I used to have moments where I had no idea what I was going to feed my family for dinner, and it was so easy to pick up something through the Drive-Thru or serve my family cereal for dinner. But with a little bit of planning on the front end, it will make your life a lot easier when cooking a meal each day throughout the week. Meal planning has numerous benefits, including eating healthier, saving time, and saving money. I break down the whole process in three main steps: meal planning, grocery shopping, and meal prepping. Here are several tips to help you save time when meal planning and grocery shopping.
“One hour of planning saves ten hours of doing.”
Meal planning does take some time on the front-end, but it will save you a lot of time on the back-end and you won’t feel the temptation of picking up fast food if you have a plan. So how does one start meal planning? Follow these steps, and you’ll soon be into a routine that will feel like second nature.
- Set aside 30-60 minutes to plan a menu for the next 1-2 weeks. It will take time to do it beforehand, but worth it when you know what you’re making before you go grocery shopping again.
- Pull out your family calendar. It’s always helpful to know what activities you and your family are involved in during the week. That way, you know how much time you have to cook each day. Maybe some days, Johnny has a soccer game from 5-6 pm but you’re home in the afternoon--a meal cooked in the slow cooker would work well for that day. Other days, you may be at work and have 30 minutes to cook when you get home. Choose a simple recipe that doesn’t involve a lot of chopping or cooking time, and you’ll easily have dinner ready to go.
- Choose one goal at a time to accomplish when it comes to meal-planning. People meal plan for different reasons--save money, eat healthier, minimize waste, or to save time, just to name a few. It would be great to achieve all those goals, but if you try to do all those things at once, you’ll likely fail. Just like someone starting an exercise routine, you can’t go out and run a marathon on your first day; you’d start with a brisk walk, then work your way up to a slow jog, and eventual run. Starting meal planning is similar--start with one goal--maybe save time--and then as you figure out your routine, you can slowly work on the other goals one at a time.
- Try at most 1-2 new meals per week. Just like choosing a goal should be one at a time, trying new recipes should be a gradual process too. Cooking a new meal takes extra time and mental capacity: you may forget you should’ve marinated the meat for at least 8 hours, or you don’t realize the recipe takes longer to prepare than the time that’s written on it. Over time, you’ll have plenty of recipes to add to your repertoire and you’ll know how long it will take to cook each one.
- Meal Plan and Grocery Shop on the same day each week. Whether you shop every one or two weeks, grocery shopping on the same day helps estimate how much food to buy and helps you get into a routine of meal planning 1-2 days prior to your grocery store run.
- Have a few “emergency” meals on hand. Maybe you had to stay at work late or your daughter’s soccer game went into overtime. As a result, instead of having your planned 30-40 minutes to cook, you might only have 5-10 minutes to cook before the rest of your family gets hangry! These are nights when I like to have a few extra quick meals on hand that I can easily reheat, such as frozen soup and a salad.
- Save recipes in one spot. Whether it’s a 3-ring binder, your desktop, or other software program, keeping recipes in one place will make them easily accessible. You can easily browse recipes and write down your weekly plan.
- Create a grocery template. I have a grocery template that I print off every week that includes staples that I buy each week such as bread, berries, coffee, milk, and eggs. I fill in the remaining ingredients on the list. My template is also customized to the layout of my grocery store, so as I walk the aisles, I easily cross off items on my list.
- Have a week’s dinner menu and grocery list ready to go for those weeks when you are extra busy and don’t have time to meal plan. Some weeks, I don’t feel like I have even 30-60 minutes to sit and scour through recipes and write down ingredients. That’s when I whip out a week’s worth of quick meals already planned, along with all the ingredients on the grocery list that need to be purchased for those meals. I use this list maybe 4-5 weeks out of the year, but it makes life so much easier during those busy weeks!
Saving Time with Grocery Shopping
Once you have your menu and grocery list ready to go, you’ll need to spend some time grocery shopping. The easiest way to save time grocery shopping is to have groceries delivered. You don’t spend any time walking around the store, waiting in the checkout line, or bagging groceries. However, I don’t always love having my groceries delivered because I don’t get to pick out the produce. So, if you venture to the grocery store yourself, here are a few time-saving tips.
- Go during quiet hours. Avoid busy times such as right after work or weekend afternoons. Everyone seems to be running their errands at that time, making the aisles more congested and checkout lines longer. Weekday mornings tend to be the least busy times to go to the grocery store.
- Create your grocery list template to match your grocery store. Once you go to a grocery store a few times, you’ll learn its layout. Write your grocery list based on that layout with headings such as “Produce” “Deli” “Meat/Protein” “Pantry”, “Dairy/Freezer”, etc. If you’d like a sample of my grocery template, go to subscribe.themomplate.com/grocerylist
- Bag your groceries based on how you’ll put groceries away. Even if stores offer to bag your groceries, it saves me time when I get home if I can bag groceries myself. I’ll put all refrigerated items in one bag, pantry items in another bag, etc. That way, once I get home, it’s easy to bring those bags to the appropriate location and easily unload groceries.
- Do a “hybrid” grocery shopping list. Remember how I said I usually prefer grocery shopping myself because I prefer to choose my own produce and protein products? It’s great but takes time to do all my grocery shopping myself. So, I will often have shelf-stable food and drinks such as pasta, oatmeal, coffee, etc. be delivered to my home and simply buy the produce myself. This cuts down on almost half my time at the grocery store.
Prep Time-Saving Tips
Once you’ve purchased and brought home all your groceries, batching tasks will also save you time. I will often chop vegetables and mince garlic all at once, so that when it’s time to cook on weeknights, I can simply throw vegetables into my dish and save time washing the knife and cutting board every night.
Other times I will roast multiple trays of various vegetables at once so they’re cooked for the week. That way, when I come home from work the next day, I don’t need to spend time preheating the oven and another 20-30 minutes roasting the vegetables, but can instead simply reheat the already roasted vegetables on a frying pan for a few minutes and enjoy.
Starting any new habit or change to your routine often feels like extra work. Remember to go slow, add one or two changes each week, and over time, multiple small changes will lead to a large, noticeable difference in your grocery shopping and nightly cooking routine. Plus, you’ll feel less of a need to go through the drive thru to pick up dinner as you provide your family with healthier meals in less time.
Dr. Melissa Choi is a wife, mother of 3 girls, and board certified family medicine and obesity medicine physician. She’s also the founder of The Mom Plate, where she helps busy moms and their families stay healthy without feeling overwhelmed. When she isn’t caring for patients or helping clients, you can find her cooking in her kitchen with her family or on a coffee date with a friend. To learn more about Dr. Melissa, visit her on instagram @themomplate or visit her website themomplate.com to schedule a free discovery call to see how she can help you and your family stay healthy.