Meal Planning Made Efficient

Liz Jones
Liz Jones
Feb 29, 2020 · 5 min read

My husband and I love to cook. And we love to eat our home cooked food (and share it with friends!). Culinary adventures are one of our favorite past times.

We cook 80–90% of our meals from scratch. AND we both work full time jobs where one or both of us arrive home at 6pm or after. People often comment that they’re surprised/impressed that we cook so much. I assure you, it’s not too impressive, but it does require a bit of intentionality.

Practically intentional home cooked meals start with a plan. For us, that involves a simple excel spreadsheet that has a grid of meals for two weeks. It looks a little something like this:

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And it’s ultimately easy (read: lazy) if you make a simple formula so that when you enter the first date, the others autofill. I open the file, change the first date, and print it. Then change the first date to 2 weeks out, put that same paper back in the printer (flipped over) and print again. Voila, meal plan templates for 4 weeks in less than 2 minutes on 1 piece of paper.
This paper lives on our fridge.

Once a week (usually Saturday) I sit down and plot out the upcoming week’s meals. If you are starting from scratch, this may feel overwhelming. But I think most people have at least a few “go to” meals- so start with what you know. We have cookbooks that I pull from, but for the most part I have bookmarked recipes in my web browser and categorized them into various folders (e.g., soups, salads, sides, desserts, entrees- which are further divided into chicken, beef, fish, vegetarian, etc). After meal planning like this for about 4 years, I mostly can look through my bookmarked recipes and plot out the week’s meals in 20 minutes. It used to take longer, maybe even 45 minutes. It may feel time consuming at first, but as with anything, you become more efficient and organized over time.

Then I make a grocery list for the week’s meals. And for that I also have a template that looks like this:

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This list includes the most common items we purchase, so then I merely need to check off what we need to buy that week. I update it at most 1–2 times a year to add or remove items. In general, I end up writing out less than 5 items a week. And as you can see, I have this formatted in Word so that two fit on one page horizontally. Open the file, print several copies, cut in half, and you’re set with grocery lists for weeks.

My husband typically does the grocery shopping, so I review the list with him, and then he does one grocery run for the week (usually Sunday morning). This is another key time saver- making meals is way more stressful and time consuming if you have to go out to the grocery store multiple times each week because you don’t have a plan. Of course sometimes I forget something (especially when pregnant!), or don’t realize we are out of something, and one of us has to do a second trip. But on the whole- one grocery store trip each week.

Then for the cooking. In a given week our meal plan is usually 1 breakfast item, 2 lunch items, and 2–3 dinner items that we make in ‘bulk’ (i.e., for 2–3 days). Practically speaking, this is usually a breakfast casserole like an egg bake or baked oatmeal; 2 soups or salads; and 2–3 dinners. We often both cook something on Sunday, and then usually we only have to cook 2 other nights during the week to make the remaining items. You read that right, we only cook 2–3 nights a week. As with anything, economies of scale (can) help gain efficiencies.

Finally, I utilize my freezer a ton. You can freeze almost anything. If I have 2 extra portions of soup, I stick it in tupperware, put a label on it, and freeze it for later. In fact, I often plan to make a bit extra so we have some backup meals (more on that in another post)!

Which leads me to my final template, a freezer log, which also lives on our fridge, and which looks something like this:

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I see it as the least important of my 3 templates, and I mostly use it because I’m a) forgetful and b) too lazy to look through everything in my freezer. Yes, even though I only have a normal size freezer. When I’m planning meals I just look at the log, and if we are a bit busy that week, I include something I have frozen. Or if I’m wondering if we have any frozen chicken to use for the chicken curry that week, I check the log. When I pull something out of the freezer, I cross it off the log. Easy peasy.

To summarize. Once you have the templates established, average total time involved for ONE WEEK of home cooked meals in our household:

  • 1/2 hour for meal planning
  • 1 hour for grocery shopping
  • 4–6 hours of cooking, depending on the complexity of meals
  • 1/2 hour of dish washing (this again will vary based on meals and whether or not you have a dish washer)

So we’re talking 6–8 hours total time each week to have 80–90% of our meals be home made. Whether this seems like a lot, a little, or just right to you will certainly vary based on your individual circumstances. But at least in our case, using these tools and processes to gain some efficiencies has enabled us to eat the vast majority of our meals from scratch. And do so through a variety of seasons of life (e.g., with limited income, with both of us working, with a newborn).

How about you? Do you have tricks and tips to enable you to make home made meals even with a busy schedule? What seems most daunting about meal planning/home cooking? How might you adapt what I’ve done for your situation?

Practically Intentional

Practical posts for intentional living

Liz Jones

Written by

Liz Jones

I seek to grow in wisdom, build community, and love people well. I write to share what I’ve learned along the way and encourage others in their journey.

Practically Intentional

Practical posts for intentional living

Liz Jones

Written by

Liz Jones

I seek to grow in wisdom, build community, and love people well. I write to share what I’ve learned along the way and encourage others in their journey.

Practically Intentional

Practical posts for intentional living

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