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Meal Planning Made Simple

4 Steps to Plan Meals and a Healthy Grocery List

-- By Sarah Haan, Registered Dietitian

Without a shopping list, a casual trip to the grocery store can be a recipe for disaster. Sometimes, even with a list in hand, we still find ourselves in a state of confusion as we meander through the store.

Organizing your shopping list can smooth out your grocery shopping experience and make shopping and cooking more efficient.

Whether you’re shopping for one meal or seven, yourself or a house full of people, the process is the same. The following steps will help you plan healthful meals, create an organized list, and save time and money.

4 Steps to a Healthy and Organized Shopping List

Step 1: Keep a running list on the fridge. Keep a list and pen posted in your kitchen at all times. A small chalkboard or wipe board will also work. When you run out of something in the kitchen, jot it down. This will prevent you from starting a recipe only to discover that you're out of garlic or nutmeg, and it will save you the hassle of searching through the cupboards to try to find out what's missing. At this stage, don’t worry about making a neat, organized list—just get the missing items recorded. Make this a habit for everyone in your house; even kids can help. This list should help eliminate instances when you’ve just been to the store, reach for a plastic baggie the next day to find an empty box. If only you had known!

TIP: If a package runs empty, don't throw it into the recycling bin or garbage until you've written the item on your running list. When you're frazzled or busy in the kitchen, it can be too easy to forget about the item you meant to add to the list once it's out of sight and out of mind. This can work for other household staples besides groceries, too, such as toilet paper or pet food.

Step 2: Plan your meals. We all plan our meals differently, depending on how many people we're feeding and how often we go to the store or farmers market. However, this step should always precede shopping. Set aside some time at least once a week to plan your meals for the days ahead. Here are some basic things to keep in mind when planning your meals:
  • Your schedule. Look at your calendar for the week or days ahead. Do you have a busy week coming up? How much time do you have to cook on each night of the week (it may vary day to day, especially if you manage a larger household of have children). Sit down with your calendar and plan meals based on how much time you have available. One night, you may only have 30 minutes to cook and eat, so you need something fast. The next day, you may have more time to try out that new recipe you've been eyeing. It is nice to stagger meals during the week. Choose a variety of quick recipes, dishes that yield leftovers and meals that require more time so that cooking always fits into your schedule. Don't forget about slow cooker meals for nights when cooking isn't an option.

    TIP: "Our family always plans an additional quick meal for the week," explains Tanya Jolliffe, a healthy eating expert for SparkPeople.com. "Something is always bound to come up and put a wrench in your meal plan for the week, so think about one extra quick-fix meal you can prepare and add that to your shopping every week." That way, you don't have to resort to fast food or pay a premium for a restaurant meal just because you're short on time.
     
  • Company. Do you have people coming to visit soon? You may need to buy special items at the store or plan for a larger dinner. Also, be sure to consider any special food preferences or allergies.
     
  • Coupons, sales and deals. If you bring home an item bought on sale and don’t know what to do with it, you have not saved money! Plan your meals around your coupons. Some people prefer to look at coupons and sale flyers during the meal planning stage so they can create meals around lower-cost ingredients. Others prefer to plan their meals and then look for coupons or deals on the items they need to make said meals. Decide which method works best for you. Just make sure what you buy can be worked into your meal plan and that you're not just buying something because it's on sale. Keep in mind that many coupon deals are for highly processed, often unhealthy foods that you probably shouldn't be buying anyway, so keep both health and cost in mind.
     
  • The season. What you cook and eat should change according to what's in season and what you like, but keep in mind that fruits and vegetables that are in season are going to be cheaper and more readily available. Save money by planning your meals around produce at its peak taste and bottom price! To check what fruits and vegetables are in season in your area, check out this seasonal produce map at epicurious.com.
Step 3: Gather your recipes. Now that you've planned your meals based on time, taste, season and coupons, it's time to gather your recipes. This will be much easier if you keep your recipes organized. Sifting through magazine clip-outs and various papers with Aunt Marge’s sloppy writing can be frustrating. Try using a basic template for all recipes (or enter them on SparkRecipes.com). When you come across a great recipe, grab a blank template from your stash, jot it down in your own writing and place it in a binder organized by time, season, cuisine or another parameter. To streamline your planning process, include a mini grocery list on the recipe template so you can quickly see what ingredients you need to make the dish. You can also highlight specialty ingredients (such as certain herbs or special cheeses) that you don't typically keep on hand. <pagebreak>

Step 4: Create your master grocery list. Next, sit down with your running list of staples (from Step 1), your weekly meal plan and your recipes to create one organized list that will help you navigate the store. You can avoid walking back and forth across the store by separating your list into grocery store departments: produce items, bulk foods, bakery, deli/meat/poultry, frozen foods, dry goods, dairy, beverages, home goods, and miscellaneous. Set up your list based on your preferences and the layout of your supermarket. Don't forget to attach your coupons to the list before you head to the store!

As you did for your recipes, creating one master shopping list template will save you time and keep your list organized. Include a section where you can list the meals you planned for the week and then the groceries you need, organized by department. Download SparkPeople's Weekly Grocery Shopping List template for list-making made easy!

When you arrive at the store, stick to your list and don't get distracted by the various supermarket promotions.

Once you’re home from the store, put your groceries away systematically to streamline cooking in the days ahead. Keep your pantry and refrigerator organized, storing similar items together. When every item has its place, cooking will become more efficient. Another way to organize foods is to group ingredients for each recipe together. I like to keep a couple of baskets in my pantry, in which I can place items for recipes. For example, if a white bean chili is on the menu for the next week, all dry storage items (cans of beans, tomatoes, tomato paste, etc.) fall into the basket. When I’m ready to cook, I can pull out the entire basket and rock-n-roll in the kitchen.

No more excuses about not being able to create healthy meals! Staying organized, saving money, and finding the time to cook healthful meals each night boils down to meal planning and a good shopping list. The time you spend in this planning phase will more than pay off when it's time to cook, so make it a habit to start each week with a plan.
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