Last week we asked our readers for their best tips for meal planning. How do you get dinner on the table, week in and week out, without getting bored? How do you stay energized and engaged with the act of cooking at home? Here are fifteen of our best and most universal tips for learning how to plan your meals.
What Is Meal Planning?
What is meal planning? It's whatever way you organize yourself to cook a meal, whether that's breakfast, lunch, or dinner. It is the plan you make before you shop. Some people plan a month in advance, freezing neatly-labeled packets of soup and stew. Others wing it, shopping for that evening's meal at the farmers' market and picking up whatever looks good to them. Meal planning is a really personal thing. What works for you may not work for me. The goal, I think, is to find a process that is both enjoyable and effective.
One of the things I sensed in our readers' comments is that many of them enjoyed reading through cookbooks, clipping recipes from blogs and websites, and taking some time to anticipate cooking. I think this is an important part of meal planning. Meals aren't just solutions to the problem of needing to eat; making a meal is also an expression of creativity — even if it's just cutting a PB&J sandwich into a new shape. Find ways to inspire yourself and to look forward to cooking. That's the spirit that animates this whole endeavor.
Secondly, I saw that readers were doing whatever worked for them. There's no right way to plan your meals; you should just do what is effective for you. I read over ten ways of gathering and organizing recipes. Your way may be messier and less elegant than you like, but if it works, why worry? Don't spend too much time looking for the most perfect and impeccably-maintained system. The system is just the tool. The point is the meal. Well, really, it's people, and enjoying good food with them and nourishing oneself.
This list of tips is all over the map — there are plenty of ideas here for getting more organized and helping yourself think ahead. Others are to just jog your memory and help you get inspired to dream up meals you'd love to eat.
15 Tips for Meal Planning
- Spend time each week looking for recipes.
This may feel like an indulgence, but just let yourself do it. Browse blogs and websites for recipes that look delicious. Hang out on Tasteologie. Pile up some cookbooks and reach fo the sticky notes. Get inspired!
In terms of figuring out what to make we have a list of meals that we love and are easy to cook hanging on our fridge. Those staples make it into the rotation frequently and then I go through my pinterest boards as well as cookbooks and magazines to find 1-2 new recipes to add into the rotation. Our staples list is getting longer and longer. - Shelf81
- Create a place to save recipes, and keep it SIMPLE.
Do whatever works for you. Don't get caught up in a system, just use whatever works best and most easily. Personally, I like Pinterest because it's easy to visually browse what I've saved. (Watch for another post coming soon with a rundown of our readers' favorite places to save recipes.)
I use Springpad (kind of like Evernote), to store my recipes. I add them to a Board view, so I can create a visual display of what I'm making when, and with the way they have recipes set up, you can easily add ingredients to a shopping list. - Riddles
- Ask your partner, family, and roommates what they like to eat.
This might sound obvious, but it's easy to get caught up in our weeks and forget to ask our households what they would like to eat. I get extra inspired, too, when I feel like I'm cooking a meal as a gift — trying to please and delight the palate of someone I love.
Meal planning can be daunting and to get my husband involved I had to take several steps back by asking simply what foods he liked. I wrote a post on the process. - KMarie
- Check the weather.
Again, you may say, duh, but seriously. Right now, the weather is changeable in many parts of the country. Look at the weather forecast, and try to predict if you're going to be in the mood for soup (or grilled shrimp salad!) on Friday.
Maybe this is weird but am i the only one who checks the weather forecast before i meal plan? - Adamwa
- Keep a meal journal.
One of my best inspirations is my own record of things I've cooked in the past. Take a look at what you were cooking a year ago, two years ago. It's a good way to remember things you used to cook, and still love.
I use a blank monthly calendar and plan the week's meals on the weekend, basing my grocery list on only those items. I now have a year and a half worth of meals to look back on - especially handy for ideas and to see what we were eating the same time a year ago. - JenniferJulia
- Start a calendar.
Now that you're getting inspired in what to eat, start a calendar of what you'd like to cook over the next few days or few weeks. It can be as organized as a Google Calendar, with notes on each day for that day's menu. Or you can just jot notes to yourself in the corner of your laptop screen. The important thing is to write it down.
We have a shared Google calendar and I've created a sub-calendar just for meal-planning. We'll take an evening (after dinner, so our cravings are lessened slightly) and dig through all of our cookbooks and printed recipes for what looks good, putting them on the calendar as we go. - Knitasha
- Go with theme nights (soup night, pasta night, beans).
Some readers found it really helpful to have a theme night each week. Monday is pasta, Tuesday is fish, Wednesday is tacos. This doesn't work for everyone, but it may be especially helpful for those with kids. See if they want to get involved with planning their favorite tacos one week, or suggesting soups for the next month. Keeping the focus narrow will help you and your household make quick recipe decisions.
I use general guides like Soup Night, Pasta Night, Beans to make it easier. I use Fresh Direct, and you can store shopping lists in there. I can simply dump the Tomato Soup Week list into my cart and I'll get everything I need for a typical week. - CMCINNYC
- Choose a shopping day and make a shopping list.
A lot of the readers who seemed to have success in meal planning shopped very purposefully. They looked at their recipes and made a shopping list. Some of the meal planning and recipe-saving services let you do this easily, extracting ingredients from the recipes you have saved.
I start with a blank index card. I list at least 7 meals that I will be interested in cooking for the next week. Usually this includes a composed salad of some sort, a soup, something with beans, a fish dish, a pasta dish or two, and what we call a "thunder-bowl", which is usually whole grain+greens and veggies+eggs on top. Tonight it's bulger, kale and broccoli, eggs, and maybe a bit of chorizo.
The shopping list goes on the reverse of the index card. This goes to the store with me, and the meals are crossed off when eaten. - PAMELA AT CLOCKWORKCROW
- Check what's on sale.
Some folks really like to organize their meals around sales. Is organic chicken a dollar off this week? Or canned chickpeas? Check out your grocery store circular and adjust your meal plan or shopping list a bit.
I look online at grocery circulars to see what's on sale for the week and plan meals around that so I can save a little money. Then I go to that grocery store on Sunday to get non perishables and any veg or fruit I'll use within a few days. - Kristen44
- Plan for leftovers.
Most of us have at least some tolerance for leftovers. I regularly cook one or two big healthy casseroles at the beginning of the week and eat off them all week long for lunch. Some people can only eat leftovers for a single night. Either way, try to make your cooking always do double duty. Make a little extra of everything, and if you don't want it right away, freeze it.
A big time saver for me (since I live alone) is that I usually make more than one serving for dinner so I have leftovers for lunch the next day (or multiple days). - Peachy44
Getting It Done
- Prep food as soon as you get back from the store.
Wash and dry lettuce. Chop onions. Roast vegetables. Brown sausage for pizza. Shred zucchini for quick stir-fries. Stack up glass containers of prepped ingredients in the refrigerator and bask in your own awesome preparedness.
I'm trying to get more in the habit of prepping all of the food as soon as we're back from the grocery store (i.e. shredding blocks of cheese if I know we're making tacos, slicing veggies and bagging them, etc), which makes cooking the night of a lot quicker. - Knitasha
- Cook components of your meals.
Going beyond prep, cook components of the meals. For instance, start a batch of tomato sauce while you wash greens and prep squash. The sauce can go on pizza one night, and in lasagna the next. Or roast a chicken right then that you can eat that night and use for sandwiches and pasta the rest of the week.
I cook large batches of components on the weekend, then mix-and-match them according to what I'm craving during the week. Grilled chicken thighs, browned ground beef, and blanched veggies like broccoli, cabbage, brussels sprouts, and cauliflower get turned into Italian Saute, Thai curries, stir-fries, and more with the addition of spices and sauces. We call them "Hot Plates." - MELICIOUS11
- Be strategic about freezing.
The freezer is your friend. Actually, it's the friend of future you. Make a double batch of that sauce mentioned above and freeze half for later. Make a double batch of soup, stew, chicken cacciatore, cooked beans — throw it in the freezer. Let a month go by, and those leftovers will look fresh and tasty!
Be strategic about freezing dishes and components of dishes. It's surprising how many things can be frozen with good results. (Shredded cheese, citrus zest, peeled ginger, breadcrumbs, cooked beans, etc...) - - APK_101
- Don't overstuff the refrigerator.
It's easy to get overwhelmed when your fridge is over-full. Also, things get hidden in the back, lost behind the mustard. Don't let things go bad. Keep your fridge airy and light, with a sensible, realistic amount of food in it. Keep a list nearby of everything in the fridge, especially leftovers, as a visual reminder of what remains to be eaten.
Don't stuff the fridge to the point that you can't see what's in it. I can see how this point wouldn't work for someone who lives a long way from the grocery store, but for many people it is pretty easy to stop at the store on a weekly or semi-weekly basis. Bonus: You'll have fresher ingredients! - APK_101
- Keep a well-stocked pantry.
Meals are easier and quicker to prepare if you keep your pantry well-stocked. Don't run out of olive oil at inconvenient moments. Have spices ready to dress up chicken and beans quickly. Keep a lemon and a sheaf of fresh herbs in the fridge at all times.
It helps to have a well-stocked pantry. - JANET @ THE TASTE SPACE
The Whole Meal Planning Process, Start to Finish
I especially liked Concrete_Kid's explanation of the whole process:
As a recent convert to meal planning i'm slightly obsessed, I've saved a huge amount since i've started. Here's the way I do it.
The evening before market day is spent reading through recipe books deciding what to cook for every meal. I take a piece of paper and on the left hand side I write the days of the week, next to this I write what I plan to eat, leaving blank meals I'll be eating out. As I right down each meal on the right hand side I start writing the shopping list, this helps me to not miss that vital ingredient.
Once I've done the shopping I cook enough food to last around 3-4 days (this usually includes a few lunches and breakfasts), freezing any extra portions and generally roasting off lots of veg. I also marinade a few different meats which I then cook on the 3rd or 4th or day or freeze if i don't think I'll have time to cook it or it won't last. I also roast another lot of veg.
Doing it this way means I only cook a couple of days a week but always have something lovely to eat, or something that just needs to be thrown in the oven. It's made things so much easier and also means If I want to cook a fancy desert it's not such a drag as dinner is always pretty much sorted.
All right! What did we miss? What keeps you motivated, inspired, and on track with cooking for yourself during the week?
→ See the whole post here: What Are Your Best Meal Planning Tips?
(Images: Leela Cyd Ross; Chris Perez)