Food for Thought: Meal Planning Made Easy

I don't know how people function if they don't meal plan. Seriously, I don't. And in the name of this post I even tried it for a week, just to see what it was like, and you guys. I think we had mac and cheese, a frozen pizza, ramen two nights in a row (although Mike protested and had leftover pizza one night instead) and Chipotle on the fifth night. 

Wait, lemme think. 

Yep. That's exactly how it went.

I'm natural planner, and I love thinking about my next meal (doesn't everybody?), so me and meal planning go together like bloggers and sock buns - total BFF's. One of the biggest hang ups I hear from friends and family is that they look at the fridge in the evening and don't know what to make, so they turn to the quick and easy processed foods. 

And here's something that will blow your mind: THAT'S TOTALLY NORMAL.

I mean, seriously? There are very few people in the universe who can look at a fridge/pantry, assess the situation and come out with a delicious, healthy meal in 30 minutes. Those who do have written cookbooks, or at least an e-book, or maybe just a blog, but that's like a superpower people. So what are you normal people doing not meal planning? 

Okay, that was harsh. I'm off my soapbox, and I'm going to help you get started. If you struggle with meal planning, I'm going to share my tried-and-true system with you today, and I promise, it's super easy - and easily modified to fit your life. 

It all goes down on Google Calendar. If you don't have a Google account - how to I put this nicely - you should get one. So be warned, this tutorial is made special for Google Calendar. 


Since we've already covered how to find great recipes, you should hopefully have lots that you're ready to plan with. I tend to meal plan about a week or two at a time, usually sitting down sometime over the weekend or on Monday morning for about a 1/2 hour to plan meals and a grocery list. Our schedule is so different each week, it's not usually worth planning much further out. Mike and I share a calendar with all our "activities," and I also have one for the blog (Believe it or not, I DO have an editorial calendar for this baby.) and one that's strictly for meal planning. Here's what it looks like when just the menu calendar is open. As you can see, I wrote this post last week on the 11th - so the dates are a bit off.


For nights when there isn't any meal, we're either out of town or have a commitment in the evening that we're eating at. With Google Calendars, you can turn on or off calendars with the click of a button, so I'll usually have Mike and I's calendar up while I do this so I can easily see what's going on each evening - making sure I plan a more simple meal when we have commitments after dinner, or something more elaborate if we're having guests. As you can probably tell, we had guests this past weekend, so there are lots more meals planned - normally, I don't really plan breakfast or lunch, unless we have visitors.

Another thing to note is I usually plan one or two less meals than required. This is simply because there are a lot of nights where things come up, I don't feel like cooking and we go out to eat, or we'll eat leftovers. Doing it this way seems to be a good way to cut down on food waste.

When I add a meal I want to make, I just throw the name of it and the hyperlink in the main box (shown below). If I'm making something from a cookbook, I'll just note the page number instead. 


Then later, when you're ready to make the meal, you can just double click on the "event" or meal and you're taken to an event-specific page, which will give you the hyperlink to the recipe or page number. Simple and easy.


The biggest reason I love Google Calendars is because you can easily move an "event" or meal, with just the drag of your mouse. So, say you were gone unexpectedly one evening, the next day you can look at your menu and move meals around so you still eat that meal and don't waste the ingredients. Usually, I'll try to assess how soon my produce will go bad, and prioritize in that order.

A couple other perks:
  • I "shared" this calendar with Mike, so he can check out the menu too - like me, he also likes thinking about his next meal. We're obviously a match made in Heaven. 
  • Another great use for being able to move meals easily is the fact that I can easily remake a recipe two weeks or a month later. I just go find what I'm looking for and drag it to the new date I want it. If you really love a meal, you can even set it up to "recur" and it'll appear once a month/week whatever. 
  • Google Calendar has a great app for iPhone and Android, meaning I can meal plan while out and about, double check the menu while at the grocery store, or easily get to the recipe right from my phone. 
By meal planning a week at a time, I usually go to the grocery store once a week (and the farmer's market in the summer) and to Costco once a month to stock up on bulk items. Most grocery store runs are for dairy/produce/meat, but usually there are a few pantry items in there that I don't need 10 lbs. of from Costco. I know people who meal plan a month at a time and I can see that working really well for those who have a more consistent schedule and/or larger families. They stock up once a month, then it's just a super short trip once a week for produce/dairy. Whatever works! 

Okay, anyone else out there an obsessive meal planner like me? What are your tricks of the trade? I wanna know!

Like this post? Here's the others in this series.
Food For Thought: Misunderstandings & Baby Steps
Food For Thought: My Transformation
Food for Thought: Finding & Making Great Recipes

22 comments:

  1. Ok I use a paper and pen and get so annoyed that I throw it away and can't remember what we ate 2 weeks ago. GOOGLE CALENDAR, DUH!!! I will be setting one up today.

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  2. bahaha I was just thinking this- I use paper (which I then toss/black out on meals a week later), or email myself hyperlinks, so then when I want to recreate the meal a few weeks or a month later I have to try to search my inbox- which is impossible. DERP, also making a calendar pronto. Also, M and I have our own calendars (and I can't link to his whole personal one because he has like, every FB birthday and garbage day and clean the gutters and OMG THE CLUTTER on the calendar drives me bonkers)-- but a whole separate one just for "evening plans" would make a lot of sense!

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  3. This is great advice! I love Google Calendars, but I never thought to use it for meal planning! Genius! :)

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  4. Great advice!! I use iCal (I really can't seem to master Google calendar) for everything and this is just a no brainer. Why didn't I think of this?

    I'm a huge planner too but my meal plan is on a Martha Stewart menue board on our fridge. Just in case you want to check it out


    http://www.staples.com/sbd/cre/products/martha-stewart-home-office/meal_planning.html

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  5. I too love meal planning, but cannot get behind any electronic calendar (I know I'm in the minority here). I use the Knock-Knock pads for meal planning and grocery lists and save my favorites to Pinterest. If anyone also loves pen and paper planning, the pads I use are here: http://knockknockstuff.com/product/what-to-eat-pad/, http://knockknockstuff.com/product/all-out-of-pink-pad/.

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  6. You just served me a major 'duh!' moment, Laura, and I can't thank you enough! I use google calendars at home and at work and have no idea why I didn't think to make a calendar for meals! I'm totally geeking out and filling in my calendar tonight while my little lady is in bed -- super exciting Friday evening, I know!

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  7. About once a week I sit down with a pile of cookbooks and decide what I am going to make (I like to try new recipes). In the summer I usually have a list of what I bought at the farmer's market and things I have from the garden and then base the recipes around those items. I write the recipe title cookbook and page number down on a list and use it to make my grocery list. I don't decide which day I will make things because so often I find I won't actually have time after we've gone for a walk or played outside after getting home from work. For people out there who are a little intimidated by the calendar this has worked for me.

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  8. Ha - glad I could help you both out! Hope it works well!

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  9. Thanks Carolyn, hope it works out!

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  10. You're so organized! Very impressive! I like the idea of waiting until the day of to determine what you'll actually make - it definitely would morph nicely with a flexible schedule!

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  11. So cute! Love those pads. Totally understand not wanting to go electronic. I have things that I just can't go "techie" with either. :)

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  12. Love that menu board, nice and minimalist! iCal is great too, whatever works!

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  13. Hi, I saw this the day after my husband and got in a HUGE argument over meals. He loves google calendar, and I love the fact that I can make him realize how far I want to stretch a meal. This might be the solution to our problems! Oh, and thank you for posting those great recipe sites. Thank you for telling me that I need to organize more! It was needful advice!

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  14. Wow, you take menu planning to a whole new level! Very impressive! I actually only more recently have embraced planning meals in a more concrete way. I always had kinda a running list in my head of what we had available, and I did lots of grocery runs after work. But that was ok with me cause I like shopping and was killing time before my hubby got home from work. A few years ago something as organized as this would have sent me screaming in the other direction. :o)
    Today, I like to think I have found a happy medium for me and my family. I use the Out of Milk app. It keeps my grocery lists and I also just write down what meals I have ingredients for in another list. I do it in 5-7 meal chunks, which lasts a week or longer depending on what we have on our calendar. This way I am more organized at the store, and go much less frequently. (My son is quite good natured, but being in a shopping cart everyday is not his idea of a good time!) But it also gives me flexibility on deciding what sounds good to me and what do I have time for on any particular day!

    Side note: My husband would LOVE the Google calendar method as he too wants to look forward to what he is coming home to eat! I don't think I will show him this post! :o)

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  15. Hi Rachel! I'm so glad this is helping you out! Isn't is funny that food is so personal it can cause fights?! I've totally been there. I hope this works well for your family!

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  16. Bah! I love that you don't want to show Matt this. :) Love the idea of the Out of Milk app - just check it out and it looks pretty cool! 5-7 meal is pretty much what I end up doing too, it's just easier with crazy schedules. I'm glad you've found a happy medium that works!

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  17. This is amazing! I have always loved the idea of meal planning, but never been able to get organized on a weekly basis. There have been so many times that I've bought ingredients for the week, and then we end up not having time to make the meals and eating different things, going out with friends, etc., so the food goes to waste. I usually try to have a couple ideas for the week in my head, but it's not organized or planned much at all, and we have to stop at the store frequently throughout the month, sometimes week. I would love to get more organized and actually make some good meals other than grilled chicken and roasted veggies (my go to staple - yummu but I think the hubs is a little bored with it). I already use Google calendar so this just might be the solution!

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  18. I totally used to be that way too - it's definitely so easy to waste food that way. I usually forget what I'm supposed to make, or don't have an ingredient or just get bored because I forget to try new things! I hope this works for you!

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  19. Laura, I use a free service called yumprint. But I am a bit frustrated with it lately (first world problem!). Anyways, I used to do the google calendar idea but I could never figure out a great "cookbook"/list where I kept my recipes. Any tips?

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  20. Hey Sarah, I'm not sure how efficient it is, but here's what I do: http://www.oaklandavenueblog.com/2012/12/how-i-manage-my-recipes-cook-book.html I use Google Docs and it works okay, but I've found there's a lot of formatting that I don't love spending my time on. I hear a lot of people swear by Evernote, so maybe give that a try? Google Docs seems to work just fine, but I can't say "It's the best ever!!!" :)

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