How I Simplified My Meal Planning

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I'm just going to come right out and say it: Food is hard.

At least for me it is.

It never mattered how much I simplified or how many improvements I made to myself or my life, when it came to food I was always such a mess. 

Grocery shopping was a nightmare. I didn't know what to buy, couldn't put together a meal to save my life, and I would typically leave the store with crackers, peanuts, and various cheeses.... and that was it. Well, maybe a vegetable if I was feeling particularly healthy that week.

And don't even get me started on the 2 full months I ate nothing but potato chips, sweettarts and  soda...

When I got married it got even worse. I mean, how am I supposed to feed another person when I can barely feed myself?

I learned to make a few decent meals, but they were few and far between. 

So many people told me to try meal planning, but that just didn't work out well for me. I actually dreaded meal planning every week. It consisted of me sitting down for a couple hours, looking through several cookbooks, and then crying because I just want to make "normal" food.

Totally unproductive use of my time.

And that's how we ended up on a diet of entirely frozen food.

I know, I'm cringing just thinking about it.

But then a few months ago, a friend gave me a very simple piece of advice that changed everything. 

Make a Master Meal List

During a conversation where I was sharing my food struggles (hardcore complaining) with my friend, she told me "why don't you just make a list of what you like eating and go from there?"

Now, I've made lists like that before of specific ingredients and foods that I like eating. And they've not helped at all. 

But, it got me thinking, what if instead of making a list of ingredients, I made a list of actual meals.

That led to me making my "master meal list." 

I sat down for about 30 minutes and wrote out every meal or dish that I knew how to make and actually liked eating. I ended up with about 30 entrees and a dozen sides. 

After I had my list, I split them up into different sections (chicken, beef, meatless meals, tacos, etc) and put the list on the fridge. 

I'd like to take a minute to clarify that, yes, I have an entire section of my meal list dedicated to various types of tacos. I feel no shame in that. 

I was skeptical at first how well this "master meal list" thing would work. But I can tell you now, after a few months of using it, it has been an absolute dream.

Every week, before I go shopping, I sit down and pick 4-5 meals and sides for the week. 

The grocery list practically makes itself at that point. 

I've become a more confident cook

One of my favorite side effects of simplified meal planning is how confident I've become. 

Because meal planning is no longer stressful, and I already feel comfortable making all the meals on my list, I feel so much more confident in the kitchen. 

Which means when I do decide to branch out and try something new, it's not nearly as terrifying as it used to be. Meal times aren't a source of tears anymore. 

But it's not just that I'm so used to making all the meals.

Since the meal list doesn't change, we repeat the same dishes often. That means the grocery list is often the same. I've become accustomed to what ingredients we use all the time, and how much is left over after certain recipes.

This has led to me getting creative with how we use our leftover ingredients.

Some of those "creative" meals turn out great! And they actually get added to the master meal list. 

And if they don't turn out great? Well, I just make a mental note to not do that again. No big deal.

We've been saving money on groceries

Probably the biggest benefit of the master meal list, apart from being able to actually have home-cooked meals most of the week, is that it's saving me at least $100 a month on groceries.

Let's be real here, meal planning is probably always going to save you money on groceries.

Having a plan and a list when you go into the store keeps you from making the impulse purchases.

And knowing how to use your ingredients keeps you from having to throw food away.

But the biggest money saver has been removing the need for frozen foods. 

Frozen meals are expensive. They may be quick and easy, but they cost a lot compared to a home-cooked meal.

So the savings we saw were immediate. I'd been spending well over $100 each week when I'd get groceries, just random items and meals here and there. But since we've started using the master meal list and planning ahead, I typically only spend $70 each week.

And lately we've been planning so well, I don't even have to go to the store each week. 

I imagine that as we continue to adjust to this new way of meal planning and using up our leftovers, we'll be able to save even more and grocery shop even less.

Make your own master meal list

The process is so easy. Really, it's a little unbelievable that I didn't think of it sooner.

Sit down with a pen and a piece of paper and write down everything you know how to make. Write down every meal you can think of that you enjoy eating.

Now, I had a couple meals that I enjoy and know how to make, but they're complicated and stressful for me, so I actually left those off.

The goal is to make meal time enjoyable.

You can also include lunch items on this list as well, sandwiches and salads and such. 

Even if you can't think of a lot of meals or dishes, that's fine. There's no set number you need to have. Just go with what you have for now. You can always add more meals to your list later.

An example of my Master Meal List

An example of my Master Meal List

Once you have your list, break it up into different sections. I did mine based on ingredients. 

The meal categories I have on my master meal list are Lunches (for sandwiches and cold meals), Sides, Desserts (because obviously), Soups, Italian, Mexican, Comfort, and Morning (because Breakfast didn’t fit when I was typing it all up).

I also color-coded the meals and printed it... because it's something I look at a lot, so I wanted it to be pretty.

Decorate your master meal list however you want and then pop it up on the fridge.

When I meal plan and go shopping, I choose 4-5 main dishes, 2 sides, 1 dessert, and 1 cold lunch. But the number of meals you need to plan for may be different depending on how large your family is. 

I just have me and the Mountain Man to feed, so we don't need very much.

And that's it! That's how I made meal planning and grocery shopping a breeze!

If you try the master meal list, make sure you leave a comment and let me know how it goes!

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