Successful Meal Planning: My Essential Tools

Successful Meal Planning: My Essential Tools

When it comes to preparing healthy, nourishing meals for my family, I’ve found that meal planning is absolutely critical for success.

In fact, when I stick to a meal plan, my grocery budget is even less than it was when we still ate a more conventional diet! It’s also less time-consuming.

There are several factors that I’ve had to consider that make my meal planning unique though:

I don’t cook every day.

My hubby isn’t always off in the evenings, and we have extracurricular activities like dance and karate virtually every night of the week. This means that at least a couple of evenings a week, I’m playing taxi right during dinner prep and mealtime. So, I cook about three evenings a week and we eat leftovers or something simple on the other nights.

I don’t plan out breakfast, lunch, and dinner like I see many meal plans do.

We have eggs for breakfast a couple of times a week, the rest of the time it’s pretty much “fend for yourself” (I try to keep biscuits, English muffins, fruit, etc. on hand). Lunch is usually similar: sandwiches or leftovers, but not a planned meal. So, I really only schedule dinner, and then decide what days I’ll need to make baked goods like bread or biscuits.

Many of the meals I make require advance preparation, like soaking.

Most of the preparation isn’t hard or time-consuming, but it calls for different habits to be formed. I’ve had to train myself to check to see what I’m planning to cook tomorrow, so I know if I need to do something like soak beans or start a sourdough batter the evening before, instead of not thinking about it until the day of. I actually think this is a real advantage of this way of cooking, because it reduces my prep time right before the meal, and it really takes literally minutes the night before to get things started. Breaking meal preparation into several shorter steps rather than doing it all at once is easier to fit into my day.

Over the years I’ve tried various methods and tools to help me plan meals, but none of them have been a good fit for our family. I need flexibility and simplicity. In the last six or seven months though, I think I’ve finally hit on a system that is working out great for us!

So here are the main tools in my meal planning toolbox:

A menu plan subscription. 

I’ve never been interested in these before, mostly because I don’t want someone dictating to me what I should be cooking when. I don’t have time to adapt a predone plan to our schedule, plus I want the flexibility to add in my own recipes too. And yet, I don’t have a lot of time to search out new dishes to try or adapt ones I find that aren’t real-food friendly, and I don’t want to just keep recycling the same old tried and true favorites over and over either.


Uploaded from the Photobucket iPad AppSince January, I’ve been subscribing to the Gnowfglins Menu Plans. They work beautifully for us! Each week there are three dinners, one breakfast, one lacto-ferment, and one dessert provided. Nothing is assigned to any particular day, the recipes and shopping list are just provided along with a printable chart that allows you to plug them in to what day and time works for you. I can use all three provided dinners, or just choose one or two and pull one of my own recipes in, then plug them in to whichever days work for our schedule that week. We’re loving the variety and new dishes to try, and I love that the recipes have traditional preparation methods already incorporated and don’t need any adapting. It’s well worth the small subscription fee.

Meal-planning software.

I’ve recently discovered the joy of well-designed meal-planning software. I’d tried the meal-planning feature of my previous recipe software and didn’t find it very user-friendly. I tried a few standalone apps for my phone but hated having to deal with multiple apps (or paper lists for that matter) for recipes, meals, and shopping lists.

Uploaded from the Photobucket iPad App

Enter Paprika. This app, designed for Mac/iPad/iPhone is elegant and simple. I’m loving it! I can integrate my recipes, meal plans, and shopping list in one place with it. The meal planning is flexible and allows me to add notes on days that I need to do advance prep. The free cloud sync means I can add recipes, make a weekly plan, and finalize my grocery list on the computer or iPad  and it automatically shows up on my iPhone! No more forgetting to copy an item from my meal plan to my shopping list app…once I add it to one device it shows up on them all! And it allows me to add other items to the list, not just the recipe ingredients. If you have any Apple products, I highly recommend checking Paprika out. I haven’t even found the desktop app necessary…the iPad and iPhone apps are plenty!


Uploaded from the Photobucket iPad App

I’ve also heard wonderful things about Plan to Eat, which is a web-based meal-planning software with a monthly subscription. I’ve never personally tried it, but it looks very well-done and I’ve been told it’s wonderful by several people whose opinions I trust. They offer a free 30-day trial and the subscription prices are very affordable.

Recipe-sharing sites, link-ups, cookbooks. 

I regularly check several real-food weekly link-ups, like Monday Mania, Real Food Wednesday, and Fight Back Friday. When I come across something that interests me, I usually pin it to Pinterest, or just go ahead and import it straight into Paprika.

Uploaded from the Photobucket iPad App

Eat Nourishing is a recipe-sharing site for those who use traditional cooking techniques. I call it the “ of real food“. Anyone can create a free account, upload their own recipes, browse, and add recipes to their recipe box to save. Over the years, I’ve adapted conventional recipes to be more real-food friendly, but I love that I can browse this site and know that I don’t need to take the time to do that! This is my go-to site for recipe browsing, or when I’m looking for something in particular. If I can’t find it here, I’ll look elsewhere and adapt something, but why reinvent the wheel if I don’t have to?

Finally, I sometimes browse conventional recipe sites and cookbooks for recipes that can be adapted, and I’ve converted some old family recipes and favorites too. Since my time is limited, I only devote a small amount of it to these.So there you have it. The essential tools in my meal planning system. Next week, I’ll share my typical routine with you, and show you exactly how I make these tools work for me.

What does your meal planning routine look like? What tools do you find essential?

Don’t miss Part Two: Putting It All Together.

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  1. i remembered seeing this post and today decided i need a menu planning app! i'm going to see if they have paprika for droid phones…

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