Meal planning is one of the easiest ways to get your life organized on the weekend and free up extra time during the busy week ahead. How many times have you looked at the clock at 4:30 pm and thought, “What are we having for dinner tonight?” If you haven’t planned ahead, you may have to stop on your way home at the grocery store or heaven-forbid, a fast food restaurant. The healthiest, least stressful and most frugal option for weeknight meals is to plan ahead.
Here’s how to do it.
Sometime during the weekend, I sit down with two or three of my cookbooks and flip through them for ideas, usually for about 15 minutes. I go in knowing I want to make soup or an interesting salad this week or, during a particular season like winter, I’m looking for recipes with winter fruits and vegetables and avoiding summery dishes. If you own a lot of cookbooks but feel like you never use them, start using them! You’ll get to try a lot of new recipes and you won’t get bored with the same old chicken and rice recipe. Plus, the best cookbooks include an estimated prep time or total time and a number of servings, which will help you determine what day to make that particular recipe. Some of my favorite cookbooks are:
- The Enchanted Broccoli Forest and The New Moosewood Cookbook by Mollie Katzen
- Jamie’s Food Revolution by Jamie Oliver
- The Best 30-Minute Recipe from the Editors of Cook’s Illustrated
Choose Recipes that Have Similar Ingredients
Often I’ll start my planning out with a particular recipe in mind. Say I’m craving fish tacos. The recipe I usually make requires purple cabbage, cilantro, yogurt and lime for the slaw, breaded fish and tortillas. Pretty simple. But, you’ll be left with extra cilantro, cabbage and tortillas. So I’ll find other recipes that use the leftover ingredients like purple cabbage salad with apples and pecans or a curry recipe that uses basic pantry staples and cilantro in the dish and as a topping. Or, if you’re buying celery for a soup recipe, plan to either take celery with peanut butter for a snack that week or if you’re not going to use it, spend a few extra minutes to chop and freeze it so you can pull it out when you want to make soup the next time.
Assign Recipes to Days of the Week
If you have time on Sunday to prepare one or two things in advance, do it. Make the most elaborate meal on Sunday and make extra so you have leftovers you can either eat for lunch during the week or freeze in portion-sized containers for a particularly busy week in the future. For the rest of the dinners, assign recipes that will be easy to accomplish depending on your schedule and your needs throughout the week. If you know you don’t have a lot of time to cook on Tuesday and Wednesday night, dedicate Monday to making a big pot of stew or a casserole that will last for a few lunches and plan easy and quick recipes for the busy nights.
Also, don’t forget to plan for breakfast and lunch. I prefer simple things for both of these meal times that are quick and easy to throw together the night before or in the morning. For breakfast, some quick, healthy options include yogurt, granola (preferably homemade) and fruit, oatmeal with dried fruit and nuts or a fruit smoothie and a boiled egg. For lunch, I like to take leftovers or a vegetable salad with protein and grains along with fruit, almonds and yogurt for easily portable snacks.
Shop, Cook, Relax
It may seem obvious, but try to get all the shopping for the week done in advance. This will make it much easier to get dinner started as soon as you get home. And, since you’ll know which recipe you’re following on each day, you won’t have to spend time thinking about what to make. This means you’ll have more time to exercise, spend time with your family and relax!
Do you have meal planning tips? Share them in the comments below.