Meal Planning 101 This might sound like I'm bragging, but I've honestly gotten more productive since I've become a mother. Mostly because I realize that I don't have much time to myself anymore and so I use my time rather wisely nowadays. One of the things that's helped me with time management in my day to day life is meal planning.

What is meal planning?

It's just what you think it is. Planning out your meals. Your breakfast, lunch, dinner & even snacks throughout the week. Think about how much time you spend prepping your meals. Now think about how much more productive you could be if you eliminated the prep work and all you had to do was grab your meal and go or just throw it in the oven as you got other things done. Yeah, it's pretty fabulous.

I'm no food professional by any means - in fact, I spent most of today researching how to make food pictures pretty to pull off the photo for this post. (Give me time people. I'm a food photographer amateur.) However, I am a woman on the go with a 5 month old and a husband who really loves a home cooked meal. Between my 9 to 5, freelance gigs and blogging, the time to cook is sparse. So, here's what I do to plan out my meals Monday thru Friday and buy myself a lot more time. Four ways to meal plan successfully...

Meal Planning 101

PLAN

When it comes to meal planning you have to - wait for it - plan. Getting your grocery list together is so important. You never want to go to the grocery store without a list. You will end up buying way too much and probably nothing you really need. The whole point of meal planning (for me, anyways) is not only to save time but also, coins. I don't have to worry about buying take out or going through somebody's drive thru. It's important to be conscious about what you're buying at the grocery store. Ask yourself these questions when grocery shopping:

How soon will this go bad? Will I absolutely use this? Can I use this again for next week's meal plan? Is this the healthiest option?

To ensure that I go into the grocery store with a realistic budget, I total up how much it would cost to buy breakfast, lunch AND dinner if I ate out throughout the week then I multiply it by 2 since I'm meal planning for two people. Whatever that number is, I try to stay under.

I also peruse my 'Eat' board on Pinterest to get recipes and narrow down each and every meal - including snacks - for the week. Be very detailed and specific. Leave no detail unnoticed. Entree, sauce (if applicable), side, beverage. That all applies to the shopping list. It also helps to be that specific because you end realizing that you have 20-30% of the ingredients you need already in the house. Because I've become so thorough in my process, I've now started a 'For Dinner This Week..." board. Talk about helpful.

And this goes without saying...but write your grocery list down. I'm old school so I like to handwrite my list. But I also use OneNote and have a Meal Planning/Grocery List notebook. Keeps me on track.

Note that the entire meal planning process will take you between 3-6 hours.

purchase

One thing that gets the ball rolling like nothing else is shopping IMMEDIATELY after making your list. It's fresh in your mind (and on paper/mobile) so you're much more focused than waiting a few days later. I use Sundays early afternoon after church when I can leave #Babyologie with her dad. I take a couple of hours to shop because I like getting things from certain places. Some stores have better prices on things and I like certain items from specific stores.

Stay the course when it comes to your shopping list. If you realize you missed a thing or two, fine. Neglecting your grocery list and freestyle shopping defeats the entire purpose of meal planning.

PREP + PORtion

This is the most time consuming step.  Once you get home and unpack all of your  groceries, get to prepping! Turn your oven on (for anything that you need to bake ahead of time) and start prepping. I tend to season all of my proteins, wash + pre chop onions and any other produce needed throughout the week. I also prep any sauces or dressings I know I'll use. This stage of meal planning is all about doing everything you can do for a meal without actually cooking it.

I also take this time to divide things in their proper portions. I really enjoy fruit parfait in the morning, so to simplify having to do anything once it's time to eat, I portion my berries and yogurt ahead of time and bag my granola so it doesn't get soggy. But in the morning, I literally just pour my little bag of granola in my cup of fruit and yogurt and BOOM. Done.

PACKAGE

After you prep and portion, you want to package everything for a "grab and go" system. The dollar store has the best Tupperware-esque containers and I stock up on sandwich bags and storage (gallon) bags and aluminum foil. I package everything all at once so I don't have to worry about it later and save time. Even snacks. I portion and package all of my granola for my breakfast parfaits, same with my trail mix & yogurt covered pretzels that I like to mix and even my guilty pleasure, golden Oreos. There's 36 Oreos in a pack, so I package 5 in a sandwich bag - making 7 bags total - and eat the 1 leftover. But if you think about it, when you make your lunch for work everyday, the long part about the process is packaging it. Once you get it out of the way, you're home free.

Once you package all your food, organize it in your refrigerator to create a grab and go process. I try to keep breakfast all on one shelf of the fridge, lunch on another and so forth. I have four drawers in my refrigerator, so I designate the top drawer for snacks only.

IDEAS

In the near future, I'll be sharing recipes to give you guys ideas for meals. But here's a quick list of meal ideas for each time of the day to give you guys inspiration if you want to give this meal planning thing a try.

BREAKFAST Fruit (strawberry & blueberry) parfait English muffin with breakfast sausage & Monterey Jack cheese Cereal with vanilla almond milk Frozen fruit smoothie (berries, peaches, pineapple mixed with orange juice) with flax seed
LUNCH Spinach salad with grilled chicken, avocado, bacon, red onion, cucumber, blue cheese and avocado ranch dressing Turkey sandwich on whole wheat with cheese, spinach, mustard and mayo White bean kale and chicken soup Pizza with mozzarella, spinach and pepperoni
DINNER Beef roast with red potatoes and carrots Shrimp tacos with rice and black beans Chicken spinach Alfredo pasta Salmon with kale and whole grain rice Honey mustard chicken thighs with corn & green beans
SNACKS Trail mix (peanuts, almonds, cashews, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, raisins & yogurt covered pretzels) Apples & peanut butter Grapes & strawberries Pretzel chips & hummus Golden Oreos

Meal Planning 101

Meal planning takes a lot of work but saves you a lot of time in the long run. It is by far one of my "secret weapons" to time management and making sure I knock things off my things to do list. It buys me more "me time" and in the long run gives me more time with my family during the week. And on those busy nights when I have to attend an event, Hubs literally just has to throw a meal that was already packaged, prepped & portioned in the oven.

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Have you tried meal planning? What are your favorite go to meals that never fail you during a busy week?