Meal planning. An essential part of any healthy eating lifestyle, planning your meals for the week ahead makes it easier to choose healthy foods, save money and time, and avoid the dreaded 5:15 oh-no-what-are-we-having-for-dinner moment. It helps you to grocery shop effectively (click here to read about my time, money, & calorie saving grocery shopping method), and when done right, it can allow you and your family to get excited about skipping the takeout and trying new things.
In short, it’s a really great stress-reducing thing to spend 15 minutes on over your Sunday morning coffee. But for whatever reason, people seem to think of it as complicated and daunting and limiting– which couldn’t be farther from the truth. With the help of my 8 best meal planning tips, you’ll be a pro in no time!
This first one is likely the most obvious, but that is because it is also probably the most important. If you’re planning dinners for your family, house, or just yourself, keep everyone’s schedule in mind— including yours. Maybe you shouldn’t plan to make your husband’s favorite meal for the night he’s out of town, or should opt for the easy roast chicken on the evening you have to work late. By keeping soccer games, visiting parents, birthday parties, and dinner dates in mind, you’ll make sure you produce a meal plan that you can actually stick to and makes your life easier, not harder.
DO NOT try to keep a week’s worth of plans, recipes, ingredients, and shopping lists inside your own head. You’ll forget, I promise, and you’ll end up trying to make spaghetti and meatballs with no pasta and no tomato sauce. Instead, try doing something like this:
Sure, it looks a little silly, but by writing down what meals you’ll be having and the ingredients you’ll need to buy to make them, you’re killing two birds at once. Not only are you planning out your healthy meals, but you’re making sure you don’t have to go to the grocery store nine times in one week, which means less stress, more time, and more money. That’s worth making a list over.
If you want to go a step further, cover a spot on your kitchen wall with chalkboard paint and write out your weekly menu. It can look really cute and is especially great if you have kids (it makes them get excited and potentially even want to help with dinner, plus it totally eliminates the “what’s for dinner?” nagging).
When you first start meal planning, it can be temping to do sort of aspirational-meal-planning. If you’re trying to get healthy, you make every meal kale and poached fish. If you’re trying to become a better a better cook, every meal has five courses and involves something you can’t actually pronounce. If you’re trying to spend more time in the kitchen, everything from the mayo to the bread to the pasta sauce has to be 100% homemade.
Don’t do this. Trying to improve yourself and make better habits is a great thing, but don’t set yourself up for failure. Be realistic with your expectations, and keep your strengths, your weaknesses, your resources, and your preferences in mind. If you make the world’s best lasagna, don’t stop doing that because it’s not new and fancy. Similarly, choose meals that are healthy and tasty (especially if you have kids), and be sure you have enough time to make everything you’ve planned to make (and don’t forget to factor in clean up time! Whoever said “cook like you don’t have to clean up” was either messy, rich and employing a full time cleaning lady, or stupid. Cook like you do need to clean up, because you probably do). Don’t choose recipes with really expensive ingredients, and for your own sake, don’t be too hard on yourself. Even the best chefs sometimes just want to order pad thai.
You wouldn’t decide on a restaurant without asking where everyone wants to go, so why do that with dinner? Asking for input from your kids, your roommates, your boyfriend, or whoever else you’re cooking for is a fun and thoughtful way to involve them in the process and get them excited for the meal ahead of them. If you have kids, give them each a day and let them pick that night’s dinner– you can even get them helping (and learning!) in the kitchen.
And truthfully, it isn’t all just being nice. It can be hard to come up with a week’s worth of ideas over and over again, so requests and suggestions can help you avoid a mealtime rut. You’ll be thankful for the input!
When planning your meals, it’s very tempting to make each and every night a self contained thematic entity. Mexican night on Monday, stir fry on Thursday, pizza night on Friday. That’s great and all, but it can lead to a lot of work and a lot of uneaten leftovers. It is quite all right for a few nights a week to be a little less Pinteresty, and a little more “normal”. A dinner of grilled salmon, salad, and mashed potatoes can be every bit as good and satisfying and pleasing as something far more exotic and involved.
This probably seems counter-intuitive as this whole post is lauding the benefits of planning, but don’t be overly rigid about your meal planning. Sure, food is fuel, but it’s also emotional and comforting and pleasurable. The beauty of making a list (as is illustrated in #2) and effectively grocery shopping is that you already have what you need in your house– no one will die if you switch Tuesday’s dinner for Thursday’s because you woke up on Tuesday and really felt like enchiladas.
With all the fun of imagining the great dinners you’re going to make, it’s easy to REALLY overspend. As I’ve recommended in the past, check the weekly flyers from your local grocery stores to see who has what on sale (click here for more on that), and use that information to plan what you’re going to make. It’s also a great move to choose to use what is in season whenever possible– take advantage of fresh asparagus in May, and load up on fresh Strawberries in early July. You’ll connect with your food and the seasons surprisingly easily, and your tastebuds and wallet will be better for it.
Beyond that, just remember that it’s all about balance. If you’re making a dinner with something pricey like smoked salmon or truffles one night, balance it out by making something cheap like a tofu stirfry or simple pasta the next.
My favorite! Getting more organized about your meals gives you the opportunity to really experiment and grow in the kitchen. Of course you don’t want to try something new every night, but make an effort to try a new recipe once a week. You’ll learn new techniques, enjoy playing around with new ingredients, and you just might find a new family favorite in the process.