Before having children, I worked a typical 40+ hour week in an office. I'd come home exhausted from work, stare into the fridge and hope that some ingredients in there would jump out and magically begin preparing themselves into a healthy meal. For some reason that never worked.
Then I would spy some tortillas and think, "Oh, I can make tacos!" I'd rummage around some more and discover that there was no taco seasoning, cheese or tomatoes. So unless I wanted plain ground beef in a tortilla, tacos were not an option for that night.
I ended up eating a LOT of frozen pizza and various flavors of Rice-A-Roni. My favorite was Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. But one day, I noticed that I wasn't fitting into my pants anymore. I read the nutrition information on those prepared foods and knew I needed to get more deliberate about meal planning.
Fast forward 15 years and I'm a stay-at-home mom with a husband and two growing boys to feed. My youngest son has type 1 diabetes so it's even more important than ever that I make healthy meals.
The same system that began casually back in that apartment in 1997 is basically the same system I use now. I write down a list of meals that I plan to prepare that week and then make a grocery list based on those meals. The benefits are obvious:
I actually use everything I buy so it doesn't slowly spoil in the dark recesses of the fridge.
I plan to cook meals that actually involve vegetables.
I'm not spending tons of money on prepared foods with questionable nutritional benefits.
If we have evening activities, I can make sure the meal prep fits into our schedule.
I know what we're eating the next night, so I can thaw any frozen components ahead of time.
I've just gotten a little more fancy with my meal planning over the years. Behold, the chalkboard.
You'll notice that I only have meals planned for Monday - Friday. I slack off on the weekends and make frozen pizzas and fish sticks and stuff like that. Hey, I'm not superwoman.
The white dry-erase board is also a time saver. We have a freezer in the basement and I write down what's in that freezer on the dry-erase board. The dry-erase board is portable so I can take it downstairs with me to see what's in the freezer. (And I can stash it somewhere out of sight if company is coming!) When I'm planning my meals each week, I check out my freezer inventory and try to incorporate stuff I already have into my plan. When I use something, I wipe it off the list.
The other thing (not pictured) that helps with the weekly meal planning is my recipe binder. Over the years, I've been gathering my family's favorite recipes into one binder. Recipes don't make the binder if I've never tried them before, or if nobody likes them, or if they are too complicated to be considered an "everyday" meal. But I can flip through my trusty binder of tried-and-true recipes and make things that I know my family will actually eat.
Also in that binder I keep a list of standard pantry items. These are the things that my family usually eats for breakfast, lunch and snacks (apples, bread) as well as items I like to always have on hand (olive oil.) When I make my grocery list each week, I read over the pantry list and make sure I've got enough on hand to make it through the week. It really helps avoid those "Mooom! There's no cereal left!" moments.
Although my meal planning system takes a bit of time to do each week, it's totally worth it. My family has food and I have my sanity.