Meal Planning Has Finally ‘Clicked’ for Us

Over the years, I have attempted to meal plan repeatedly, but I had no long-term success with it.

 

Why meal planning didn’t work for us in the past:

  • I overestimated our appetites, leading to overbuying groceries
  • our meal plans would be disrupted by our irregular work schedules or social plans
  • Kyle and I used to eat almost completely separate food
  • I kept overlooking that Kyle needs to eat more than I do
  • we batch cooked consistently, which has a lot of the same benefits as meal planning

 

Meal planning, in the periods I attempted it, was honestly a large stressor in my life and very time-consuming. I remember sitting with Excel spreadsheets, weekly grocery ads, and our grocery list app for up to four hours per weekend trying to get everything worked out. It was a nightmare, which is why I would never stick with it for more than a couple months. Not only that, it was ineffective in actually reducing our food spending – sometimes, I think it even caused us to spend more!

 

However, during my fellowship I started carefully and realistically planning my meals so that I wouldn’t overbuy and waste food. I had the exact same lunch virtually every day that I brought my lunch (we got lots of free lunches, too): salmon and broccoli. Knowing what I was going to eat for lunch every single day – having that decision already made for me – was so freeing! I started joking that salmon and broccoli were my black turtleneck.

 

When I moved back to Durham, I tentatively started meal planning for me and Kyle together, and I finally committed to it full-bore in May. Not only am I meal-planning for the two of us together, but I am also planning out my calorie and macronutrient consumption. I never tried to optimize that information in my previous meal plans because even just getting the meals down was so difficult.

 

Why is meal planning working for me now when it never did before? Some things have changed in our life as well as my planning process:

  • now that I work from home, I know I can cook any/every meal every day, so I don’t have the added planning dimension of which evenings I’ll be able to cook
  • I shop on Mondays rather than on Saturdays
  • Kyle and I eat the same dinner as one another every day
  • I don’t try to predict how much food Kyle will want to eat, but rather keep his preferred snack/4th meal options around
  • the added parameter of my calories/macros limits possibilities, which actually makes planning easier than having a wider range of food options open to me since I use my 4th meal and/or snack to balance the numbers from the main meals
  • I’ve nearly stopped trying new recipes

 

What hasn’t changed for us is that we like repetition. Kyle has the exact same breakfast and lunch every weekday, so all I have to do for that is make sure his ingredients are stocked. We have incorporated batch cooking into our meal planning; it’s not uncommon for us to have the same dinner four to six nights in a row. I vary my lunches a bit more than Kyle does because I generally eat produce from the farmer’s market, but will still eat only about two different lunches in a single week.

 

costco_haul

I often buy only about ~ 5 items at Costco, all perishable: in the pictured week, ham, spinach, broccoli, and yogurt

Moving my shopping day from the weekend to Monday has basically eliminated the ripple effect of meal plan disruptions. Most disruptions occur over the weekend, and if the disrupted meal is at the beginning of a week’s plan it throws the plan off a bit or the food is wasted. Now, if we have a change of plans for our weekend meals, I can just build the adjustment into the new week’s plan on Sunday or Monday. I also shop at the farmer’s market on Fridays or Saturdays, and doing my main shopping on Mondays gives me some buffer time to think about how to incorporate the (somewhat unpredictable) produce into the week’s plan. I used to try to shop at the farmer’s market, go home to meal plan, and then go grocery shopping the same day, which was too stressful. This week, I am experimenting with moving my grocery shopping day to Sunday, though, because I don’t like how much work time shopping displaces at the start of my work-week.

 

picking strawberries at a nearby farm in May

picking strawberries at a nearby farm in May

Kyle used to throw off my meal plans with his manly hunger. I had a pretty good beat on what I would want to eat each day, but had a lot of trouble predicting how much Kyle would eat. He would also frequently get free food at school, which might replace one of the planned meals. Now, I don’t stress about it. I just plan that he’ll always have his same breakfast and lunch, whatever dinner I’m having, and possibly a snack or two. If he gets some free food, he just saves the lunch he brought for the following day or skips a snack. Every week I make chili or soup in our slow cooker and he eats a serving of that if he wants it, and I just make another batch whenever the previous one runs out. He also has fairly non-perishable, go-to snack foods like peanut butter sandwiches, rice, or scrambled eggs, so I keep the ingredients around and he makes a snack sometimes.

 

I really thought that meal planning plus calorie/macro-tracking would be incredibly difficult – I was very impressed when Jenna proclaimed her per-meal price goal that also accounted for her nutrition goals! I’ve been back and forth on tracking because I essentially believe it’s pointless, but I also can’t seem to keep my weight in check without it. So I’m back on with tracking right now.

 

we've been eating a lot of asparagus recently

we’ve been eating a lot of asparagus recently

My body does best with a low-sugar, low-ish carb diet with plenty of protein. I don’t have particular trouble with gluten, beans, or dairy. Because I limit my sugar intake, I fit vegetables and fruits into my plan first, focusing on low-sugar/high-fiber varieties. I pair the produce with meat or eggs to create meals. I then get my fiber intake for each day up to my minimum using beans, oatmeal, flaxseed, etc. If I feel hungry at the end of the day, I add some nuts or dairy as a snack. Having this structure for my food each day actually makes meal planning a lot easier. Oh, and I basically stopped cooking breakfast – I mostly just eat oatmeal with peanut butter or something I cooked earlier in the week. I just like being able to get started with my workday faster.

 

I have also really simplified my recipe repertoire. In the past month I’ve only tried one new recipe, and it was a 2-ingredient slow-cooker one so it was no big deal. I’m basically just sticking with the tried-and-true easy recipes I’ve found or developed over the years. By developed I mean that I often try out a new recipe and then simplify it over the next few times I use it until it has a low number of easy ingredients.

 

For an example, this is my meal plan for this week (Sunday – Saturday, does not include Kyle’s weekday breakfasts and lunches):

 

mealplan7Jun2015

 

“ground beef + avocado” is my new favorite meal because it is delicious, nutritious, and very filling. I originally had in my plan for us to eat it six days in a row, but then decided to break that up with another type of meal. The reason for six is that we buy avocadoes from Costco in groups of six and cook ground beef one lb at a time, so twelve meals total (six days x 2 people) uses 2 bunches of avocadoes and 3 lbs of ground beef.

 

The original inspiration for the recipe was this taco breakfast bowl (which is great, but has too many ingredients that need chopping), but I liked the ground beef spices better in this taco salad recipe (which is great, but takes too much work), and I wanted it to be simpler overall.

 

I sautee 1 lb of ground beef with 1 onion, 1 bell pepper, 1 tbsp chili powder, 0.5 tbsp cumin, 0.75 tsp garlic powder, 0.375 tsp oregano, and 0.375 tsp paprika until it is fully cooked (this is 4 servings). We then mash 1 avocado and 2 tbsp salsa into each serving. Done. And awesome IMO.

 

To me, the benefits of this type of meal planning are mostly about not having to make decisions about what to eat multiple times per day, being more organized with shopping and using food, and hitting my nutritional goals each day. But I think most people turn to meal planning to help them spend less on groceries.

 

I think it’s a bit too early to declare grocery budget victory in this area, but it has been going well. Our target monthly budget from last fall for groceries was $420, so a little under $100 per week. In the five weeks since our graduation, we have spent an average of $76.51 per week. So that is a great early indicator!

 

Do you meal plan? What is your favorite method for keeping your grocery spending down? Have you ever failed at at common frugal tactic, and if you tried it again later were you successful? Are there any areas of your life in which you have overcome decision fatigue?

 

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28 Responses to "Meal Planning Has Finally ‘Clicked’ for Us"

  1. Jenna says:

    I’m so glad it’s working for you! That’s a great explanation of the whole thing. We’re still doing this system ourselves.

    I love that I have standard meals that are inexpensive and still meet my nutrition goals. I’m still enjoying them! And I love that I can be healthy without having to think/track all the time.

    1. Emily says:

      I still haven’t gone so far as to include pricing and modular-ization as you have, but I’m happy with where we are. If I can hit my $420/mo grocery goal that’s good enough for me, no need to fully minimize. I’m glad to hear your system has proven itself to be sustainable!

      1. Jenna says:

        The budget bit has been simplified over time. I know meals with yogurt/eggs are going to be inexpensive, so it just comes down to meat selection. Considering I eat somewhere around ~4 oz of meat in most meals, I try to keep meat purchases around $8/lb or less. I get more expensive stuff when it’s on sale. It’s just a rough calculation. And I break my guidelines all the time. 80% is enough to guide me in the right direction. It’s just a quick heuristic.

        But none of that matters if I overbuy and it gets thrown in the trash! So it’s definitely not the most important thing.

        It’s really more about the nutrition goals than anything else. Since I’m eating a set amount of food at a meal, everything else is just fun to calculate.

        1. Emily says:

          In my natural state, I would never look at the price of any food. Just last night Kyle and I went out to dinner (broke the meal plan! oops) and when I looked at the check I was like, “Oh, I didn’t realize my meal was so much more than yours!” and he basically facepalmed. It’s so frustrating to him that I don’t pay attention to prices! I’ve been trying to get better at it in the grocery store, though.

          My point here though is that OMG Kyle would never put up with me paying more than like $3/lb for meat! He is quite cheap in that way. (Except I do buy frozen salmon burgers and, again, I’m not sure what the price is, but it might be more than $3/lb. Oh, the sausage we get from the farmer’s market is $5/lb.) He even objects to me buying asparagus too often because it’s a pricier vegetable! I think after 5 years I’ve pretty well internalized that and only ever buy ground beef, chicken, and pork, unless there is a sale that I notice – my one new recipe in the last month was actually due to London broil being on sale. This is a point of contention because I would like to buy higher quality meat. Maybe with us finally being out of grad school we can re-evaluate this point.

  2. Fiby says:

    “What hasn’t changed for us is that we like repetition. Kyle has the exact same breakfast and lunch every weekday”

    I make just one lunch for myself that I take to the lab every day – curry with chicken and vegetables. For dinners, beef or pork (bought premarinated from the store) and frozen vegetables (I used to try to eat fresh vegetables, but I am so lazy with food that I would hardly ever cut up fresh vegetables with my beef or pork unless I cooked frozen vegetables that I can just pour into a pot and heat for six minutes).
    And breakfasts, oatmeal, eggs, toast, and sometimes avocados.

    Very repetitive, but I still enjoy it and it makes meal planning easy (as in, I don’t actually plan haha).

    1. Emily says:

      Before we were married Kyle would eat the same breakfast, lunch, and dinner for months on end until he grew tired of the dinner and then he would switch that to another for another few months… he has about 3 go-to dinner recipes. I swear during my fellowship he ate burritos for dinner every day! So apparently I’m the one who likes variety (relatively)?? He eats cereal for breakfast and lunch is a turkey and cheese sandwich, broccoli, an orange, and a yogurt. Your lunches and dinners definitely sound healthier to me than his incredibly SAD choices. You definitely don’t need to plan when you eat the same thing every day! Your whole life is a black turtleneck!

      Hey, I think that if buying frozen vegetables is what it takes to get you to consistently cook at home, that’s what you gotta do! It’s definitely better than eating out. Kyle also used to buy pre-prepared meat from the grocery store when he was single… Hmm, a lot of similarities!

      I used to use frozen vegetables quite often, but Kyle hates them – he prefers canned! I don’t like canned and I keep telling him that is the least healthy option. But the upside to our disagreement there is that we keep a LOT of fresh vegetables around, and that is the best anyway, as long as they don’t go to waste. They do take some time to prepare, though, and I am the slowest at chopping.

      1. Fiby says:

        Haha I’m pretty sure that I (and by extension Kyle) am the exception, not the norm, when it comes to not desiring variety in my diet. Though I have not actually tried to look up or gather any data on this haha. And actually, the curry cubes I use have an incredible amount of salt, so I don’t think it’s that healthy (although the jury’s still out on whether salt is actually bad for you – I think the latest research says its the salt to potassium ratio that is important, not salt consumption in absolute terms).

        I used to think frozen vegetables aren’t as good as fresh vegetables. But because of my laziness it literally boiled down to not eating vegetables at all or eating frozen ones, so I just started eating frozen vegetables.
        And I looked this up actually – for some vegetables, frozen ones are better because it freezes and preserves the nutrients when the vegetables are fresh. However, some nutrients (I believe Vitamin A was an example) are water soluble, and will get washed away when you cook them.

        1. Emily says:

          I’d say you are more typical than you think. I’ve observed that a lot of men, when left to their own devices, eat the same thing every day or are on a very limited rotation. I think that’s especially true if the person is being health- or money-conscious – they found one set of food that meets their specifications, and why vary from it?

          I think it’s pretty well-established that canned vegetables are the least healthy option, though! Like I said, I don’t mind some frozen vegetables – I agree with you that they are better frozen than absent – but for Kyle it’s a texture thing. I don’t mind salt, actually, and use quite a bit in my cooking, but I don’t use much in the way of pre-prepared foods.

          1. Fiby says:

            Hahaha now you’ve got me curious. I shall ask my friends and see. But I totally get the health or money conscious aspect.

            I do notice a slight difference it texture in frozen vegetables, but I’ve gotten used to it.

  3. This is so impressive! I’ve always tried to meal plan, but never successfully. Now I just try to buy the least amount of food possible at the grocery store. I’d rather go a few times a week, than buy more than I need. I’ve actually avoided tracking my macros because I thought it’d be difficult, but now I realize it might make meal planning possible again.

    1. Emily says:

      I agree with you about the frequency of shopping. One of the reasons meal planning tricked me into overbuying was that I was trying to be very strict about only shopping once per week and I didn’t want to run out of anything on the plan. Now, I do shop only once per week most weeks, but I allow myself to run to the store for something in between if necessary. Going to the farmer’s market and the grocery store on different days helps, too.

      I think the most helpful part of combining calorie/macronutrient tracking with meal planning is that it cut out a lot of options that were otherwise open to me. Instead of being able to buy ANY vegetable or fruit for our meals, I know I have to stick with low-sugar options. I’m not eating potatoes, so that eliminates a whole host of possible recipes! That is really helpful in the decision-making process. Plus, I try to allow what’s available at the farmer’s market to dictate some meals – this week Swiss chard and eggplant were available, so that decided my lunches. Much easier.

  4. Leigh says:

    Meal planning is key to the happiness in our relationship 😉 When I was single, I would batch cook on Sunday night enough dinner to get me through Wednesday and then eat out some other nights and maybe cook once more. That required very little planning. But my boyfriend eats twice as much food as I do, so that doesn’t work quite as easily anymore.

    At first, I planned on cooking EVERY night with a different meal. That was terrible! Now we’ve gotten into a pattern of cooking about half the week. I pick 2-3 meals for the week and then we’re flexible when we actually cook them. That satisfies my desire to have things in the house so we don’t have to stop at the grocery store on the way home from work (but we both can easily if need be) and satisfies his desire to not have rigid plans of what we’re eating when. Neither of us are big on leftovers, so this pattern seems to work well for us. We usually spend about $300-400/month on groceries, which isn’t bad considering how unfrugal we are with our dinners: fresh pasta, plenty of meat, fruit smoothies, good quantities of fruit, not watching sales or couponing, going to the expensive grocery store, delicious chocolate, etc.

    1. Emily says:

      I used to kind of assume meal planning meant cooking something different every day because those are the examples you most often see, but I think that’s because the examples are for whole families and two people won’t eat all that food in one meal. Batch cooking really does get you most of what meal planning does, so that worked well for us when we had less of a routine. Now we can go the whole hog, though.

      How are leftovers distinct from batch-cooked meals? Or do you not care for batch-cooked meals any longer?

      I am surprised you are spending so little (well, less than us!) on food when not trying to be frugal at all. ‘My’ food is definitely more expensive than ‘Kyle’s’, to the extent it differs, because I’m not eating starches. But other than that, we shop in bulk, buy inexpensive cuts of meat, and are pretty careful not to let anything go to waste. That’s kind of why I think we’re half-failing at frugality by having such a generous grocery budget! It’s amazing how much people can differ in this area.

      1. Leigh says:

        We usually cook 4 meals (so 2 nights) at once, whereas I used to cook 4 meals (4 nights) at once. To me, 2 nights isn’t batch cooking, that’s just leftovers, and 4 nights *is* batch cooking.

        Keep in mind that we both eat out for lunches, so our lunches aren’t included in the groceries figure. When I was tracking the grocery spending, I would separate out things like toilet paper, deodorant, and cutting boards. My boyfriend doesn’t do that, so our grocery spending is looking a bit inflated. Maybe you+Kyle eat more food than we do?

        1. Emily says:

          Yes, we very well might just eat more! But that is our all-in budget for food and household consumables so since you eat out for lunch that will be part of the difference.

          I just asked because I haven’t thought about the concept of leftovers in quite a while, except I guess from restaurants… I think I’ve just become accustomed to either cooking larger amounts of food that will reheat well (batch cooking) or cooking smaller amounts of food that won’t reheat well so I’m sure we finish it that day.

  5. Wow – adding in nutrient tracking into meal planning sounds complicated!

    I have shared your struggle to figure out how much food my boyfriend will eat. We use a similar approach: have the same dinner each night (he usually has a larger portion), and then we have snacks that he likes and are healthy around in case he is still hungry.

    1. Emily says:

      I’m so into fairness (and counting) that we split dinners exactly down the middle! But having the other food around seems to be working. Kyle often eats lunch in the late afternoon, is fine with splitting dinner evenly with me, and then eats another almost-meal quite late in the evening. Thankfully since I have taken over the grocery shopping there is much less junk food around the house, so his snacks are, like, sandwiches or chili rather than chips, which I think is a big improvement.

  6. Mrs. PoP says:

    We’re batch cookers, but we don’t map out meals for the week. We’d both like to try that out to better balance nutrients within each day, but have agreed that we need to put it off until our kitchen is no longer a major construction zone. =P

    BTW – Is that a new subheader for you? I like it! It fits so well!

    1. Emily says:

      I’ve been following your remodel story and today’s post definitely struck me as “how are you doing this!?” Hey, you have to adapt to the various phases of life. Batch cooking is the best you can do right now, and that is very good!

      That’s been our subheader since day 1! We are finally making good on it, 3+ years in!

  7. Emily, just be more committed to it as if like you have to religiously follow it like that of saving. Meal planning becomes easier when you are into it. Happy meal planning!

    1. Emily says:

      I have to confess that we spontaneously went out to dinner just last night! It’s the first time we’ve majorly deviated from my plan – and on the same day this post went up! Thankfully all that does is push out our ground beef + avocado dinner plan an extra day.

  8. Alicia says:

    Our meal plan is a work in progress basically all the time. My efforts on the weekend can get us to Thursday on a good day, but then Friday it all usually hits the fan. On Sunday I will cook my “southwest chicken and rice” for 4-5 servings for me for lunch (D doesn’t like it so I know I’m guaranteed it), and I’ll cook a large batch of something that I can tweak into another meal later in the week.

    For example, Saturday I made stuffed peppers and rice, plus prepped spaghetti sauce (half in fridge, half in freezer). Sunday I made my lunch meal, and homemade burgers and salad. Monday I had everything ready to throw together a lasange and salad because of the pasta cause in the fridge. Tonight we have chicken souvlaki marinating to throw in greek pitas with tzatiki. Tomorrow will likely be omelettes to get the asparagus and spinach used up. But after that I have to figure out what to mix together for tomorrow night. The good ole standby of pita pizzas with whatever is in the fridge? 🙂

    It is a shame that I’m the better cook between me and D because I’d love to rotate evenings with him. The thing is a lot of the recipes I alter, and then once I’ve made them a few times I don’t even read a recipe… So it’s all in my head – I’m very much a simple cook, but it’s GOOD, simple food. I figure if I can get my lunches covered throughout the week and ensure at least 5 nights of cooking, we’re doing a lot better than the average person.

    1. Emily says:

      Yeah, you’re definitely doing better than average by having so many weeks per meal out of your own kitchen. Good job on getting your lunches uniform throughout the week… any chance of repeating dinners or is that not to your taste?

      I don’t know if other people would like the food I cook (Kyle likes most of it, I guess), but like you said mine is simple and wholesome and I think it’s good. Probably the recipes that I find are appealing to wide groups, but I wonder if the modifications I make would be appreciated by most people or if I’m tweaking them for my own particular tastes.

      1. Alicia says:

        Well the leftovers generally turn into D’s lunches. I have mine covered with the slow cooker, but he eats the leftovers for lunch. I generally cook serving for 3-4ish, and by the time we eat, he eats lunch, there *might* be one leftover.

        Oh I know my modifications are for mine and D’s tastebuds. We LOVE garlic and a good amount of heat (assuming it isn’t actually spicy), so everything that can be tweaked that way will be. My parents (and definitely my grandparents) wouldn’t appreciate half of how we make our food 🙂

    2. When we got married, my husband could barely boil water. Now he’s a better cook. How did he become a better cook? PRACTICE.

      1. Alici says:

        I dunno how many bad meals I can sit through until the practice turns into being a decent cook 🙂 But I definitely understand the sentiment.

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