Meal planning is hard. Period. It takes time and effort to plan a week’s worth of dinners, shop for all of the ingredients, and prep the meat and vegetables in advance. You’ll need a lot of dedication and practice, but once you start getting the hang of it, it will make your busy life much easier. If you’re having trouble getting started, here are a few tips you can use to smooth out the transition from spontaneous chef to steady meal planner.
- Create a recipe arsenal.
You and your family don’t want to eat the same boring meals day in and day out, so set aside some time to browse Pinterest, blogs, and cookbooks to find meals that really excite you. If the food you’re planning for isn’t very appealing, you’ll be more likely to deviate from the plan and order a couple of pizzas that sound more appetizing. Also, bookmark all of the recipes you would like to try so you can easily find them later, and keep a record of meals that you have had success with in the past so you know what to repeat in the future.
- Try out themed nights.
Families with young children sometimes find it easier to meal plan if they set theme nights for every day of the week. For example, Monday could be Pasta Night, Tuesday Taco Night, Wednesday Soup Night, and so on. Having a general idea of what you’ll be cooking each night can make recipe-planning and shopping significantly easier. Your kids can also get in on the action and suggest their favorite pastas or soups for the upcoming weeks.
- Choose a shopping day.
You don’t want to be running to the grocery store everyday after work to gather the ingredients you need for tonight’s dinner because it wastes a lot of time and money. Once you plan out your meals, create a comprehensive shopping list of everything you’ll need for the week and pick one day to do your weekly grocery shopping. Stick to your list and don’t get tempted by other foods, and you’ll easily stay within your budget.
- Shop the sales.
You don’t have to be an extreme couponer to save money at the grocery store. Most stores put out a weekly ad for foods that will be on sale that week, so if you see that there’s a great deal on pork, plan out a couple meals for the week that include pork, like carnitas, grilled pork chops, or a pork tenderloin. You can also check your Sunday paper or the internet to find manufacturer’s coupons for many other boxed or canned ingredients.
- Stock your pantry.
You need to keep the essentials in your pantry so you won’t run out of them at the most inconvenient times. Some essentials to always have on hand include: olive oil, potatoes, beans, spices, dried herbs, chicken/vegetable broth, beans, rice, flour, and sugar. You’ll need at least one of these ingredients for almost every recipe, so it’s also a smart idea to buy in bulk at Sam’s Club to save yourself a little money on the things you buy most.
- Stretch your ingredients.
So, you need some feta cheese for this pasta recipe that you’ve been dying to make, but you only need ½ cup. What are you going to do with the rest of the container? Plan for it. Make the most of every ingredient you buy and plan weekly meals that have similar ingredients that you can use multiple times. Buy some tortillas, pre-grilled chicken, and fresh spinach, and you can put that feta to good use in grilled chicken, spinach, and feta wraps. Then, use that leftover spinach for healthy smoothies or in side salads.
- Prep ahead of time.
A lot of people find it helpful to prep most of their ingredients the day they buy them to save time during the week. So, as soon as you unload the groceries, chop all the onions and garlic you’ll need, wash vegetables, brown your ground beef, boil and shred chicken, and make a big batch of tomato sauce to use during the week and a little extra to freeze for future meals.
- Plan for leftovers.
Why cook a fresh meal every night if you don’t have to? Leftovers are great because they’re still healthy, home-cooked food that’s relatively fresh. If you make a giant casserole on Monday, plan to eat a piece of it for lunch every day that week. Or, if there’s enough left over, reheat the dish in the oven and serve it with a fresh salad for dinner the next night. Make a little extra of everything, and you’ll save yourself time and money later.
- The freezer is your friend.
Go one step further when it comes to creating leftovers by doubling your batches of food when you cook them. If you’re making chicken noodle soup, taco meat, or chicken pot pie, make twice as much, throw half of it in the freezer, and then you’ll have an effortless, delicious meal whenever you want it. Wait two or three weeks before serving it again, warm it up in the oven, and your kids will never notice that it came from the freezer.
- Be flexible.
You don’t want to completely deprive yourself of the foods you randomly crave throughout the week, so buy ingredients that can be used multiple ways. For example, if you’re really craving Mexican food, but you’ve already planned a chicken Caesar salad for that night, change it to a chicken taco salad by swapping out the dressing for salsa and adding some shredded cheese and low-fat sour cream. It may not be the greasy, fried chimichanga you were really craving, but it’s better than nothing and much healthier and cheaper than popping over to your favorite Mexican restaurant on the way home. You should also remember that even if your meal planning doesn’t go perfectly and you end up grabbing some quick Chinese takeout occasionally, don’t worry. It’s not the end of the world, and you can always do better the next week.