Before you can actually execute your meal plan, you need to choose recipes you'll cook during the week ahead. This is possibly the most important step in meal planning. When approached in a way that's just right for you, the recipes you choose will set you up for success. To the uninitiated this step can feel overwhelming, but I assure you that it's not when you let these strategies guide the way in selecting the recipes for your meal plan.
1. Pick recipes for the kind of meals you need.
This sounds so simple and obvious, yet when your mind is swirling with the components of meal planning, it can be easy to overlook. Like many things in life, meal planning is most successful when you keep things simple. Choose recipes based on the kind of meals you need. Busy week ahead? Lean on the slow cooker for mostly hands-off dinners. Tight on time and not a fan of a pile of dishes? Sounds like sheet pan supper recipes might be right for you. Whether it's budget dinners, vegan options, or meals with make-ahead potential, choose the recipes that meet your needs.
Before you even go searching for recipes, write down a list of what you want the recipe to do for you. It might look something like the following:
- I need a recipe I can make for less than 10 bucks.
- I need a recipe that's vegetarian.
- I need a recipe that's got sweet potatoes because I need to use up the one I have sitting in the pantry.
- I need a recipe that I can make in one pan.
Alright! That narrows down what you're looking for. Now you've got to find that recipe. You can use a site like ours, comb through Pinterest, or flip through a magazine or cookbook with your criteria in mind. You won't be making a physical list like this every time you begin searching for recipes, but this technique illuminates a way to think. Eventually, you start doing all this in your head! And you will absolutely feel like such a rockstar when you do.
Meghan, our associate editor and an all-around pro at meal planning, takes things to the next level, planning recipes on Fridays with a cocktail. Sounds like a nice way to do it, right? And by the way, a recipe like the one we described above does exist — it's sheet pan sweet potatoes and black bean hash.
Find Recipe Inspiration
2. Choose meals that bless you with leftovers.
Whether your meal plan goal is to cook dinner two or three nights a week, or you have a busy week ahead, don't disregard leftovers as part of your meal plan strategy. This is my favorite tactic to buy myself a couple nights of feeding my family without having to start from scratch every night. Choose recipes that will leave you with ample leftovers, so you can cook a couple times and still have satisfying dinners every night of the week.
Get inspired: 20 Weeknight Meals You'll Love Even More as Leftovers
3. Cook recipes you know + one new recipe.
Meal planning doesn't have to mean cooking something new every night of the week. It might sound nice, but in reality that is overwhelming and unsustainable. That doesn't mean you should push away new-to-you recipes altogether, though. Build most of your meal plan with recipes you know and have made before, then add one new recipe. It will keep each week feeling new and expand your recipe repertoire at the same time.
The place to start: 30 Recipes You Should Know by the Age of 30
4. Pick recipes based on common ingredients.
This tactic will help keep your grocery list a little bit shorter, and maybe even help you come in under your weekly budget. Just because you'll use the same ingredients for multiple meals doesn't mean they all have to taste the same. Repurpose common ingredients into meals with varying flavor profiles to keep dinner feeling fresh. For example, let marinara top your pasta one night and create the base for shakshuka the next; ground beef can build a hearty taco and also create a warm dressing to turn a simple salad into a meal. I find this strategy to be really helpful with herbs.
Choose an Ingredient, Find a Recipe
5. Cook things you really want to eat. Seriously.
The goal of all these strategies is to help you pick recipes that will help you best over the course of the week. You can start with such well-laid plans — be it sticking to a budget or eating meals that take 30 minutes or less to prepare — but if nothing on that list actually sounds tasty, then your meal plan won't work. You'll be tempted to order pizza, stop at a fast food restaurant, or eat a sleeve of saltines instead. There are ton of recipes out there. You might have to spend some extra time uncovering which is right for you, but it's worth it if you still can't wait to eat it come Thursday. So, we're saying the obvious on this one: Only cook things you want to eat!