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It wasn’t until a few years into our marriage that I started meal planning. I’d seen people praising it on Pinterest and how it was easier and saved money, but to me, it sounded like such a hassle.
And I hated the idea of being obligated to make a particular meal for dinner. I mean, what if it didn’t sound good that day? No, I wanted to decide each day what sounded best to me and make it. Who needs a meal plan? Carpe diem, and all that.
Then, I realized we had a few problems.
A. We were spending way too much on groceries.
B. We constantly felt like there was “nothing to eat” even with a full pantry.
The thing is, without a meal plan, we didn’t have a use in mind for the food we bought. We’d buy stuff because it sounded good or it was on sale and assumed we could find a use for it. That meant a mishmash of different items that might or might not go together.
As a result, we went to the grocery store far more than necessary and thus spent way more than we needed to. Or, we would give up and get fast food, which, of course, would completely blow our food budget.
I realized I needed to suck it up and embrace meal planning.
When I got serious about it, though, I was really overwhelmed by the ideas I saw on Pinterest. There were super detailed plans for everything – breakfast, lunch, dinner, even snacks. I could see their usefulness, but I still enjoy a little flexibility in my food choices, especially when my days weren’t super structured. When you can’t guarantee what time your husband will be home or whether he’ll be awake or not, it’s a little harder to plan the entire day’s meals.
As a result, I meal planned (and still do, actually!) for dinners only.
I’m sure you can save lots of money planning the other meals, too, but dinner is the “big show” for our family, and if that’s taken care of, the rest falls into place just fine.
If you’re on board with me so far, let’s get started.
The Best Way to Meal Plan as a Law Enforcement Family
Look at your schedule for the next two weeks.
I’m not a once-a-month meal planner – there’s too much uncertainty week to week, let alone more than 14 days out. And because my husband is paid on a biweekly schedule, it just works well to plan for the next two weeks only.
So I start by taking a sheet of paper and writing out the dates for that time period, because it’s the easiest way for me to think about what events/etc are coming up. I mark days where we have plans to eat out or eat at a friend’s house, because I don’t need to plan dinner those days. Woo!
Decide what you’re going to make.
Then I decide which meals I’d like to make. There are several factors that go into this.
What’s on sale?
Obviously, the best place to start if you want to save money is checking if something is on sale. Is chicken on sale? Go ahead and plan for a few different chicken meals. Just switch up the kinds of ingredients you use to prevent boredom.
What have I been dying for lately?
If I want to stick to my meal plan, it has to include recipes I’m actually excited about. So it’s important to make sure I add meals I’ve been craving, even if they’re a little more expensive/less healthy. They’ll still likely be cheaper than the drive through.
If you’ve been dying to try a recipe you saw on Pinterest, add it! If your husband has a Pinterest (mine does!) check his boards to see if he’s found something tasty to try while he was bored at work.
Just make sure you keep it exciting, or you won’t stick to it.
What schedule is my husband on?
I know your husband probably won’t actually stick to his scheduled work hours, but that’s okay. Just do your best to plan any labor-intensive meals for days he’s either off early or scheduled completely off.
On days he won’t be home, try to plan meals that are good reheated or can be kept warm in the Crock Pot. For instance, I’d never plan to make spaghetti squash on a day I know he won’t be there for dinner, because personally, I hate reheated spaghetti squash.
Again, they may not work out like you expect, but do what you can.
What’s your schedule like?
Especially in the summer, I like to think about what days my son and I will probably be out and about close to dinner. That way, I can plan on having either easy meals (like grilled cheese) or Crock Pot meals that will be ready whenever we get home. Alternatively, I sometimes plan a fast food trip in advance for those days – it’s not common, but sometimes it’s a fun treat for him and takes the onus (and dishes) off me for the night.
It’s all about balance.
Also, to make meal planning easier, I also highly recommend doing a lot of crockpot meals that can be prepared ahead of time and frozen. That way, you thaw it in the refrigerator the night before, dump it in the crock pot, and you don’t have to think about dinner again until it’s time to eat. Freezeasy is a great resource for this – it gives you directions for how to make 10 meals in an hour. Super cool if you’re particularly short on time.
I also recommend making enough of each dinner that you’ll have lunch the next day, especially since with this plan you’ll be “seat of your pants”ing it. It’s easy for us since we’re only a family of three, but if you have a bigger family, this might mean doubling or even tripling recipes.
So now, go ahead and start writing meals on your date sheet. You can also write 14 meals on a separate sheet of paper and transfer them, but that’s up to you.
Write your grocery list.
Once you’ve planned out your meals and when you’re going to make them, go through the recipes and write down the ingredients you’ll need. If you need multiples of something, use tally marks instead of rewriting it. It’ll help you stay more organized while shopping versus writing “1 lb ground beef” several times.
Keep doing this until it’s all filled out, then pat yourself on the back. You’re well on your way to stress-free dinners for the next two weeks!
At this point, I add a few breakfast and lunch related purchases to the bottom of my list: lunch meat, milk, eggs, juice, snacks, etc. Just things that we’ll need over the next few weeks for breakfast and lunch (that is, if there aren’t leftovers.) I also give us an allotment for fruits and veggies (say, $25 for a week.) Sometimes we go over that amount, but it’s nice to have a rough estimation of what we’d like to spend.
When I’ve finished the meal plan, don’t judge me, but I totally reorganize my shopping list by where things are found in the store. If you’re good “seat-of-your-pants”ing it at the grocery store, go for it! But when I have my son with me, my brain power is focused less on my list and more on keeping him happy, so the easier I can make it, the more likely it is I’ll stick to it.
Sometimes my meal plan gets changed around and I make meals on different days than expected, but, for the most part, we stick to it. The important part for us is that we have the ingredients for meals for the next two weeks set aside and ready to use.
Meal planning is an amazing way to save money and have less stress when dinner time comes.
Also, I want to mention an awesome resource for meal planning as a law enforcement family! My friend Rebecca at Proud Police Wife has put together a meal planning e-bundle for law enforcement families, and it’s awesome. Super detailed instructions, good resources for new recipes, printables, and she even offers printable stickers available to track when your officer is working! Be sure to check it out 🙂