Which causes more stress? Coming home after a long day of work and running kids around to then having to cook or paying for the whole family to eat out two or three times during the week because there's nothing easy to fix at home?
With the rising costs of food and eating out, either situation can bring stress and be hard on the budget. Meal planning can be your best friend and is easier than you might think.
Meal planning is deciding ahead of time what your family will eat for the next few days or a couple of weeks. Specific meals can be planned for specific days, or you can have ingredients for two or three meals that can be made up as your schedule allows. Either way, you have a plan for what to fix and can make sure you have what you need on hand. Taking time to meal plan can take the stress out of feeding your family.
A good starting point for meal planning is http://www.myplate.gov. Knowing what makes up a nutritionally balanced meal is essential. Using MyPlate, you can plan a meal that includes the five food groups and adds a healthy variety to your diet. MyPlate also has suggestions for making the healthiest choices for each food group plus easy low-cost recipes. It is a free resource that can make meal planning easy.
Before you start planning or making your shopping list, you might find it helpful to make a list of all the foods your family likes to eat. Be sure to include all the dishes you enjoy preparing or that someone in your household likes to make. You can categorize each food into its food group to make sure you have everything covered.
Keeping a master list of foods your family likes can also help you rotate dishes, so you don't feel like you are eating the same foods over and over. It will prevent wasting food because your family is more likely to eat what you prepare.
To create meal menus, start with a main dish from your list. Then consider what vegetables or grains will pair well with it. Don't forget that if the item is a casserole, you can often get multiple food groups covered in one dish. Add some fruit and dairy items to complete your plate and you have a meal that will be nutritionally balanced.
You can make multiple combinations of the foods on your list and make variations on how you prepare those foods. Even a list with only 10-15 main dishes can have endless possibilities when you start pairing other food items to each dish. Write down each combination so you will have a quick reference when deciding what to fix each week.
Next, take a moment to look at your family calendar for the week or longer. Confirm when you will actually be home. Consider which evenings you can cook and when you will need something quick and easy.
For example: You will be home three full evenings with time to cook and maybe two nights you will be home but not have time to prepare a full meal. You can plan to use three of your menus and either prepare extra of one or two of them for leftovers or plan to use the leftovers to create a casserole or soup as a quick filler meal. Another way to cover the short nights is to plan a slow cooker meal or use a meal you made ahead and froze.
Once you know your time frame take a basic inventory of what you already have in your pantry, freezer, and refrigerator. Knowing what is in your cabinets can help you rotate foods, so you do not end up throwing out food that has gone bad or expired. It will also prevent you from purchasing multiples of foods that you already have. Use your inventory to decide which menus you will use that week.
Keep an ongoing list as you use up staple ingredients or start running low. Once you know what is available, you can start using your meal menus to complete your shopping list. When you go shopping only buy what is on your list to prevent impulse buying. You can also compare your list to the sale ads or coupons that you have available.
Here's a handy printable meal planning work sheet that you can use to get started: https://livingwellchallenge.uada.edu/static/common/pdf/meal-planning.pdf.
For more tips on meal planning and stretching your food dollar you can contact the Garland County Extension Service at 501-623-6841 or email [email protected]