It’s a question that is universally dreaded. For people with busy schedules, it can be the rotten cherry on top of a stressful day. While deciding the menu can be difficult enough on its own, making dinner happen also requires shopping, unpacking, prepping, cooking and cleaning up afterwards. Sometimes, it’s enough to make anyone throw in the towel!
More and more people are turning to weekly meal planning – and even prepping – habits to help them save time and headaches at dinnertime. By setting a menu at the start of the week, they’re finding their groove and learning to love mealtimes again. If you think this might be right for you, get these tips.
The first step on your meal planning journey should be learning from the pros. There are tons of TikTok, Instagram and Facebook accounts dedicated to meal prep and planning, as well as countless blogs. They can offer you invaluable insights into the process, including tips for making it as easy as possible.
For instance, longtime meal planners recommend buying a rotisserie chicken to start the week off. While that definitely guarantees your first meal is handled, plain chicken is the Swiss army knife of meal prep: it can transform into soup, enchiladas, salads and sandwiches in a snap. Utilizing ingredients that can be cooked once and reused in the next meal is a tried-and-true method for success. Also remember that you can always make a double portion of an ingredient like rice and save the leftovers for use on the next night. Many meal planning blogs have sample menus for the week that make use of this method.
The best way to keep track of your meal planning adventure is a notebook or three-ring binder. This will allow you to
save menus, make notes and keep track of your progress along this journey.
If you’re digitally-inclined, a Google Sheets spreadsheet might be a useful tool. This will allow you to add collaborators if you share the meal planning or purchasing responsibilities with someone else.
When you've got a good foundation of knowledge on meal planning, you should start building your first week’s menu. Remember, the goal is to have a plan to eat well without losing your cool. It’s tempting to make grand plans for huge, intricate meals, but you should aim for nutritious and easy.
Many families find it helpful to post the menu in a visible area of the home. Some invite vetoes while others adopt a “don’t like it? There’s peanut butter in the cabinet,” rule.
Another pro meal planning tip? Don’t hesitate to build in a “lazy” night or two! If you enjoy dining out, you should absolutely plan to do so. If you want to make Fridays a “fend for yourself” night, go for it! Having some flexibility and grace built in will keep you from feeling guilty on nights when you’re totally exhausted.
Some people get hung on up on making complete, cooked dishes versus having a delicious, nutritious meal. One of the most glorious life hacks you can learn is that there’s nothing wrong with arranging your ingredients on the plate and calling that dinner. Think of it like a fancyschmancy restaurant! Raw vegetables artfully arranged is just a “deconstructed” salad. A side of sliced peaches is a pop of flavor, not a shortcut to getting fruit into your diet. Spread couscous under anything and it’s suddenly gourmet!
There’s nothing worse than rolling up your sleeves to make dinner and finding out you’re missing an ingredient at the last second. Since your menu is set, you can proactively shop for ingredients to ensure this doesn’t happen to you!
Go through the menu and break down the ingredients you will need. Check your pantry for each item. If you’re not sure if you have it, go ahead and buy extra.
If you get home from the grocery store and find you’ve forgotten an important ingredient, either commit to getting to the store before the day in question, or find a workaround. If you have to take the dish off the menu entirely, find a replacement recipe that utilizes the ingredients you do have.
If you live with family, friends or a partner, enlist their help. Whether you have the prep, put groceries away, do the shopping or ever plan the whole menu, many hands make for light work. It also gives your crew a sense of ownership and responsibility for meal planning in your household.
If you really want to make weeknight eating easy, meal prepping may be your answer. The concept is to prepare and freeze meals so that dinner only needs reheating. This process requires you to cook large quantities of food in one go – which can be exhausting – but it saves time and energy through the rest of the week.
The key with meal prep is choosing dishes which either keep well in the fridge or freeze and reheat well. Again, research will be your best friend here: look to blogs and social media accounts of seasoned meal prep pros.
Even if making the whole week’s worth of meals – or month’s worth, for that matter! – all in one go isn’t something you can commit to, we can hardly blame you! However, it’s worth thinking about what you can do to make ingredient prep as simple as possible. If you’ll be using carrots in tonight’s meal as well as tomorrow’s, chop extra and reserve the excess. Every little bit helps!
At the end of each week, evaluate what went well and what was a struggle. Record your thoughts in your binder. If a recipe was an unexpected home run, save it for future use. If you struggled with a cooking technique in your preferred time frame, make a note of it. As you plan your next week’s menu, think about how you can iron out some of the wrinkles to make dinner a success every night! And if that means takeout an extra night a week, we won’t tell! •