Whether you consider yourself to be a novice chef or a gourmet cook, planning meals in advance will save you time and money. It will also likely save your waistline; as following through with a meal plan will hopefully keep you out of the drive-thru.
There are numerous websites dedicated to the practice of meal planning; you can even purchase meal planning services that do the hard work for you. (Groupon and LivingSocial both feature meal planning services on a semi-regular basis.) There are even subscription services, such as Hello Fresh, Plated, and Blue Apron meals, that will ship pre-planned meals to you, with recipes and all of the ingredients included so all you have to do is prepare them. I have never personally tried either of these approaches to meal planning but they have their fair share of supporters.
Before You Begin
Before you sit down to plan your meals, take a few minutes to think about your family’s eating habits. Are you feeding small children? A large family? Do you have picky eaters, or any food allergies? Luckily, I have relatively non-picky eaters who are also grazers throughout the day, so I don’t have to narrow down our menus too much to accommodate. Keep a list in your head of your family’s favorite meals.
Pick something to keep your menus organized or in. There are tons of free printables on Pinterest, or you could just use a notebook or a page on your calendar. I have a Pinterest board called “Meal Planning Mondays” where I tag recipes I’ve tried by date, so that I know the last time my family had the meal. It’s also a handy place to put comments regarding our feelings about the meal. (Most of the time my meals are well received, but on occasion I’ve noted our lack of enthusiasm!)
- Start simple. It’s absolutely okay to have sandwiches on your menu plan. Or frozen pizza. You can even write in nights you are planning to go out to eat. Putting your plan to paper helps you to stick to it.
- Plan around food you already have in your refrigerator or pantry. My family gets a bi-weekly produce share on Fridays, so I try to incorporate those items into meals. I’d never had eggplant before picking up our produce share, and while it’s still not an absolute favorite, if we get eggplant in our produce basket, I can guarantee we will be eating Eggplant Parmesan one day the following week.
- Plan around sales. Publix, Kroger, and Bi-Lo all start their weekly sales cycles on Wednesdays. By planning your meals around items that are on sale, you are maximizing your grocery budget. (For more savings tips, check out Simone’s post on couponing.)
Keep It Going
In order to maintain momentum, it’s important not to try to do too much too soon when you’re planning meals. If you’re constantly trying something new, then you’re likely to get burned out in the kitchen. I usually aim for one new meal to us per week, which I think is a doable goal.
- Try to space out your proteins. If you’re having chicken tacos on Tuesday, don’t have chicken again until Friday night. Many health and wellness websites advocate planning one meatless meal per week. This will save you money, and is usually healthier!
- Try different cooking methods. Summertime in South Carolina is HOT! I changed up my meal plan at the last minute one day last week because I couldn’t bear the thought of being in the hot kitchen. In my house we grill year round, and we grill much more than steaks and hamburgers! The slow cooker is another great cooking method that won’t heat up your kitchen.
- Try big batch cooking. In order to streamline my meal planning and prep, if I purchase a large amount of ground beef, I can save time by cooking it all at once and freezing it. It’s then easy to add that into my meal prep. I do the same thing with inexpensive steaks (for fajitas) or I can cook a large number of chicken breasts in the slow cooker to freeze later.
Pinterest is obviously a great place to find recipes, although sometimes it’s tough to separate the winners from the losers. I follow a couple of awesome food bloggers who I trust are good cooks as well as good pinners. Christy Jordan of Southern Plate hasn’t steered me wrong yet! A couple of my other favorite cooking blogs are The Pioneer Woman, Damn Delicious, and Iowa Girl Eats. Try to be consistent with following food bloggers. If you like one of their recipes, try a couple more. Chances are you will find lots of favorites, and then you have a good basis on which to rely when it comes to planning meals.
- Consider subscribing to a couple of food magazines. Taste of Home is an inexpensive subscription and is filled with recipes from real home cooks. Their page spreads are often dedicated to entire meals, so you don’t have to pick and choose different side items if you aren’t inspired. Food Network Magazine is gorgeous, but their recipes tend to fall on the “more exotic” (read: more expensive ingredients) for my family. EveryDay with Rachael Ray is still at heart a cooking magazine, but it’s really branched into a lifestyle magazine as well.
- Flip through cookbooks. You may not make everything in the cookbook, but sitting down and flipping through the pages is a great way to get inspired. (Note: the public library is a great resource for cookbooks and cooking magazines! You can flip through and try a few favorites and then come back a few weeks later to try different ones. This is a great way to read up on unfamiliar cuisines and techniques.)
Be Prepared to Change It Up
Things happen … plans change, the kids get sick, the meat turned brown before you realized it, or the pizza dough doesn’t stretch like you want it to. Once you’ve been doing the weekly meal planning thing for a while, you will hopefully become more comfortable in the kitchen and be able to change your plans at a moment’s notice.
Happy cooking! Hopefully armed with these tips in your arsenal you won’t stress about dinner prep.. you’ve got this!
Do you meal plan? What additional tips do you have?