The two biggest objections I hear to eating healthier are that it’s too expensive and it’s hard to cook interesting meals. The truth is, neither of those things have to be the case.
It’s not that eating healthy is actually complicated and expensive; it’s that you don’t have a system for making it easier and more affordable. I’ve put a great deal of thought into creating this system for our household, and now I’m going to share it with you.
Step 1: Invest in Cookbooks
The first step meal planning is having good sources for your recipes. This means having cookbooks. There are plenty of websites out there with delicious recipes that you can access for free. Personally I like using both, websites and cookbooks.
Step 2: Inventory Your Kitchen
When planning your meals you need to know your possible cooking mediums. Look around your kitchen at the tools you have. I have an oven, a stovetop, a microwave, and a crockpot. I have discovered, through trial and error, that I do really well having multiple things on the stovetop. For some reason it keeps me on task.
Step 3: Sit Down With Your Homework
Every Friday I sit down in the living room with a notepad and a pile of cookbooks. I spent thirty to sixty minutes going through my cookbooks, selecting my recipes, and creating the menu for the week. (See photo below for menu example.) From this menu I then generate my shopping list. Once I finish my homework, I head to the grocery store. All in, it’s at most a two-hour process that saves me time and money throughout the week.
Choose Your Meals Wisely
When I create the weekly menu I’m thinking about a number of things:
- Is there enough variety in the protein sources?
- Do we have green vegetables with every meal?
- Is there a source of starchy carbohydrates for my husband?
- Is there a variety in color and type of vegetables over the week?
- Will there be enough left over for lunch?
- What vegetables are in season?
- What is on sale at the grocery store?
- Can my personal schedule handle this workload of recipes?
I often check the website of my grocery store to see what’s on sale in the meat department before I plan my weekly menu. We’ve had some great cuts of meat for dinner we wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t done this, and we saved money. I also try to stock up our freezer when I come across great sales and ease my work in the future.
The last question on that list – my personal schedule and workload – goes a long way toward alleviating stress. I work full time and have two toddler boys. I cannot come home from work and cook some elaborate meal. This is why I choose to cook on Sundays during their naps and have leftovers throughout the week that I just have to reheat. There’s no reason to make it harder on yourself if you’re planning things out ahead of time. Alternately, you can always chop all your veggies in advance to make things easier on busier days.
The key is to plan ahead and keep it simple. Cooking can feel overwhelming if you’re new to the kitchen, so start small – don’t start with extravagant meals. If I decide to try a new recipe, I make sure all the other recipes that evening are tried-and-true. So, if you’re new to cooking a certain entrée, then just steam some veggies for your side dish.
Once I have my menu planned for the week, I create my shopping list:
- First – I go to each recipe and write down all the ingredients I don’t have in my kitchen. I don’t worry about organizing them at first. Just write them all down so you can put your cookbooks away.
- Second – I get a blank piece of paper and rewrite the ingredients in a more organized fashion. I group them similarly to how the grocery store is organized – meat, vegetables/fruit, canned goods – so that I can quickly move through the store and not go in circles. (See the two versions in the photo below.)
Now, all I have to do is follow my own instructions. I go to the store and buy exactly what’s on the list.
As your comfort in the kitchen grows, your ability as a cook will also evolve. I handle much more complicated meals now than I did a few months ago, and I’ve begun adding desserts to the weekly menu, too. You’ll find as you experiment each week that there are recipes you revisit and they become easier each time you make them. I keep track of these easily by putting stars next to them in my menu notebook. I keep all my meal plans in one notebook for easy reference and for looking back on previous weeks, as to what went well and what did not. I also make notes right in my cookbooks if I change the recipes so that I don’t have to try to remember little details in the future. Remember, the goal is to use planning to make things easier.
So, it’s not that healthy cooking is necessarily complicated or expensive. It can be, but it doesn’t have to be. All you need is a system for moving forward. Once you create that system, before long you’ll be eating better with less work and for less money.
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