Meal planning is simultaneously one of my most favorite & least favorite things to do, depending on the state of our budget (& kitchen!) and how ambitious I’m feeling that week. But once it’s done, I always feel relieved. Always. And I usually eat much better on weeks where I have a meal plan, because it eliminates those “oh crap, we have nothing for dinner so let’s just get takeout” nights. Or the takeout nights are factored in to the meal plan, because this is Real Life and I will always need someone else to cook some cheese enchiladas for me from time to time. Either way, they make my culinary & domestic life much easier and seem to help with my health as well. So really, all they do is win-win-win (#nomatterwhat).
But I haven’t done any proper meal planning since the holidays. Yeah, “the holidays” circa 2015. THE SHAME, THE HORROR. And because of that, I know we’ve eaten more fast food than two people ever should, bought more random pieces of processed crap than we’d like to remember, spent way more money than necessary on food, and neglected some mighty fine pantry staples in the process. Yep, I have not been on my meal planning game at ALL this year and I’m finally coming around to the regret that brings. Some people can make healthy choices on the fly, but I need to be annoyingly methodical about making sure I’m eating well.
One thing that REALLY helps me out is creating a spreadsheet for my weekly meal plan. I know, I know – most people hate Excel & I totally understand why. I am the last person on earth who wants to use it in a professional setting, but for some reason, I love using it to keep track of random personal crap. I’m not super skilled with it, but I usually know enough to get by (or sometimes, get myself in trouble).
So, I decided to create my own meal planning template. It looks a little something like this:
I have a different spreadsheet for each week of the month saved in the workbook, so I can do bulk planning (rare) or plan week-by-week (much more likely to happen). But it’s nice to have the entire month laid out so I can note upcoming special events in the “Important Info” section – birthday parties, date nights, etc. – so when that day comes, I won’t plan to cook chicken curry when we’re already having pizza & birthday cake.
Each day is set to a default of 1400 calories, but of course you can & should change this to whatever works for you. I’ve set it up so that the calorie inputs for every meal are deducted from the daily total calories (obvs.), but that’s completely optional if you’re not a calorie counter. I’ve just found it’s handy to be able to input rough estimates for each meal & watch the calorie totals update accordingly. I rarely fill in all of the calories for every meal of the week, but putting in estimates for the major meals (usually dinner) & getting the remaining calories for each day helps me fill in the gaps. It also helps me shift my calories around to accommodate bigger (/better) meals on the horizon.
There’s no special section for it on the spreadsheet, but once my weekly plan is finalized & stuck on the refrigerator, I tend to use the cell just below the daily remaining calorie total to plan my grocery list for the week. I’ll type up any ingredients I need for the recipes for that day, along with any household products we may be running out of, and then I’ll compile the daily lists into one weekly grocery list. I’m rarely fortunate enough to get away with just one grocery trip each week (primarily due to the nature of fresh produce), but having a master list for the week helps me keep an eye on sales & plan when my second (or third, ugh) trips should be.
It all sounds complicated, and it can be a little time-consuming depending on what & how much you cook each week, but the heart of it is really simple: pay attention to what you eat. Try to plan for the good days as well as the “cheat” days. Even at the height of my meal planning mania, I rarely stuck to my plan 100% of the time. Some people would call that a failure, but hey, it’s life. There are also other people who would undoubtedly find my method too convoluted for them, and that’s fine, too. Find whatever works for you and what helps you make healthier choices.
If anyone is interested in using my meal planning template, I’ve included a link to download it below. It’s already filled out for the month of April, but you can always update the dates (and header!) for whatever month you’re in. It should already be formatted to print correctly (landscape; fit to 1×1 page), but if you have any problems, please let me know! Lord knows I’m no Excel expert.
I plan on sharing some of my favorite meal planning tips soon, so stay tuned!