Meal Planning for an Easier Week
Ok, it’s 5:30. The troops are hungry and asking for dinner. You think about it, open the fridge, stare at the pantry. Now it’s 5:45. You choose a recipe, then realize you’re missing a key ingredient. Or that you have chicken, but it’s frozen. It’s now 6:00, and nothing is underway. Now what—takeout? Mac ‘n cheese? Cereal? There’s a less frustrating way—and it’s called meal planning. Don’t think about what’s for dinner every day—do it once a week. Choose the meals in advance, buy all ingredients in one trip, and when dinner time rolls around, just start cooking. No thinking, no searching, just cooking and eating. Great, you may be thinking—but HOW? Read on; I have tips. Or maybe you hear“meal plan” and think—no way, too rigid, too confining. But it doesn’t have to be. Here’s the great thing about meal planning: it can be whatever you want it to be. Maybe it’s really structured—Taco Tuesday! Friday Night Pizza!—or maybe it’s just choosing a few recipes and buying the ingredients for each, in one single trip. The important part is that you think about it in advance, instead of on your way home from work or when you’re so hungry that you’re seriously considering that leftover takeout from last week...maybe it’s still ok? Not convinced? Ok, here are a few more reasons: save money—eating at home is less expensive than takeout save time—stop staring at the fridge and making multiple grocery store trips eat healthier—cooking is almost guaranteed to be healthier than takeout waste less food—plan to use what you buy stress less—advance planning prevents ‘emergencies’ That’s the ‘why’. Here’s the ‘how’.
Start with your calendar. See which nights are crazy busy and which ones allow more time for dinner, and then plan accordingly. If people will be coming and going all evening with lots of activities, use a slow cooker. If the early part of the week is quiet and then end is crazy, cook bigger meals early and have leftovers later in the week. (Don’t forget that you can repurpose things: they don’t have to FEEL like leftovers if you use them in a different way!)
Give yourself a starting point. For example, you could check the weekly grocery circular to see what’s on sale. Or pick a cookbook (or website) to use for the week’s recipes. I like variety, so I don’t have a framework other than trying to hit a range of categories (chicken, pasta, Mexican, beef, etc.).
Utilize your freezer. Certain foods freeze well, and having them in your freezer is like a secret weapon on a busy day. Pasta sauce, broth-based soup, chili, empanadas, lasagna, meatballs, shredded chicken, enchiladas… Double the recipe, eat half, and freeze half. Frozen vegetables are as nutritious as fresh, don’t need to be defrosted, and can be prepared in the microwave in minutes with no prep time—so convenient on a busy night. And if your dinner plans change, they won’t spoil in the fridge. My absolute favorite thing to have in the freezer (other than cookie dough!) is cooked, shredded chicken. I make a big batch (usually a mix of breasts and thighs) in the CrockPot, shred it, portion it in ziploc bags, and freeze. It defrosts quickly and is a shortcut for a ton of recipes: tacos, pasta, quesadillas, soup, and so much more. Need ideas? I have a Pinterest board with lots of recipes, all using cooked, shredded chicken (plus the how to for making it in the slow cooker). Have a well-stocked pantry and fridge. There are certain things I always like to have on hand because there are nights when homemade is just not going to happen. Unexpected things pop up and sometimes what you planned to make for dinner just isn’t going to work. There’s the obvious (boxed mac 'n cheese, pasta & jarred marinara or pesto), but don’t stop there. Tomato soup (Trader Joe’s is my family’s favorite) and grilled cheese is always a hit at my house. Canned black beans are an easy protein source (we like ours with yellow rice). Eggs are another great protein source, and who doesn’t love breakfast for dinner? Take advantage of the days when you have more time. For a lot of people, that’s the weekend. Maybe on Sunday you make beef barbacoa and on Wednesday you use the leftovers to top baked potatoes. Make a big batch of meatballs and sauce to have with spaghetti one night, and then have meatball subs later in the week. Wash and chop veggies so they’re ready for the week. Other things that can be made in big batches and reheated as needed through the week include black beans, rice, and other grains.
Write it down. There’s no wrong way to do this. I print off a blank monthly calendar and keep it on a clipboard along with school lunch menus and recipe printouts that I’m planning to make. (I like it because it’s portable and easy and keeps everything together.) You could use a sheet of notebook paper or buy a menu planning notepad. There are dry erase calendars, chalkboard menu signs, you name it. (A tip: if you need to defrost an ingredient (or entire meal!), make a note on your calendar a day or two in advance so you don't forget!
Don’t be afraid to change it. Schedule change? Not in the mood for what you planned? Swap it with another night’s dinner. There are some weeks when my menu has arrows all over it because I completely changed things around. But it doesn’t matter, because I have all those ingredients and I’m just using them on a different night. Make a favorites list. Choose 5-10 meals that everyone likes (or if there are kids involved, at least tolerates). Ideally, these should be fast, simple, and have ingredients that are easy to keep on hand. This is not the time for gourmet or that ingredient you can only find at Whole Foods. When you’re trying to make your meal plan and hit a road block, turn to this list. Find a method that works for you. A friend of a friend of mine plans her meals for the entire month all at once. Once a month she gets her calendar and recipes and goes to Panera—alone!—gets breakfast, and uses the uninterrupted time to plan the month and make shopping lists for each week. Then she goes to the grocery store on her way home. She actually looks forward to it because it’s not just a chore, it’s alone time and she’s doing it in peace and quiet without interruptions. I can’t plan our meals a month out because our schedule changes too much. Weekly is what works for me. The point is, find what works for YOU. Find a way to make it pleasant instead of a burdensome chore. Realize that the first couple times it might take you a little while, but after a few weeks it might take only a few minutes.
I have a Pinterest board , sorted by preparation method (sheet pan, skillet, crock pot, etc.), with ideas to get you started. Give it a try for a couple weeks and see if it makes your evenings easier. To me, the upfront planning time is vastly preferable to the stress I feel when it’s 6:00 and I have no idea what I’m going to feed my family for dinner. I'd much rather go to the grocery store once (or maybe twice) than three or four times. It really does make my entire week easier!