An Uncomplicated Life Blog: How To Meal Plan Strategically

Monday, August 19, 2019

How To Meal Plan Strategically

Most people know the basics of meal planning, but if you do it strategically, it's even easier to cook throughout the week and even more cost effective 

This post wasn't planned, but after having a conversation with people via Instagram Stories DM's and texting with a girlfriend, it's clear this is a hot topic amongst moms, wives or anyone doing the cooking and grocery shopping at your home. See, I posted a few videos of what I was cooking for a Sunday dinner and I got tons of the same comment: with four very young kids, how do you have the time to cook from scratch like that?! I was baking a chicken, made mashed potatoes and gravy and a steamed veggie, all from scratch. I followed the stories with a narrative on how I've been cooking my whole life, so I'm fairly efficient in the kitchen. It's also a hobby of mine, so I enjoy it and make time for it. But the third piece that enables me to have time to prepare my meals from scratch many days of the week is I meal plan strategically. That's not just picking some meals to make and doing my grocery list according to those meals (although it does involve that). This is how to meal plan strategically, so you maximize your time and dollars spent on food.

Typical meal planning is a great concept. Whenever you have a spare 5 minutes, you brainstorm what you'd like to make for meals for the upcoming week, make a grocery list based of the ingredients you'll need for those recipes, and shop according to that list. That way, you only need to grocery shop once for a week of meals because everything, in theory, should be on the list. It also cuts down on the amount of food you waste because you're not buying random things at the store; everything you get is accounted for in those meals/recipes. I typically use one or two recipes that I regularly make and then search Pinterest for some new recipe inspiration. That's meal planning 101.

Meal planning strategically goes a step further. After you've brainstormed your list of recipes, take a look at what you're planning and organize it based on 1) the amount of time it takes to cook it 2) the ability of the meal to provide left overs 3) the spoilage rate of the ingredients in the meal. Let's take my Instagram story meal of baked chicken for an example. I baked that on a Sunday for several reasons: first, because I could prepare the chicken for baking in the afternoon, and have my husband throw it in the oven while I went to a yoga class. Our kids eat dinner at 5pm, and this way it'd be ready for their early dinner time. Secondly, I planned on using the chicken to make my own bone broth, resulting in a chicken soup. So I only had to bake the chicken once and got multiple meals out of it! The time consuming meal got done on a Sunday, when I had more time. Then I made the bone broth (which is super easy - I tell how I make it in this post - but it does take time) overnight and had chicken noodle soup to eat mid-week. Once the bone broth is made, the soup takes about 30 minutes to put together, so that's a super easy weeknight meal.
You can make your own beverages too with this sangria recipe!

See how that works? Plan a large, time consuming meal on the day that you have time to cook it. Usually these meals result in either leftovers or the ability to take part of it and turn it into another meal, like I did the baked chicken. Another great example would be lasagna. Homemade lasagna is too time consuming for, say, a Monday night meal. But if I prepared and baked it on a Sunday, we could eat the leftovers again on Tuesday or Wednesday. Cook once, eat twice! Add a bagged salad or throw together some garlic bread to "freshen" it up and make a meal of the leftovers.

Meal planning strategically includes planning meals around:
  • The length of time it takes to prepare the meal vs. your time capacity on any given day
  • The ability of the meal to provide leftovers or doubling a recipe that provides easy to reheat leftovers
  • The ingredients in the dish and how quickly they spoil; make those meals first

Another big thing to consider for meal planning strategically is food spoilage. I used to only go to the grocery store once a week, but since having four kids I find myself there twice a week (sometimes more!) If you're making a meal with fresh basil that you bought on a Saturday, it's not going to keep until Thursday. So that meal would get bumped up to a Monday night. Fresh herbs and leafy veggies spoil the fastest, so anything involving those ingredients should be made first. Anything with "pantry" ingredients, like jarred spaghetti sauce or marinated artichoke hearts, can be made last since those won't go bad on you. 

Here's an example of how I'd meal plan strategically, with my own recipes you can use for your own planning if you'd like!

Recipes for the week:
Wednesday - leftover German lentil stew
Friday - take out for hubs and me, "kid food" for the boys (mac n cheese, hot dogs, chicken nuggets, etc)
Saturday - go out to eat with the family

The German lentil stew is the biggest time commitment as it takes about 8 hours in a slow cooker. it also makes a ton of food! So I'd throw that together on a Sunday morning and we'd eat it twice in a week. I'd make the Greek chicken burgers next because I'd want to use the ground chicken before it sat in the fridge too long. It also uses fresh mint and parsley in the sauce, so I'd want to use that before it went soggy. The Thai coconut curry soup is planned for a Tuesday because there's fresh cilantro in it. It also makes a good bit of food that I could put in the freezer, or we could eat for lunches over the weekend. Repeat Sunday's meal on Wednesday and then my roasted root veggie pasta is on Thursday because the root veggies will keep for a good while. So, if I bought those ingredients on a Saturday, they'd still be good to use on a Thursday.

On weeks that I know we have a lot going on, I try to plan using up meals from my freezer, too. Taking something out to thaw in the morning and then heating it up is perfect when fast meals are needed! I try to keep at least three meals in my freezer for this purpose. They're always a leftover of something; I don't make specific "freezer meals" although you sure could! Usually, when I make a large meal on the weekend, I'll portion out enough for us to use as a weeknight meal that I can defrost at a later date. This works really well when you might get tired of something you've made and don't want to eat it twice that week. Or if you double a recipe so that you can get 3+ meals out of it. That way you can freeze one meal still eat it twice the week you make it. This is a really good "bang for your buck" since you're cooking something once but eating it three times.

Like it? Pin it!

Meal planning strategically is a great tool for busy families. It goes beyond selecting recipes to make and grocery shopping off that list to include other factors that save you time and money. It considers what days you'll have time to cook, making multiple meals out of one item (like the baked chicken which was turned into chicken noodle soup), and what food will spoil first so that you reduce food waste. Even with four kids age 5 and under I'm able to regularly cook homemade meals because I meal plan strategically to maximize my time and energy.


  1. I've been thinking about planning meals ahead of time, and this makes me feel less overwhelmed. Thanks for adding recipe ideas for the week. That thai coconut curry soup would be popular with my family.

  2. With my crazy work schedule, I feel like I never have time to make proper meals at home. Meal planning seems like a great idea and I'm not sure why I haven't thought of doing it sooner! Thanks for sharing your tips!

    Kasey Ma


  3. Thanks for sharing your tip. Meal planning is the only way for me to save money and eat healthy

  4. Such a great post! I really enjoy cooking as well & follow these tips almost exactly! My grocery list is strategically planned out for each meal, & exactly what I need to make everything. I can usually only get to the store once a week, so I find that's the only way to really make the most of my time!

    -Madi xo |

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