For most, meal planning is the trickiest part of cooking and understandably so. It’s hard to think about what your want for lunch tomorrow let alone for dinner a week from now. Even I have found myself staring into the abyss of my fridge and freezer wondering what I can pull together at the last minute for dinner. But then I discovered meal planning and my life got a whole lot easier real fast! If you take the time to meal plan you eliminate that 5:00 panic where you’re scrambling to find something to get on the table for your family. I love knowing that I have a diner plan every day and more importantly, that I have all of the ingredients that I need on hand as well. Whether you’re a stay-at-home mom like me or a working mama having a meal plan will absolutely make your life so much easier.
It might take a little work to get your meal planning going but once you build up a base of “go-to” recipes it’ll be easy peasy going forward. Go through your cookbooks, Pinterest pins, bookmarked online recipes, and magazine clippings and pull together a handful of recipes that you love or want to try. They can be quick and easy meals or even fancy schmancy dishes, whatever works for you. Next, put those recipes into a simple binder so they are all in one place and easily accessible. Then take a handful of index cards and on the front write down the name of one dish and on the back list the ingredients needed to prepare it. Do this for at least 15-20 recipes in order to get you started. Once you have a nice little handful of cards place them into an index box and now you have a collection of recipes you can access quickly when planning your meals for the week. If you’re feeling ambitious, throw a few index dividers in there too and make sections – chicken/poultry, beef, fish/seafood, pasta, side dishes, quick meals, Crock-Pot, etc.
I like to do my meal planning on the weekend but choose whatever day works best for you. Before I decide what to make for the week I like to look ahead and see what my schedule looks like and I make notations on my menu to indicate if we’ll be eating out on a certain day or if we have activities scheduled where I might need a quick meal on the table or nothing at all for that matter. I just grab a small sheet of paper, label Sunday through Saturday, fill in my meals for the week and then I hang my menu on the inside of my cabinet so I know exactly where to look to see what’s for dinner. My menu usually looks like this:
To get your menu planned for the week simply pull a few cards from your recipe box, put the cards in order of when you plan on cooking them and then flip them over to write a quick shopping list based on the ingredients needed for each recipe. A good tip is to base your menu around what ingredients you already have in the house OR plan around what is on sale in the supermarket. Once you have your menu planned out and your shopping list in hand the rest of the week will be smooth sailing. Every week try to add at least one new recipe to your collection in order to build it up so that you have more choices from week to week. Rotate your recipes and menus as often as you like.
A few other great tips for meal planning are:
- Stretch your ingredients – Try to choose meals where you will need to use the same ingredient more than once in a week, this cuts down on waste and trims your grocery budget too.
- Incorporate Crock-Pot meals into your menu – They are quick and easy to pull together and when it’s time to eat dinner your meal is hot and ready to go. These types of meals are especially good on days where you’re running around all day, working late, or just pressed for time when it come to dinner prep. Crock-Pots are great for making sauces, stews, soups, roasts, and more!
- Use up your stash – Check what you have on hand and use what you have before buying more. If you have a lot of chicken in your freezer, make a few chicken meals one week. Heavy on beef? Focus more on beef dishes.
- Cook once, eat twice! – Try and make a few meals where you’ll have leftovers that can be used to create a whole new dish for another night. For example: A pork shoulder will make a ton of shredded pork, use some for sandwiches one night and use the leftovers on another night for shredded pork tacos.
- Make big batches of dinner staples – Soups and sauces are great to make in big batches as they freeze well for later use. When you want pasta once night it’ll be as easy as defrosting some homemade sauce and boiling the pasta. For soups, just defrost and heat up. It doesn’t get more simple than that.
- Designate an all day cooking day – Spend an afternoon prepping meals that you can use throughout the week OR freeze for later use. A vacuum sealer is a great thing to have in your kitchen because it’ll keep your frozen food fresh and freezer burn free. Check out my blog post, Kitchen Must Have – Vacuum Sealer , for more information on vacuum sealers.
- Theme Nights – This keeps meal planning fun and allows you to narrow down and focus your cooking. Try things like Meatball Monday, Taco Tuesday, or Breakfast for Dinner Wednesday.
- Make the first meal of your week the easiest – Everyone is tired on a Monday, you don’t want to be standing in the kitchen stressing over a complicated meal. Make a quick pasta dish or a Crock-Pot meal and keep your Monday a little less hectic.
- Prep basic ingredients the day you food shop – Portion out meats and prep veggies and fruits so that when you go to cook throughout the week everything will already be chopped, diced, portioned, and ready to go!
- Keep a well stocked pantry – Having a few staples always on hand makes cooking and baking a breeze. Check out my blog post about Pantry and Fridge Essentials to help you stock your house.
- Shop the sales – Plan your meals around what is on sale that week to save money. Also, take advantage of great sales to stock up on pantry and fridge staples.
- Getting dinner on the table isn’t about starting from “zero” every night – Use any time that you might have throughout the day to get things ready for dinner later. For example – Prep and shape your meatloaf in the morning so at dinner it’s just a matter of putting it in the oven, peel and cut up potatoes in the afternoon and leave them in a pot covered with water so at dinner you just have to turn on the stove.
- Not every dinner has to be a from scratch meal – Take advantage of shortcuts and store-bought items to help make things easier. There are some really great ready-made foods available that will cut down on your time in the kitchen but still allow you to serve a delicious dinner for your family. Some things to try are frozen veggies and fruits, ready-made pie crust and pizza dough, and pre-cut veggies in the produce section.
- Get to know your grill……………year round! – A BBQ grill is a great way to cook because it’s quick and there is no cleanup. No pots and pans and no mess in the kitchen. You can make everything from burgers to quick pizzas on your grill and have a hot meal on the table in minutes.
- Stuck on what to make? – Try out the Allrecipes “Dinner Spinner” app! Just plug in the ingredients that you have on hand, what type of meal you’re looking to make, and how much time you have to cook and it’ll shoot back a few meals ideas for you. It’s a fabulous app to make use of because aside from the Dinner Spinner you can also access hundreds of recipes, tag your favorites, and even create a custom shopping list!
There are so many benefits to thinking about your meals and planning ahead of time and once you get in the habit of meal planning it will be come second nature to you. You’ll have less stress at meal time, you won’t overspend on groceries you might not use, you’ll eat healthier, you’ll reduce food waste, and you will save yourself valuable time in the kitchen. All good things! Once you get the hang of meal planning you can even try to plan other weekly meals such as lunch. If you work, planning out what to bring from home for lunch every day is a great way to eat better and save a ton of money in the process. Use these tips and tricks to help guide your meal planning but feel free to implement a system that works best for you and your family.