No matter how busy you are, it can be easy to resort to drive thru meals and pizza delivery on a hectic weeknight when you don’t know what to cook. One way to avoid that is to get in the habit of planning your meals on a weekly basis. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. If you don’t know what you’re doing, trying to plan a week’s worth of dinners can be more stressful than flying by the seat of your pants.
Luckily, meal planning can be a very effective tool that can save you time and money, and even improve your health. Whether it’s just you or you have a large family, knowing what you’re going to eat and when can take one of the biggest challenges we all face off the table for good.
1. Build Good Habits
This is the first step in successful meal planning: You have to do it, and you have to do it consistently. Get in the habit of sitting down for an hour once a week and deciding what you’ll eat that week. Do it right before you go to the grocery store, and set aside a time block every week when you know you’ll be planning, shopping, and putting things away. If you always set aside that time, you’ll have no excuse not to do it. If you struggle to fit grocery shopping into your busy schedule, or always find yourself heading to the store on your way home from work, you’ll be relieved to know you don’t have to do that anymore.
You should also get in the habit of making a well planned out list and sticking to it. Set time into your schedule to go through your pantry to see what you’re out of. It will take 15 minutes, but it will save you the headache when you only have to go to the store once a week.
2. Know What Your Family Members Like
If you’re cooking for yourself, it’s easy to come up with meals because you know exactly what you like. For others, it can be a little trickier, especially if you have kids. You probably have a good idea of what your family likes to eat, but ask them to help you by making a list of favorite foods and meals. You should also ask that they send you recipes that they see that they’d like to try.
3. Collect Recipes
Decide before you start how or where you’ll collect recipes. It can be a binder you keep in your kitchen or you can do it digitally; do whatever works for you. There are many recipes programs and apps that aim to make it easier to collect, sort, and search for recipes, so you won’t have to shuffle through folders and cards, but if you aren’t digitally inclined, a notebook and pen work fine too. Just make sure you keep them in the same place. This way, when you sit down to do your planning, you’ll have everything all in one place.
4. Keep a Calendar
If you have a big or super busy family, one thing that helps is to use a weekly calendar of events to plan your meals. If you do your planning and shopping on Sunday, for example, it helps to know who will be around for dinner on what nights. If you have a lot of running around on a particular night, that’s not going to be a good time to try something that’s complicated and time-consuming.
5. Plan for Leftovers
If you know you’re going to have an extra busy week, plan a meal or two that makes good leftovers, so all you have to do the next night is reheat. Almost anything can make good leftovers; you just have to make enough to feed everyone twice. Some meals freeze really well too. If you’re making a lasagna, why not make an extra casserole? Then you can wrap it and freeze it for a night when you don’t have time for anything else. Leftovers also make a great lunch you can bring to work.
6. Keep Your Pantry Well Stocked
When you start your first meal planning adventure, take a good look at your pantry. Make a list of items that you always have and want to keep stocked. Cooking oils, dried herbs and spices, dried pasta, beans and rice are great starts. If you always have these on hand, making a meal is as easy as adding some meat and vegetables. Use your freezer as well. Meat, frozen fruit, and vegetables all keep well for several months.
If you have a membership to a warehouse store, you might plan on making a once a month trip to get all your pantry staples; this makes weekly shopping easier and less stressful.
7. Plan Meals Around Sales
When you sit down to do meal planning every week, have a store circular handy so you know what’s on sale. Most stores will even have their sales online, so it’s as easy as pulling it up and taking a quick look before you start.
8. Use Similar Ingredients
If you just put your favorite recipes on the list for the week without thinking about ingredients, you’ll likely run into two problems: First, you’ll spend a lot of money buying different ingredients for each meal, and second, you may have leftovers that go bad because you can’t use them up. Instead, plan recipes using similar ingredients, especially perishables like fresh produce, herbs, or meat that can’t be refrozen.
To make it even easier, plan meals that you can prep for while cooking another meal. If you have two meals that use rice, you can cook double the first time and use the rest later in the week.
9. Prep Ahead if You Can
If you can, plan an extra hour after you’ve put all your groceries away for a little bit of prep time. Use this time to chop onions, soak dried beans, or clean produce that’s time consuming like corn on the cob. Taking the time when you have it set aside is much easier than trying to do it when you’re tired and hungry and just want to eat and get the kids to bed.
10. Take Notes
When you find a recipe that’s a hit, mark it somehow, either by starring it in your digital recipe journal, or putting it to the front of your binder. Keep a list of meals and recipes that you just love so you have something to fall back on when you get stuck in a meal planning rut.
Make note of things that worked out for you in the process that you’d like to change. Does going shopping on Saturday afternoon take longer for you? Make a note so that you can adjust other things in your schedule to change that. You may think you can mentally keep track of everything, but if that were the case, meal planning wouldn’t be necessary!
Planning your meals will be stressful at first; just like anything else you want to get better at, it takes practice to get it right. By following the steps and tips here, you’ll get the hang of it quickly. Having the help and support of your family will go a long way to making it work, and planning around similar ingredients and items on sale will help you save money. As long as you make a commitment to yourself and your family to do it consistently, eventually, it will become just another part of your week, and you’ll be amazed that you ever got by without doing it!