We’ve all been there, it’s one of those busy days where nothing seems to go as planned. You end up frazzled and suddenly it’s 5 pm, your people are hungry and asking for food. Then you have the panicked realization they are expecting you to feed them–again. ‘Didn’t I just feed them yesterday?” you think. You glance through the pantry and fridge looking for any combination of ingredients that can produce some sort of meal before combining a few things in a pan, throwing them on a plate, and sitting down exhausted from the process.
This dinner frenzy is a frequent occurrence in many households, bringing with it stress and hustle that can steal the joy from the family dinner experience. I’m here to tell you there’s another way. You don’t have to live with this constant state of dinnertime panic. With a little effort and organization, you can learn how to meal plan and set your family up for a smoother and more enjoyable evening meal.
I like to think of meal planning as asking the question “What’s for dinner?” proactively–once for the whole week–rather than reactively every night.
Meal planning has many benefits including saving time, saving money, reducing meal time stress and reducing waste. We could all use more of those in our lives, right?
I plan once a week for the following week, but some people prefer to plan a month at a time. After planning, I grocery shop one day a week (the same day every week), and bulk shop one day (the same day every week). By making a habit of shopping the same day every week, I work my other plans around shopping and rarely end up missing a shopping trip. (Also, shout out to services like Shipt and Walmart pickup for those weeks when I just can’t even with grocery shopping!) I like to plan 7 meals a week because our family eats at home every night and we eat leftovers for lunch. Depending on your household you may prefer to plan 5 meals a week, leaving 2 nights for leftovers and/or eating out. The key is to figure out what works for your family, then do that.
Here are a few simple steps that will have you meal planning like a pro in no time:
1. Figure out why YOU are planning.
Is it to save money? Make healthier decisions? Save time? Reduce stress? Simplify? Add variety? Eliminate Waste?
Once you know why you plan, you can stick to recipes within your parameters. I’d suggest starting by prioritizing 1-2 areas of focus, then once you get the hang of planning regularly you can add another focus if you want.
For example, if you are planning to save money, you won’t want to choose recipes with fancy ingredients or long ingredient lists. If your goal is to make healthier decisions, you won’t look for recipes for fried foods or recipes with lots of butter, cream and cheese. If you want to save time, you should stick to quick and easy recipes only. If you want to reduce stress, you may want to only make dishes you already know how to cook and already know your people like. If your goal is to simplify you might consider using the same meal rotation every week or every month. If you want to add variety you probably want to try 1 or 2 new recipes a week. To focus on eliminating waste, you should plan around what you already have on hand by planning recipes that will use the remainder of specific ingredients you need to use up.
2. Get organized.
To do this I keep 3 running lists at all times — “Recipes to Try” (don’t forget to record where you found the recipe), “Go to Dishes” and a “Groceries to Buy” list. You can do this however works best for you, a note on your phone, an app, a Pinterest board, an Instagram album, a meal planner book, or I just keep a simple spiral notebook containing all 3 lists.
3. What to consider when planning.
-Number of meals needing to be planned for the week.
-Think about your schedule, how much time will you have for cooking?
-Are you having guests?
-Do you have extra ingredients you want to use up?
-What is in season (these items will be more flavorful and less expensive)?
-What can you buy in bulk and use multiple times throughout the week (or month)?
An easy way to get started is to incorporate meals that are regular, fun and brainless. For example, a weekly breakfast for dinner, Meatless Monday, Friday Pizza night, Taco Tuesday or Red Beans and Rice Monday.
Once planned, I often move meals around as I wish throughout the week, so the meals we are eating are set for the week, but we don’t always eat each meal on the assigned day. I do always keep in mind to use delicate ingredients earlier in the week (fresh herbs, mushrooms, meat I don’t want to freeze) and sturdier meals later in the week (using frozen or canned ingredients or produce with a longer shelf life like potatoes and carrots).
Here are a few extra things I consider, but I only recommend thinking through these if you already have a solid habit of meal planning:
-I shoot for a variety in protein between eggs, beans, seafood, beef, pork, chicken and turkey throughout the week.
-I incorporate a variety in genre from Italian, French, Middle Eastern, Indian, Southeast Asian and Mexican.
With all of this in mind, now you have a homework assignment to spend 10-20 minutes coming up with a meal plan that works for you for next week. Know that the more you practice meal planning, the easier it gets. You’ll find your groove and what once seemed stressful and took a bunch of time will soon become second-nature and relatively quick. Think of it as a gift you are giving to your future self to make things easier for the next week. Your next week self will thank you when the 5:00 craze hits and you have a moment of peace and clarity remembering you have already solved the dinner dilemma for that evening.