Whether it’s raising kids, working outside the home, running children to activities or keeping the house clean, all of us are busy. And trying to come up with a meal to cook each night can be challenging, especially if you wait until the last minute to decide what to cook and it needs to be on the table quickly. I’ve found that if I do a few simple things in advance, meal time runs smoothly and isn’t stressful. Here are 6 ways to make meal planning successful and make it easier on you every night.
1. Create a Menu
Creating weekly meal plans can be simple, and most of us have at least 10 favorite meals that we cook every few weeks. I repeat our favorite meals regularly, but I also try to add in a new recipe or two each week or bring back a recipe that I haven’t made in a while. When I create a menu, I take about 15 minutes and plan two weeks of meals at a time, write down on a paper what meals I want to cook and hang it on the side of my refrigerator. This system works for me.
If you want to take it a step further, you can specify which day you want to make each meal. Some people like Meal Planners such as these Dry Erase Meal Planners here to help them stay organized with their meal planning. Because my days vary with how busy I am or what I feel like cooking or eating that day, I don’t assign days to my meals. I like to know my meals are planned but I like flexibility with which days I cook those meals.
Another way to create a menu plan and to make recipe decisions is to have a theme for each day of the week. A weekly rotation could look something like this:
- Monday – Pasta
- Tuesday – Tacos
- Wednesday – Crock Pot
- Thursday – Soup, Salad or Sandwiches
- Friday – Pizza
- Saturday – Casserole
- Sunday – Something simple
I create a menu just for dinners because our breakfasts are simple and consist of oatmeal, homemade granola, bagged cereal, toast, eggs, waffles (freezer friendly), French toast or breakfast burritos. And our lunches are usually leftovers from the evening before or sandwiches. Here’s a sample of dinner meal ideas I would cook for one week:
- Slow Cooker Lasagna, Italian Breadsticks, Salad
- Baked Potatoes with Chili, Biscuits, Steamed Broccoli
- Farmer’s Breakfast Casserole, Fruit (We love breakfast for dinner!)
- Crock Pot Black Beans and Corn Salsa Chicken, Spanish Rice, Fruit
- Creamy Tomato Soup, Grilled Cheese Sandwiches, Carrots
- Chinese Tacos, Rice, Mixed Vegetables
- Chicken Broccoli Casserole, French Bread, Corn
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2. Plan Meals Around Your Week
If you know you will have a busy week, then plan more simple meals. I always have a few simple meals on hand that I add to my menu each week. I like that I have a list of meals and and food in my pantry to cook the meals, yet I also like that there are easy meals to whip together on days when I’m really busy.
In addition to planning meals around my week, I also plan meals based on what’s in season and what’s on sale at the grocery store. For instance, if broccoli is on sale, then I will make Chicken Broccoli Casserole, as well as add broccoli as a side dish to one of the other meals. If pork chops are on sale, then I’ll make Ranch Crock Pot Pork Chops. And if tortillas are on sale, then I’ll make Chicken Enchiladas or quesadillas.
Also plan meals based on what you already have in your kitchen. For ingredients you have on hand or haven’t used, look at sites such as Allrecipes.com or SuperCook.com, type in what ingredients you have, and it will bring up new recipes with those ingredients. This is a great way to not let food go to waste.
3. Prepare Meals Ahead of Time
To save time before you start making dinner, prepare meals or ingredients ahead of time such as placing frozen items in the fridge to thaw or cut up vegetables the night before. If I have meals that use shredded chicken, I’ll plan ahead during the week and fill my crock pot with frozen chicken, let it cook all day, and then shred it. This gives me enough chicken for multiple meals during the week. Plus, I usually have extra that I can freeze and pull out for meals later.
If you plan on repeating a meal again the following week, make a double batch of that night’s dinner and freeze one, then the next week you have a meal all ready to go. I like to have a few freezer meals that I can pull out of the freezer each week. Check out these 7 Make Ahead Freezer Meals and these 12 Favorite Freezer Meal ideas that my family enjoys.
I usually decide each morning what meal I want to make for dinner. This helps me to know if there are ingredients I can prepare early in the day, or if I have a busy day, then I can throw a meal in the crock pot so it’s ready for dinner. By preparing items in advance, it makes the whole dinner process much easier.
4. Make a Shopping List
Because I plan my meals two weeks at a time, I only grocery shop once every two weeks. This saves me from making multiple grocery store visits every week, which saves me money. Read about how I buy groceries on budget here.
After you’ve created your menu, make a list of all the ingredients that you will need to prepare these meals. So you don’t have to start a new list each week, keep a generic list on hand that includes things you buy frequently such as milk, eggs and bread, then add items to the list. If you already have an item in the refrigerator or cupboard, then cross it off the list. This will save you money because you won’t need to buy something you already have on hand. I keep my grocery list on my computer and add items to my generic list before I go shopping. In addition, I arrange the items on the list to correspond with the layout of the grocery store so I don’t need to go back to an aisle again, which makes shopping easier and faster.
5. Use Perishables First
I’ve been asked many times how I only shop every few weeks and still have fresh produce. What I do is buy enough fresh produce that my family will be able to eat, and then for the first week I use up the items that will perish first, such as bananas and berries. With the produce that lasts longer such as lettuce (wrap it in paper towels to last longer), carrots, apples and oranges, my family will eat them more during the second week. And as my fresh produce runs low, I incorporate frozen and canned vegetables, as well as fruit I canned in the fall, into my meals. I try to purchase enough produce to eat healthy but not too much that I end up throwing it out.
6. Build a Collection of Meals
After you make a meal, decide if it’s a meal you want to make again for your family, and write it down on a list with other meals that you want to cook again. Building a collection of delicious, family-approved meals will help your meal planning take less time.
Whatever your cooking challenges may be, planning your meals ahead of time can take the stress out of “What’s for Dinner?” and make dinner time much easier. What are ways you make meal planning successful?
You might like these 12 Favorite Freezer Meals