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Easy, Flexible Meal Planning Lists for Stress-free Meals

Meal planning takes away the daily stress of deciding what’s for dinner. I’ve never done well with creating weekly menus by day, though. With a set schedule, I sometimes felt like I had to make what’s on the menu, rather than finish up the leftovers first. Silly, I know. Then there were the days that ended up busier than expected and I either didn’t have time to make the planned meal or I was too tired by the time dinner rolled around and needed something simpler. 

The solution I’ve found to traditional menu-style meal planning is making meal lists. Not only does it offer day by day flexibility, it makes it easier to work in sale items, saving money at the grocery store.

For us, breakfast and lunch are usually either made from the same basic staples or leftovers, so I only use my lists for dinner. You can easily use the same method for all meals, if you like.

Meal Planning Lists

Step 1: Make a Master List

Start by writing down all your favorite meals to make. This isn’t the time to pull out cookbooks or look for recipes online. You want this to be a brain dump of your go-to meals. I would aim for at least 10-14, but a bigger list gives you more variety. If you don’t have that many to start, don’t worry. You can always add to this list later.

You can leave your master list as-is, or sort it into categories such as grouping it by the type of protein, ease of prep, cook time or type of appliance used if you have lots of Instant Pot or slow cooker meals. My list is just one big list.

You could also make note of what sides you like to serve with each dish, but I usually add them later.

Step 2: Decide what types of meals you need for the week

For this step, consider things like what you have on hand that you need to use up, what’s on sale and how busy you’ll be during the week. If you know you’ll be eating out any days, make note of that, too. I don’t usually make a list for this step, but if it’s a busy week you might want to make some notes.

Step 3: Make your meal list for the week

Consider the things from step 2 and pick 5-7 meals for the week from your master list. I like to cook things like big pots of soup or chili at least once a week, so I know leftovers will take care of one or two days, so I usually make a list of five. If your meals won’t include leftovers, you’ll want to list seven, or as many days as you’ll be eating at home.

This is where I consider sides and make note of them alongside the meals I plan to make.

If you’re looking to expand your master list or just want to try something new, you can add a new recipe as one of your meals and make note of the cookbook or other source. Once you’ve tried it, if you like it, add it to your master list.

That’s my meal list for this week.

While I don’t add these to my list, I like to keep staples for one or two really quick backup meals on hand at all times. You can read more about this here. If this is new to you, you’ll want to consider picking a backup meal or two before moving on to the next step.

Step 4: Make your shopping list

Make a shopping list from your weekly meal list, including sides and staples for your backup meal, if you don’t already have one. From your list, shop your pantry then grocery shop for everything else you need.

Step 5: Using your list

If one meal relies on lots of fresh produce or other time-sensitive food, you’ll want to make it early in the week. Likewise, if one day is busy and you have one slow cooker or really simple meal on the list, you’ll want to save it for that day. Otherwise, you know you have everything to make all the meals on your weekly list, so pick whichever one you like for now and one for next. Picking your “next” gives you time to thaw out or presoak anything needed for that meal. Every day, think about what meal you want to be next and do the necessary prep. If that day’s meal has lots of leftovers, you can use them as your “next” and push the rest of the week’s meals down.

Each meal you make gets checked off the list. At the end of the week, if there’s anything not checked off, add that meal to next week’s list.

Customize Your Meal Planning Lists

Planning one week at a time works best for me because that’s about the longest we can go without needing to restock staples. If two weeks at a time works for you, make your list 10-14 meals instead of 5-7. Repeats are fine if you want or need.

If you want to be super organized, turn your master list into index cards with one meal and all the ingredients listed on each card. You can even make them full blown recipe cards, which is helpful if someone else does some of the meal prep or it’s a new recipe. Sort them into whatever categories work best for you, then pick out your 5-7 meal cards for the week. Now your grocery list is as simple as copying the ingredients from the cards.

Background image by Goumbik from Pixabay
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Friday Five with a Freebie

It’s been record-settingly cold this week, making me want to do nothing but sit under a blanket and drink all the hot drinks. We’re far enough south that we didn’t get any snow, but we got lots of rain. I love the rainy weather, but when it’s too cold and wet for kiddos to go outside and play, it’s a challenge. So, no snuggling under a blanket all day and no other blog posts this week.

These guys get a little crazy inside for a week!

Soup week

One thing I love about the colder weather is that it makes soups and stews make sense. I love cooking soups because they’re easy, filling and can be a one pot meal. This week I worked from a list of soups for our dinners, making meal prep so easy. I think my favorite was the sausage and potato soup. My kiddos preferred the Chicken Pho.

List-style meal planning like I did this week works better for me than planning for each day. Look for a post about my method soon.

Sewing projects

I actually did some cold-inspired sewing this week. Our old windows get a bit drafty in the winter. As a quick fix, I started with the window in the living room and sewed a quick, heavier curtain from an old cotton sheet lined with flannel. It’s not the prettiest, but it hangs hidden behind the lighter weight existing curtains on an extension rod. We can easily take it down on warmer days to let in the light. I may need to add hooks or screws for the rod to rest on, though, because our cats keep pulling it down.

I similarly covered two other windows in our bedroom. The rest will be more visible, so I’ll need to be more thoughtful with my fabric selection for them.

Voting

We early voted on Monday. I’m happy to have it done, but it’s a little strange for me. I always vote on election day, which makes the whole process seem more exciting. I’ve always thought it strange that election day isn’t a holiday. This year would be different regardless to prevent huge crowds at the polling places, but it would be nice if people were given the day off from work and school, so it’s easier and children could go to see the process. I still plan to stay up and watch election results come in, even though it could be days or weeks before all the mail-in ballots are counted and the results finalized.

Daylight savings time

Have I mentioned how much I hate daylight savings time? This weekend is one of my favorites, because we finally get to set our clocks back to what my body insists is the real time. We also get Halloween and a full moon, so the weekend could be really awesome or really interesting.

Sale and a freebie

Today and tomorrow all of my Halloween embroidery design files are on sale for $1 each, and this one is free! My fellow procrastinators can download them instantly for your last minute projects. Everyone else can get them on sale to save for next year. 😉

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Friday Five

Sometimes throughout the week I think of things that I’d like to share with you but aren’t really worthy of a whole post. They could be things I’ve been working on, other sites I’ve discovered, shop or sale info, or general randomness. My solution is the Friday Five, where I quickly share some of those random or interesting things.

Sewing machine struggles

My Kenmore needs repair again. This time I got so frustrated with it that I packed it up and moved it off my desk. I don’t like using my Brother for anything except embroidery. I’d hate to mess up my only embroidery machine when I have another basic sewing machine. So, that leaves me with my vintage Montgomery Wards Signature. It works really well, but I’m not as familiar with all of the settings. I’m nervous about sewing anything special, because I don’t want to ruin anything by having tensions or stitch length wrong.

It’s also on the other side of my craft room from my other machines and in it’s own table. That means I have to bring everything I need over to it, rather than have it stored within reach. That all has deterred me from sewing lately.

I finally decided earlier this week to try to finish some of the masks I was working on when my Kenmore broke. Those are fairly simple and I have plenty of cotton fabric, so if my machine eats it, it’s not too bad. So far I only finished one, though, due to interruptions and being slow on an unfamiliar machine.

I guess someone felt the need to decorate it for Halloween.

Masks?

On the subject of masks, I’m contemplating adding them to my shop, but not sure if there’s still enough demand for handmade. I keep getting requests from friends and neighbors, though, so maybe? It would be nice to have them listed so I can have a catalog of sorts to show people when asked. Thoughts?

These were a special order from a friend. Luckily I finished them before my Kenmore broke. Sewing someone else’s fabric on an unfamiliar machine is scary.

Meal planning is hard

I had a dentist appointment last weekend that involved an extraction along with some fillings. That means that along with my usual gluten and dairy free restrictions, I’ve had to accommodate not really being able to chew. For most meals, that means planning for the family and separately for myself. I’ve also been fairly successful with losing some weight lately, so I didn’t want to get out of my healthy eating habits by living off mashed potatoes and ice cream for a week. That made it more challenging, because most of the healthy, filling foods I can think of require chewing. Luckily I’m down to only avoiding things that are crunchy or have small seeds that could get painfully stuck.

Odd shopping habits

I finally reorganized the pantry shelves this morning in an attempt to make meal planning easier. For some reason, I have four jars of salsa. Four! Three of them are the bigger jars, too, and all the same variety. I also have a ton of dried black beans, two varieties of split peas and lots of lentils. The black beans and lentils kind of make sense, but I’m the only one who likes split peas. I also thought I had black eyed peas and was planning on using them in a curry this weekend, but I don’t. At least now I know what I have and what I need.

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That’s it for today. Have a great weekend!

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Tips for Saving Money on Food

No matter what our budget looks like, food is always a part of it. You have to eat, right? There are many thoughts on the best way to save on food. These are the things that work for me.

Eat at home

This one is probably the most important. If you eat out, regardless of whether it’s a dine-in or fast food restaurant, you are going to spend more than if you cook and eat at home. It’s fine to splurge once in a while, but if you’re looking to save, eating at home gives you the most bang for your buck.

Buy mostly ingredients

Prepackaged foods are sometimes quicker, but they are usually more expensive per serving. If it’s a choice between eating out and eating convenience foods from the grocery, it’s still usually cheaper than eating out, so if it’s a choice between KFC or a deli rotisserie chicken, bagged salad and prepackaged dinner rolls, the deli chicken is probably the cheaper and healthier option.

There are some convenience items that I find helpful, especially when life gets hectic. Jarred sauces, bouillon and frozen potatoes in various forms are things that I like to have on hand to help me get a meal on the table quickly. When there’s not time to make the sauce from scratch or I don’t have homemade broth on hand those can make it easy to still throw something together. They’re also usually fairly inexpensive, so I feel they are budget friendly convenience choices.

Buy in bulk where it makes sense

Don’t buy a ton of perishables like fresh fruit just because it’s on sale. If you have time to prep and freeze or can the fruit, then go for it. Things like canned goods, freezer staples and shelf stable items are great for buying in bulk, if you have the room. We have a small chest freezer, so I’m able to buy fruit on sale to freeze for smoothies or desserts and an extra ham or turkey when they are on sale for under $1 per pound around the holidays.

I also buy basmati rice in 20 lb bags because we prefer it over other types of rice and it is so much cheaper that way. To keep it fresh and manageable, I keep a small container of it in the cupboard and the rest goes into the freezer.

Shop creatively

It’s easy to have one or two grocery stores or box stores where you do all of your shopping. If you have farmer’s markets, discount groceries or ethnic groceries in your area, you may find better deals on some items.

For starters, if you have an Aldi nearby and haven’t given them a try, please do. I’ve found them to have a good selection of staples and they have a good guarantee on everything they sell. You won’t find many name-brands at Aldi, but with their guarantee, it’s worth trying and seeing if you like their store brands. They also carry a lot of gluten-free options, as well as dairy-free milk alternatives and a dairy-free mozarella cheese.

I also frequently shop a local Vietnamese grocery store. They have tons of fresh greens and other produce at really good prices. I also get a lot of specialty items, like things for making pho or sushi for sometimes half the cost or less of what I would pay at Kroger or Walmart. Bulk spices and rice are also cheaper there. For gluten-free pasta, rice noodles from there are cheaper than gluten-free options from Kroger and Walmart.

Find a method of meal planning that works for you.

Some people do really well with having every meal, every day planned out to every last detail. I prefer something more flexible that allows for changes based on last minute plans or whatever is on sale that week or whatever leftovers we need to eat. Regardless of the type of meal planner you are, have some sort of game plan in place.

Meal planning is one area where I need to improve, but I do have a basic game plan for meals that I’ll post on at a later date.

While you’re planning, don’t forget lunch. Leftovers are quick and easy lunches, so if you’re planning a dinner that reheats well, make enough for lunch the next day.

Keep staples for one or two quick meals on hand always

This is important in case you forget to plan, or something doesn’t work out with your plan. Whether it’s spaghetti and premade sauce, eggs, fruit and toast or some other meal you can throw together in under thirty minutes, keep the ingredients on hand for one or two backups that you like. Having a backup option makes it easier to eat at home when you might otherwise be tempted to eat out.

Eat real food

If you have to change your eating habits due to health or personal beliefs, it’s easy to try to substitute faux or “free” foods tailored to that diet. Price-wise though, it’s better to adapt your diet with real foods. Rather than faux meat burgers, try grilling portobello mushrooms or making your own patties with chickpeas. Instead of gluten free pasta, substitute rice or potatoes. Instead of diet drinks, flavor water, tea or soda water with fruit.

If you’re really craving cheese and you’re dairy free or bread and you’re gluten free, go ahead and splurge on the dairy or gluten free options. If you’re on a plant-based diet but desperately want something like a real burger, go for one of the faux meat patties. Just try to keep those splurges to a minimum and you’ll save money.

Find recipes for soups, stews and beans that you like

Soups, stews and beans are usually cheap, filling and can be a one pot meal. Having a few recipes you like and keeping the ingredients on hand can really help save money on food. They also are easy to make in bulk and usually freeze well, so making a bunch and having it for lunch or in the freezer for nights that dinner plans don’t work out helps prevent eating out. I love crock pots or pressure cookers for making soups and stews. It’s absolutely not necessary to run out and buy a slow cooker or pressure cooker, but if it’s something you’ve been considering, I love my electric pressure cooker for so many things.

Saving money on food.
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