Why I Can’t Quit Meal Planning
For those of you that have been around here for a while (and especially since the “very beginning,”) you likely know that I am somewhat of a meal planning junkie. In fact, one of my very first posts to ever go viral was my Magnetic Menu Board; and despite very little work on my part, it is still one of my most popular and shared posts almost 6 years later! While I still love and believe in that monthly meal-planning system, somewhere along the way it stopped working for me. I’m a pretty big believer in adjusting our organization methods to meet our needs (or else we won’t stick to them!), so I simplified our system about 2 years ago and have pretty much stuck to it ever since. Fast forward to this year and, for some reason, I have been in a meal planning, shopping and prepping rut! Planning out our family meals, and even more so, shopping for them, has become one of my least favorite (and most procrastinated!) home responsibilities. Since that’s usually a big ol’ red flag that I need to change something, I set about to re-vamp our system yet again. Today, I thought I’d chat a bit about all the various things I’ve tried over the last year to get our meal planning system back on track and share why, despite all my failed attempts, I still can’t quit meal planning (even if I really want to!)!
The Magnetic Menu Board System
As I mentioned above, my first attempt to reign in our meal planning was a project I called the Magnetic Menu Board. Henry was a brand new baby, and I was not enjoying my weekly meal planning sessions at all, so I decided to adopt a one-month-at-a-time system. At the start of each month, I sat down for a few hours and hashed out all of our outside-the-home meal commitments, new recipes I wanted to try, and other events, and then filled in the rest of the calendar with a well-balanced variety of meals and sides. The monthly planning session did require quite a bit of time, but I really liked that I only had to sit down and plan once a month. And while I continued to shop for perishable items weekly, having the entire month planned out allowed me to take advantage of sales and bulk offers on certain shelf/freezer-safe items. I actually stuck to this monthly system for several years. There were certainly times that I moved meals around or strayed from the calendar entirely. But overall, the single month system worked really well…until Greg left on deployment…and then the whole system seemed too much for a single person.
Planning from a Recipe Log
When the monthly menu board became too much, I wanted an easier version of the same system. Besides planning out one month at a time, the other “trademark” of the above system was how I organized my recipes: by protein source. For some reason, this method of organizing and dispersing recipes across a week made the most sense to me (so much that I haven’t changed this particular part of my meal planning ever since!) I find these 6 categories are enough to keep things separate, distinct, and organized, but aren’t too many to keep track of or understand.
Instead of relying on my magnets, I transferred all my recipes to a log sheet...still organized into these 6 groups…
I then used my Recipe Log to plan out my meals weekly in my planner…
When Greg came back from deployment, I stuck to this weekly planning from my Recipe Log but displayed meals on a dry-erase board in the kitchen so he could see too.
I found the weekly meal plan was quicker and easier to manage (meaning I was more willing to actually do it) compared to the monthly version. However, planning one week at at time didn’t quite guarantee a strong recipe rotation, use of freezer stock, or bulk shopping the way the monthly system did. Still…it got the job done for about another 2ish years.
Then this past Spring, my willingness to meal plan came to a screeching halt. Not only was I “over” planning out our weekly meals (and shopping for them), but I was really, really tired of our usual recipes. I decided to halt all my planning and try the “just wing it” system. I eased off on following recipes (which were feeling really burdensome to pull together) and instead stuck to more of a protein + side + salad combination. Surprisingly (or perhaps, not surprisingly), this approach proved even harder and more frustrating for me. Without a list of recipes (or at the very least, loosely planned out meals), my shopping list became difficult to fill out. This caused me to spend more time and money at the grocery store just filling my cart with things I “might” use or need. More over, without a plan, pulling together evening meals became an even bigger chore. I would stand looking at the pantry and fridge and become increasingly frustrated that I couldn’t make basic meals because I was missing one thing or another. What I thought would liberate me from my meal planning boredom and frustration actually led to an even greater disdain for the entire task.
Meal Planning with Relish!
When we moved into our house here in California, I knew I needed to get our meal planning back on track. The “no system” I was using before, during and right after our move was increasingly making me frustrated and caused me to dread grocery shopping and meal time even more. For some reason, my previous systems felt too cumbersome to return to so I began the hunt for a fresh approach. This research lead me to the digital meal planning service: Relish! This very reasonably priced service did everything I didn’t want to do: pour through/select recipes and generate a grocery list…and I was more than ready to give something new a try!
Once logged on, all I had to do was drag-and-drop the meals that appealed to me into The Weekly Menu and set the serving size. I loved that it showed me which meals were crockpot-, freezer-, and kid-friendly and that I also had the ability to browse their full recipe library (rather than being restricted to certain meals for the week). Each meal also came with a pre-designated side dish, but it was super easy to go in and change out anything that didn’t appeal to us!
But my absolute favorite part? Once your meal plan was done, it automatically generated a printable grocery shopping list pre-populated with all of the items needed for that week’s recipes (in the correct quantities!).
In just a few minutes, I was able to pick all of our recipes for the week, and print out a grocery list as well as all the corresponding recipes. Not only did this cut my meal preparation time down dramatically, but it also was super efficient when it came time to prepare the meals. The recipes, when printed, included both the main dish and all the corresponding sides on a single sheet of paper. Each night, I just had to grab the next sheet and get to work.
I honestly thought I had found my ultimate meal planning solution. I loved Relish’s online platform; the pre-populated grocery lists were pretty much the best thing ever; and the meals were super tasty and easy to make. It took away so much of the effort and brainpower behind meal planning and prep and really got me out of my meal planning funk. Unfortunately, it only took a few weeks for me to grow tired of this system as well. Why? Well, for one, I found that I was buying lots of random ingredients to make very specific recipes. This left me with higher-than-usual grocery bills and lots of leftover ingredients. Second, I again grew weary of making a recipe every single night and didn’t enjoy feeling like a “slave” to the system. Third, I was having a hard time working in my “usual” recipes, pantry staples, and family favorites on both the meal plan and the grocery list. I don’t like to duplicate my my efforts or use two systems to accomplish the same task, and it was taking me a lot of time and effort to adapt/merge the online system with my family-specific needs. Finally, as nice as it was to have a pre-populated grocery list, it didn’t match up with how I shop our store(s) and organize my own lists. I was constantly missing items as I was shopping because the list wasn’t organized the same way, making my trips longer and more tedious.
What I’m Doing Now
After my experience with Relish!, I was feeling a bit defeated. I was so hopeful I had found a perfect system (so much that I was planning a whole post to tell you all about it!), and was frustrated when it turned out to be too cumbersome for my needs. I waffled around a bit more with not planning at all, planning a month at a time, and even thought about digging my dry-erase board back out of the garage. While I brainstormed and worked through my options, I decided to print out a bunch of my Weekly Planners and Grocery Lists as a “for now” solution. About 2 months later, I’m still using my printable worksheets and am LOVING the simplicity of it all.
I printed out a bunch of both my the weekly planner and grocery lists printables and have them clipped to the side of the fridge. I sit down every Monday morning with one of each and plan out that week’s activity and meals on the same sheet and then fill out our grocery list to match. I’ve eased off on forcing a consistent spread of protein sources and recipes and instead try to pick recipes that are easy to make, satisfying to the whole family, and work with our schedule (crockpot versus freezer versus fresh). It’s quick, it’s easy, it’s no fuss. And what’s most important: I’m sticking to it!
So you might be thinking to yourself, “Gosh Megan, if you’ve struggled so much, maybe meal planning isn’t your thing!” But it is. If there’s anything I’ve learned about myself in the last few year of my meal planning is that I need it. If I don’t use some sort of meal plan, grocery shopping and meal preparations becomes infinitely harder; our grocery bills go up; we constantly face an empty pantry and refrigerator; and we eat out more often. I don’t LOVE meal planning, but I’ve learned that, for our family at least, it’s a necessary evil!
I’ve learned a lot over the years, but I’d love to hear from you! Is there anything specific you need from a meal planning system? What do you currently use? What kind of system works best for you? What is something you really need from a meal planning system that you can’t find elsewhere? You guys always have the best ideas, so be sure to share in the comments!
This week is Thanksgiving in the United States (so Happy Thanksgiving to all my American readers!), but I will be back here on Thursday nonetheless with the post that was supposed to hit last week (when I took a very much needed break!). I’ll see you then!
I did not receive compensation for this blog post; however Relish! did provide three free months of their meal planning service for me to try. Please remember that I only work with brands and products I fully support and that make sense for my home, my family, and this blog. All opinions are 100% my own!