Happy March! This month, the Healthy Habits Happy Moms habit of the month is meal planning / meal prep (go check them out if you are looking for healthy habit ideas! I’ve tried a few of them and have really enjoyed them). I have been doing some form of meal planning for several years now, and have tried several different strategies. This post will discuss some of the strategies I have tried, and what is working for me right now.
I began meal planning when I had a CSA share and a full time job and no kid yet. I wanted to maximize what was in my share so we didn’t waste too much food. I would make a list of all the veggies in my fridge, and spend hours looking through cookbooks and choosing recipes to prepare. As I used all the vegetables, I crossed them off the list, until I had a meal plan that would use up all the vegetables.
I revisited meal planning when my kiddo was a baby. We were still adjusting to a much lower income, since I worked full time before he was born. I had read about meal planning as a great way to live on a budget.
The first (and best) I read about saving money on groceries is Cut Your Grocery Bill in Half with America’s Cheapest Family by Steve and Annette Economides. This book is LOADED with ideas on how you can save money on groceries. Even implementing just one or two of the ideas will probably have some effect on your grocery bill and I highly recommend it for everyone.
I read the book about three years ago and jumped right in. Of course you can probably predict how that went. We saved money for a little while, but then I couldn’t maintain ALL the new money saving habits. Research shows that if you try to adopt one new habit at a time, your chance of success is about 80%, but if you increase that to two new habits at a time, your chance of success drops to about 33% percent. Adding three new habits at a time and your chance of success drops to close to 0%.
So, I didn’t maintain most of the money-saving changes I made. Now that I know more about habit change, I understand why. I’d like to read the book again now, and make a list of habits I’d like to adopt….and then adopt them on the same schedule I would adopt any other new habit. SLOWLY.
Anyway, the Economides book walks you through how to set up a meal plan if you have never done it before. Their tone is conversational – it feels like you are hanging out in their house and Annette is letting you watch her as she plans and cooks and puts away her groceries. It feels like they are bringing you along on their shopping trips.
I started looking through all the weekly grocery sales flyers and plan my meals around what is on sale and what vegetables were in my CSA share. I would choose a few recipes I wanted to try. I would make a shopping list of all the ingredients I needed for those meals. I would go shopping. I would cook most of the meals on one afternoon.
And I ended up exhausted and burned out, so I gave up meal planning for a while. Our food budget went up again, and our stress levels went up because packing lunches for work became more difficult. At the end of a long day, we usually had to cook dinner or scrounge around for food.
And then my husband got injured in a bicycle accident and couldn’t help with the dishes or cooking or any of the housework, because he couldn’t put weight on his leg for a while. He couldn’t drive himself to work or play with our kid as much. It was winter and there were no CSA pick ups, so I was back to buying vegetables and fruit at the store for a few months, and I needed to figure all that out too. A lot of extra work and driving fell on me and I was overwhelmed. So I did something I wouldn’t have done back in the days when I was overly concerned about food quality.
I started buying “convenience foods” again, like cold cereal, sandwich ingredients, and frozen vegetables, and salad ingredients, including bottled salad dressings and condiments. I figured that if nothing else, we could eat cereal, sandwiches, and salads off of paper plates until I got my head on straight and got into a groove with my increased workload. I didn’t concern myself too much with the food budget because I was overwhelmed.
And you know what? We started eating a lot more vegetables! For the longest time I didn’t buy salad dressing because it was cheaper and healthier to make them at home…. but in reality I rarely made them at home. When I started buying bottled salad dressing, my husband and I both started eating a huge salad every day. Sometimes twice a day. My husband’s stress level went down because he could pack sandwiches for lunch and didn’t have to think too hard about how to put together a decent, filling lunch with leftovers that he could eat in a short amount of time.
Now, my husband is on the mend and able to do some standing and walking around the house again. We are doing some more weekly cooking again, but in a simpler way than we used to. Here is what has been working for us the past few weeks, without adding a lot of stress to our lives:
On Sunday afternoon, we cook the following:
- A cooked vegetable dish or two
- some seasoned baked chicken or turkey
- a pot of beans and rice.
- Sometimes I’ll make something else like a prepared salad (examples: lentil salad, or a vegetable slaw).
- Sometimes I’ll throw a some baked potatoes, sweet potatoes, or beets into the oven when the chicken is cooking.
This method doesn’t require a lot of thinking or planning, since it is the same every week. I don’t need to look up new recipes. It can be tailored to whatever vegetables or cuts of poultry we are craving and/or are on sale. The cooking doesn’t take more than a couple hours from start to finish. Usually my husband does the rice and beans, and I do the meat and vegetables. (For more Sunday meal prep ideas, see Mama Lion Strong’s posts, here and here).
Rather than relying on new recipes to add variety, I change up the seasonings each week, and rely on store-bought condiments.
We also keep the following on hand: plenty of fresh lettuce for salads. Eggs. Sandwich meats and canned tuna/salmon and peanut butter. Bread. Cold cereal. Almond milk. Oatmeal. Pasta and jarred sauce. Frozen veggies. Fresh and frozen fruit. Frozen cooked shrimp. Coconut milk and curry paste. Frozen pizza. Cheese. Baby carrots and hummus. Candy or cookies or brownies or macaroons. Any and all of these things might be eaten along with the food we prepared over the weekend.
We use gluten free versions of most of these things, since I get headaches far more often when I include gluten in my diet. But for bread, since my husband eats so much of it and has no ill effects from gluten, I keep both gluten free and regular bread in the house, since the regular bread is much cheaper. My kid doesn’t do well with dairy, so I don’t include it in family meals, but my husband and I enjoy it so sometimes we include it in our own meals.
For breakfast, we might have eggs, oatmeal, or cereal with almond milk. Fruit. I often have canned tuna or salmon, and some of the leftover cooked vegetables with breakfast. My husband and kid haven’t picked up on that habit yet.
For lunch, my husband packs a sandwich and a container of the beans and rice we cooked. He eats the whole thing. For myself, I usually pack a mix of the meat and vegetables we cooked over the weekend, and lettuce with dressing, and possibly a sandwich or some other item with some carbs in it. I also pack a portion of some kind of sweet treat food. I eat according to my hunger. Sometimes I eat everything I pack, and sometimes I don’t. For my son at the babysitter, I usually pack some of the meat and veggies and beans and rice, a peanut butter sandwich, and fresh fruit and baby carrots. Sometimes he eats everything I pack and sometimes he doesn’t. If he doesn’t eat it all, he usually finishes it for dinner.
We use a lot of store bought sauces and condiments on the pre-cooked meat and salad to make it more exciting. Right now my “I put that shit on everything” sauce is Brianna’s Honey Mustard Dressing. I’m sure one day I will get bored with it and move on to something else.
So, I don’t plan meals down to the day (and I don’t have any desire to), but I prepare some components of meals that we would like to eat more of….and then we incorporate those components in a flexible way throughout the week, based on our appetites and hunger levels.
This is what is working for me right now. Once we start picking up vegetables from our CSA again, I may need to rethink it a little. I will probably try and find a way to work it into this system, since this really seems to be working for us. We have zero stress around packing lunches, and we are buying a lot less take out, since there is prepared food in our fridge most of the time.