthy when I am really just burnt out and incapable of planning dinner.
If you'd like to create healthy meals at home more regularly, this one is for you. I'm going to share my meal planning system that has saved me so much heartache during the week. A little forward thinking to plan your meals in advance leveraging this system can truly save you hours and stress during the week.
Here's my meal planning system:

1. Create a Plan as Part of a Weekly Preview

Choose a consistent day and time each week to look at the week ahead. During this weekly preview, you'll look at next week's schedule and make note of things like: 
  • Which nights will you be home for a family meal together? 
  • Which nights will you need something quick/grab and go? 
  • What nights have practice or social commitments? 
  • What would be the ideal time to eat that night based on those commitments? Sure, I'm a proponent of trying to have a consistent meal time each night with the family at the table, but because of various commitments, this isn't always a reality. 

For me this looks like spending time on a Saturday morning with my cup of tea to look at the week ahead and plan our meals and schedules. I also create my grocery shopping list during this time. 

After meal planning for awhile, the most exhausting part of it I realized was coming up with recipes I liked that were healthy and easy. So below are two options to help you keep a short list of meals that work for you, so you don't get bogged down in the sheer volume or indecision of what to make.

Cook Once CookbookWeekly Meal Plan in a Cookbook: I really love this cookbook from Cassy Joy Garcia. It's called Cook Once, Eat All Week: 26 Weeks of Gluten-Free Affordable Meal Prep to Preserve Your Time & Sanity [affiliate link]. This organizes 3 meals for each week based on one protein, veggie and starch. You use similar ingredients to make 3 different meals, so you don't feel like you're eating the same things every day. It also includes the steps to do most of your meal prep in advance. The weeks that I actually use this cookbook and prep in advance, I feel so put together. It's like I won the lottery on a random Wednesday night when I'm so tired from the day, but I already have dinner ready to go in the fridge. I just need to pop it in the oven.  It also simplifies your meal planning and grocery list.
If you do choose this option, you would also need to schedule an hour or two of meal prep to put these together. But again you can do all of that on a Sunday rather than on a Monday night when you are stressed, tired, and just not ready to put a meal together after a long day or next to starving kids.
Pinterest Board: Another option is to curate a running list of weeknight recipes you and your family enjoy. I keep a Pinterest board of weeknight meal ideas that are easy enough to accomplish in a short amount of time and have proven to be family favorites. You can look to mine for inspiration. I eat gluten and dairy-free so most of these are in that realm. However, I recommend you cultivate your own list of proven, healthy favorites over time.

2. Grocery Shop for the Week

Choose a consistent day and time each week to grocery shop. This is truly one of those practices where discipline pays dividends. You're not trying to squeeze grocery shopping into an already packed schedule or just trying to make it to the store between work and pick up or social events. 
I used to love doing my grocery shopping on Monday afternoons because there was no one in the store. But as I have optimized this system over the years, I now like doing it on Sunday mornings after church. I live in the country, so this timing allows me to capitalize on already being in town and close to a grocery store without making a special trip. Then, I also have the things I need if I'm going to do any advance meal prep on Sunday afternoon/evening for the week.
Advance prep can mean several things, so you'll need to define what this looks like for you. If you follow "Cook Once, Eat All Week," this will mean that there are 3 meals practically ready to eat in your refrigerator. If you don't fully compile meals, maybe it means you chop fruit, veggies, or meat so it's ready to go for evening-of preparation.

3. Post the Plan

I leave a sticky note on the fridge showing the meal plan for the week. This way, if I'm running late or have a social commitment, my husband knows the plan. It also helps remind me what I intend to do each night so I can free up that mental capacity. 

My note generally includes: 

  • Meal
  • Meal time if different from our normal schedule (My oldest has practice 2 nights a week starting at 5:15 30 minutes away. In a perfect world, he would eat before he goes, so having dinner ready early is extremely helpful and seeing it on paper helps me remember to start it earlier.
  • Prep instructions (i.e. 350 degrees for 30 minutes) 

Additional Thoughts

I am not perfect in operating the system myself, but I have found that the weeks that I do run this system, I feel less stressed. I feel like I am actually feeding my family healthy foods as opposed to whatever I can just grab for them quickly. It makes me feel a bit more like a supermom who can do it all (or at least the RIGHT things) and that confidence runs into other areas of my life.
Give this system a try and let me know what you think. Have other things that work for you? Send me a note at jenna@firstlighthealth.co.
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