How to Get Organized with Meal Planning

 snack with cooking magazine

It's back-to-school time, and with that comes feelings of getting back into a routine and leaving behind the relaxed vibe that summer brings. I don't know about you, but no matter how far removed I am from my school, I still feel a small sense of excitement when Labor Day rolls around. 

Getting organized with meal planning is not exclusive to students though. Meal planning can save a tremendous amount of time and energy which is something that we don't always have come 6:00pm on a week night.

Here are a few ways you can nail it in the kitchen and use that saved time for relaxing with a glass of wine or tea instead. 

Always Keep a Notebook Close 

Keep a notebook in your purse or car so whenever a meal idea or craving strikes, you can write it down. You can also use the notes app on your phone to do this (but I'm a sucker for pen and paper). If you already have a general idea of what you want to make by the time you sit down to write out a plan, I would consider this a win. You will probably still need to browse recipes or thumb through some cookbooks but at least it's a start. 

If you are a coupon-user, keep those tucked inside your notebook so you can factor them into your plan as well (and never forget them at home again - unless you forget your notebook too, then you're just out of luck). I get a great mini-magazine from the grocery store I visit regularly. They include coupons catered to my purchasing history so it's a win-win and also serves as some extra inspiration for meal ideas.

Use Technology to Your Advantage

There are a few ways you can utilize technology to help you out big time with meal planning. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Utilize the 'save' function on Instagram if you see a recipe that you want to refer back to later. As you can see below, all of your saved posts are in one easy-to-find place on your profile so you don't have to remember who posted what (click each photo to enlarge). 
  • Install a Pinterest plug-in on Google Chrome. This allows you to "pin" anything you find around the internet, regardless if the site has Pinterest functionality enabled. 
  • Try out a meal planning service that does all the work for you. For a small fee, I can provide weekly plans that are curated by registered dietitians and highly customizable. You can drag and drop recipes to meet your needs, scale the number of servings to suit your family and generate a printable grocery list. If this sounds like something you want to test out, you can sign up for a free 7-day trial before committing to a full month. 

Make a List

It all comes down to the list, doesn't it? The beauty of it is, you can use a pretty template, scrap paper, or even a cocktail napkin. Whatever the case, a list is just an all-around great idea because it helps ensure that you don't forget any necessary ingredients or just wing it and grab whatever looks good in the moment.

Start by listing everything you need and then take inventory of your kitchen and cross off any items you already have. This will help you cut down on food waste since you are buying only what you need. It can also help you stay on track with a weekly food budget. 

related resource: Get a list of the 10 healthy foods I always have on hand

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Leave Room for Flexibility

It can be easy to get stuck in a fruit and vegetable rut and buy the exact same thing every week. I like to keep this part of my plan as general as possible as a way to save time, and also so that I can scope out what's on sale and what looks the freshest once I actually get to the store.

Obviously you may need specific items if you are following recipes, but leave some room for shifting things around where you can. Shoot for at least one green and one orange vegetable, a berry of some sort (fresh or frozen) and whatever else is in season and looks good. Remember that almost any vegetable can be chopped up and thrown into either a salad or an egg scramble if you need to use it up fast so don't be afraid to think outside the box with your choices.

basic substitutions for common vegetables:

  • Broccoli - cauliflower (any color), chopped asparagus or brussels sprouts
  • Kale - collard greens, bok choy or swiss chard
  • Spinach - arugula 
  • Romaine - butter lettuce
  • Shredded napa cabbage - radicchio or purple cabbage
  • Carrots - roasted sweet potato or butternut squash
  • Green bell pepper - red bell pepper, poblano pepper
  • Cucumber - Persian cucumber (smaller and less watery), zucchini 
  • Onion - shallot, scallions

In summary, keep a notebook (or your phone) handy for taking notes throughout the week, use technology to your advantage, and make some sort of list before you go shopping but leave room for flexibility based on what catches your eye. Everyone tends to have a different system that works well for them, but don't be afraid to try something new to streamline that meal planning process and save you some time along the way.