Tag Archives: pack your lunch

Meal Planning for Beginners in 7 Easy Steps

Think you’re too broke, too lazy, or too culinary clueless for meal planning? Think again! Follow these 7 steps and you’ll be well on your way to an easy week of meals.

1. Choose 2 breakfasts.

Select two breakfast options. One will bear the brunt of your breakfasting so you’ll want to choose something that’s quick, filling, and economical. I don’t think anything fits that bill better than oatmeal but of course toast, smoothies, or cereal are great options as well. The other breakfast is more of a treat. When it comes to the broke, lazy, and clueless categories listed above; I fall into the lazy camp. So a treat for me would be greek yogurt with a few toppings (like granola and fruit). It takes even less time to prepare than my ol’ work-horse oatmeal but it’s also not as cheap. Therefore, I would choose it as my secondary option. You could of course get fancier with pancakes, omelettes, or whatever you like. But just stick to two for the week!

2. Pack your lunch.

Plan to bring your lunch along to work or school. This will keep you from dipping into your pocketbook for restaurant or cafeteria fare but will also make sure you have a healthy option on hand. You can control your food’s ingredients if YOU are the one who prepares it. Below is an example of a work-week’s worth of lunches. Think of your packed lunches as a puzzle with three parts:

  1. An entree – like a salad or sandwich
  2. A fruit or veggie side
  3. Something extra to help keep you full – like a protein or healthy fat

work lunch meal plan

3. Use leftovers whenever possible.

Incorporate leftovers from your dinners into your lunches whenever possible. Salads are great for this. Throw some leftover taco filling on top of some greens and veggies and you’ve got a taco salad! Or include a smaller portion of the protein or veggie you had for dinner as one of your side items.

Weekend lunches are more of a free-for-all without a set plan. Dedicate these meals to eating up the rest of your leftovers! Or if you’ve done a really great job on using them up throughout the week, take the opportunity to treat yourself. (More on that below!)

4. Plan a week of dinners and REPEAT.

Now I know this might seem crazy. But if you fall into one (or all) of the broke, lazy, and clueless categories then consider how helpful this may be. Choose 7 possible meals that you can cycle through week after week. Perhaps this sounds limiting but I really believe in decision fatigue. Especially where the daily 4 o’clock “Oh God, what am I gonna have for dinner?” question is concerned. Why not make it easy on yourself? Now I’m not saying you pick 7 recipes and make those recipes to the LETTER over and over for the rest of all time. Select meals that allow you to expand or simplify as needed. Meals that allow you to switch it up when you want to or stick to old, tried and true favorites when you’re exhausted and over it. Let’s go through the examples below…

dinner meal plan menu

  • Spaghetti – This is a dish I can make with my eyes closed so it’s perfect for Monday nights. If I feel like switching it up I can use my spiralizer to make zucchini noodles or I can switch out the ground beef/turkey for veggies. I could make meatballs or a traditional bolognese or even a lentil bolognese. I can have the spaghetti with a big salad or breadsticks or even a caprese.
  • Beans & Rice – I can alternate between a Cajun style and a Cuban style. I could do baked beans and switch the rice out for toast. I can serve any of these with a side of whatever veggie is on sale or in season.
  • Breakfast for Dinner –  Scrambled eggs with fruit and toast or biscuits. Blueberry waffles or pancakes with bacon and yogurt. The possibilities are endless (and cheap) and everyone has their favorites when it comes to breakfast.
  • Tacos – You can do hard tacos or soft, tacos in a bowl (ie. haystacks), or everything served over chips instead of in a shell. Taco salads for a healthier spin. Keep them vegetarian or do them with pork, chicken, ground beef, or fish. There’s no paying extra for guac when you’re at home. Just whip some up!
  • Pizza – Topping choices galore so pick your poison! If you’re feeling especially not into it, pick up a frozen pizza or a pre-made but uncooked number from the deli at your grocery store. Or make it yourself. OR make it yourself on top of pita bread or bagels. Wanna up your veggie intake? Serve some crudites with ranch or hummus for dipping as a side.
  • Mac & Cheese – You might be feeling some comfort food on Saturdays. Mix butternut squash into the sauce or add peas. Make it super kid friendly with hot dogs or elevate it with bacon and caramelized onions.
  • Dinner on a board – Super easy and no cooking involved. A perfect way to ease into a new week. Think: Salami, cheeses, grapes, cornichons, crusty bread, etc. Yum!

You don’t have to use these meals/ideas. Create your own! And you can always switch them out or around as needed just in case you get bored or want to expand your horizons.

5. Find a few snacks that suit you.

Better to be prepared than suffer later! Just like with breakfast you’ll want to choose a few options for the week. I like to choose one that’s customizable and economical, like popcorn. Super cheap and you can make it sweet, savory, or spicy for whatever you’re feeling when the snacking urge hits. Then I like to choose another option that’s quick and filling. This is what you’ll pull out in case you’re HANGRY. My go-to for this is Lara bars but any sort of throw-it-in-your-bag snack would work. I also like to keep some bananas or baby carrots on hand for something healthy to munch on.

6. Commit to making one dessert item a week.
You can munch on whatever you make all week, serve it to unexpected guests or save it to bring with you to an event or for someone’s birthday at work. No need to get crazy… think: chocolate chip cookies, brownies, no bakes, simple cupcakes, fruit pies or crumbles. I share Michael Pollan’s belief that if you make it at home it’s probably not all that bad. Let’s not kid ourselves. You’re gonna want dessert. So, plan for it, make it at home, and then enjoy!
peanut butter chocolate no bake recipe
(recipe via Food Network.)
7. Treat yourself.

Finally, find ways to “go out to eat” that don’t involve the full-on dinner, drinks, and dessert rigamaroll. Complete restriction is a recipe for failure. Here are some ideas:

  1. Treat yourself to a nice coffee on the weekend over a good book or the newspaper.
  2. Treat yourself to an after-work happy hour drink for a catch-up chat with a co-worker or friend.
  3. Treat yourself to a supermarket lunch on Saturday afternoon. Think: salad bar, sushi, or a deli sandwich. Maybe even grab a cookie from the bakery or a fresh piece of fruit. Wash it down with your favorite drink.
  4. Treat yourself to an evening walk around your neighborhood that involves a quick stop-off at the ice cream parlor.

Choose one or two of these indulgences each week and you’ll find yourself much more capable of sticking to your plan.

Alright, over to you guys. Do you meal plan? Any tips you would add to this list? 

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Ballin’ on a Budget–Ditch the Bare Cupboards & Empty Refrigerator

I’ll admit it…with the craziness of the holiday season I totally didn’t keep up with this series in December. But I’m back on the horse for January! Today, I’d like to continue with a series that highlights easy strategies for BALLIN’ ON A BUDGET. Each month, I’m going to propose something for all of us to ditch in order to free up some line items on our budgets with values that can go to more practical expenditures like paying down on debt and saving for special occasions. (You can catch up on past suggestions HERE.) Whether you’re actively pinching pennies or simply want to re-direct some of those pennies to better serve you, this series is for you! So, let’s get started…

forks

When you’re trying to save money, or simply don’t have much money, any kind of spending can be difficult.

But here’s the thing…you’ve gotta eat. Like…to SURVIVE.

Back in my mega-broke years I repeated this re-assuring refrain to myself (“YOU’VE GOTTA EAT”) as a mantra of sorts.

You can tell yourself you’ll save money by staying home on Sunday instead of carting yourself to the grocery store and stocking up with food for the busy week ahead. But, “You’ve gotta eat.” So you pick up drive-thru fast food on the way home from work every night. You can tell yourself you don’t need to bring a snack with you because you’ll only be gone a few hours. But, “You’ve gotta eat.” So you  splurge on an over-priced granola bar. You tell your friends you can’t afford to go out to a restaurant with them and head home to the lone can of soup hanging out in your pantry. But that doesn’t fill you up and *say it with me now* “You’ve gotta eat.” So you catch up with those same friends at a bar and proceed to order appetizers galore!

All of these scenarios can be avoided with a little planning and a weekly trip to the grocery. If the check-out line has you meeting your edge as you listen to the beep-beep-beep of your bank account depleting, DON’T. PANIC. Just gently remind yourself, “I have to eat, damnit!” It is WAY better to do it on your own terms and stick to a budget. So, the next elimination you can make in your journey towards getting financially fit is to ditch the bare cupboards and empty refrigerator. 

Now I know this can be a hard habit to kick. Not only is there the cognitive dissonance with spending money in order to save money but planning ahead, studying sales, hitting the stores, and making your own meals takes brain space and time and practice. But if you give it a go, trust me, you’ll start falling into a routine. It will get easier. Heck, it might even become enjoyable. And you’ll be laughing all the way to the bank in no time.

Why not fill your fridge and cupboards with foods that makes sense? Food you love and food you are excited to cook?

Here are four easy steps to get you started…

Week 1. Brainstorm potential meals. 

Alright angels, this week you have it pretty easy! Grab three sheets of paper and set them out in front of you. Label them Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner and go to town with some listing. Consider all the dishes you know how to make off hand without a recipe. Jot those down on the appropriate sheets first. Think of all the meals you enjoy creating and write ’em down. Throwing a few ingredients together–like smoothies or sandwiches… Include those. List off the things you know you could throw together in ten minutes or less for those times you need to pack a lunch in a hurry. Brainstorm more elaborate items you might want to make when you have a long Sunday of sitting at home. These lists can be as long as you like (take the whole week to make sure you get everything down!) just make sure you’re considering these two questions–

  1. Do I enjoy eating this?
  2. Can I feasibly make this?

If the answer is yes to both then copy it on down!

Super pared down example to help you get the idea —

Breakfast – cereal, oatmeal, smoothies, pancakes with sausage, scrambled eggs with spinach and bacon, avocado toast, greek yogurt with fruit and granola

Lunch – salad topped with lean protein, berries, and avocado; grilled cheese and soup; pb&j with crackers and veggies/fruit; cold cut wrap with yogurt and trail mix; beans and rice; baked potato (or sweet potato) with toppings of choice; triscuits & cheese, grapes, pickles, and mixed nuts

Dinner – chili and cornbread; grilled salmon with grain and veggie; spaghetti and meatballs; your own version of a Chipotle burrito bowl; minestrone soup; black bean burgers with sweet potato fries and corn on the cob; chopped salad with a lean protein; homemade pizza and a side salad; breakfast for dinner; stir-fry pork and veggies with noodles/rice

Week 2. Gather pantry staples. 

Now that you know what types of things you’ll be preparing in your kitchen, you can start building up your essentials. Take a look at your three lists. Are there any common denominators in terms of ingredients? Any staple item which is used in the creation of several of the meals on your lists?

From the list above I see a few pantry staples which may be worth considering keeping on hand all the time. Oats, eggs, pancake mix, crackers/trail mix/nuts, beans, rice/quinoa, cornbread mix, pasta, peanut butter, and sweet potatoes would be a good starting place.

Once you’ve added these common denominator ingredients to your pantry staple list, consider ingredients which may act as ENHANCERS for the meals you brainstormed. Just a few add-ons can go a long way in taking your food from boring and blah to delicious. Think: Olive oil and vinegar to make a quick and easy salad dressing or a spicy mustard to jazz up that cold cut wrap. Maybe you like your food with a kick so you throw in hot sauce and Cajun seasoning. Perhaps you like Teriyaki sauce for marinating or a sprinkle of cinnamon on your morning oats. You get the idea.

Purchase as many of these items as you can this week. If you can’t afford to grab the whole kit and kaboodle? That’s ok. You can start adding a few pantry staples to your repertoire each week you shop. And as you run out of these items, replace them.

pantry staples

Week 3. Make a meal plan. 

At this point you know what meals you can (and want) to make and you have some pantry staples on hand, time to take a stab at a little bit of handy-dandy planning! Take a glance at your calendar to first get an idea of what your week looks like. Are you super busy? Do you have any evening meetings or activities? Any meals already accounted for–like breakfast provided at a conference or a special birthday dinner planned with friends? Will you have time each morning to pack your lunch or do you need to do it the night before? Or even prepare them all on Sunday?

Once you’ve taken stock of all your weekly happenings and considerations, start pulling meal ideas from your brainstorm lists to create your weekly meal plan. Make sure to keep in mind the pantry staples you stocked up on last week in order to keep your grocery bill as low as possible.

Example from the brainstorm above–

Monday: B- Greek yogurt with fruit and granola. L- PB&J with crackers and veggies. D- Chili and cornbread.

Tuesday: B- Oatmeal. L- cold cut wrap with yogurt and trail mix. D- Leftover chili and cornbread.

Wednesday: B- Oatmeal. L- PB&J with crackers and fruit. D- Breakfast for dinner.

Thursday: B- Oatmeal. L- salad topped with lean protein, berries, and avocado. D- black bean burgers with sweet potato fries and corn on the cob

Friday: B- Oatmeal. L- cold cut wrap with yogurt and trail mix. D- Eat out for date night.

Saturday: B- avocado toast. L- baked potato (or sweet potato) with toppings of choice. D- minestrone soup.

Sunday: B-  pancakes with sausage. L- leftover minestrone soup. D- stir-fry pork and veggies with noodles/rice

Week 4. Hit the store and get cooking. 

This is the week to put all your planning into action. Start your week with a trip to the store to get all the items you’ll need to pull off that meal plan. Bring the plan with you or make a shopping list. Study the sales. Compare prices in the store. If you need fruits, go for the ones in season. Need veggies? Check fresh AND frozen. Grains? Look for which one is on sale or hit up the bulk bins.

Once you’re home with all your loot see what happens. Give your week’s worth of meals a go! If you experience hiccups along the way that’s ok. Figure out what you could do differently in the future. Practice makes perfect and finding a way to cheaply feed yourself with out a lot of fuss DEFINITELY takes practice. If you think it might help in your journey, take this week to jot down any thoughts, notes, or inspiration in a journal. Read through it when you sit down to make your next meal plan and KEEP GOING! You got this!!!

kitchen tools

Resources:

Week 1 —

31 Healthy Meals You Can Make in 10 Minutes or Less

Quick Dinners to Make at Home

Good and Cheap (PDF Cookbook)

8 Fast Dinners for Busy Runners

Week 2 —

Stock Your Kitchen: Pantry Staples

How to Stock a Healthy Pantry

Week 3 —

How I Cut My Grocery Bill by $1000 a Year

Memorize This Grocery List

How to Eat on a Shoestring Budget

FREE Weekly Meal Plan Printable

Week 4 —

Favorite Trader Joe’s Items

6 Ways We’re Keeping Our Grocery Budget Low

How to Maximize Your Saving With Coupons

How to Make 5 Week Day Dinners on a Sunday

An Entire Week’s Worth of Meals in 9 Easy Steps

Do you have your own tips or resources for keeping food in your pantry and home-cooked meals in your belly? Is this an area of your “spending diet” that you struggle with? Do you think following these weekly steps could help? Let’s chat in the comments below!

And tune in next month when we tackle GYM MEMBERSHIPS!