The harried 6 p.m dash to the grocery store without a clue of what'll end up on the dinner table can be a thing of the past — that is, if you lock down the fine art of meal planning. We asked Danielle Walker, the blogger behind Against All Grain, to share the strategies she implements to prepare for a week's worth of healthy food for her family.
After being diagnosed with an auto-immune disease at the age of 22, Danielle decided to make some big changes, eliminating grains, gluten, and dairy from her diet. She started a blog to share the delicious and grain-free recipes she came up with and is now the author of two New York Times best-selling cookbooks, Meals Made Simple and Against All Grain. Here are her 10 tips for getting ahead of your week by planning your meals in advance.
1. Plan before you shop.
First, look at your schedule and see what's on your agenda. Are you going to be home by 6 p.m. every night? Are you going to be running around and getting home late? You don't want to plan for six meals and only be home for three.
After that, I ask my family what they're in the mood for. I also try to throw in a couple of things that are new or that I want to try personally. Next, find all your recipes, read through them all, and figure out what you already have in your kitchen. Then you make your grocery list.
Read More: How I Use Google Sheets for Grocery Shopping
2. Do your chopping and cleaning in advance.
One of the tips I like to give is to chop everything up so you have it all ready to go. I keep my cut onions and garlic in containers so that throughout the week, as I'm making different recipes, I can just measure them out and throw them in (rather than having to dirty the same knives and cutting boards again and again for the same ingredients). I also have pre-cut snacks on hand, too, like celery, cucumber, and carrots for my son's school lunches.
For a lot of vegetables, it's a good idea to store them in a bowl of water to keep them nice and crisp and from drying out or getting limp. For my herbs and lettuces, I wash them right away, wrap them in lightly damp paper towels and put them into bags.
3. Make extra.
For at least one meal, I try to double it so I can have a stash in the freezer for times I really need it.
4. Brown your beef.
If I'm making things that have ground beef in it — say spaghetti sauce or tacos — I'll brown it so it's ready to go. Then all I have to do is add the sauce and the seasoning.
5. Schedule your proteins in order of spoilage rate.
I always use the protein that's going to spoil a little bit quicker — ground meat, as well as chicken and fish — in the beginning of the week. And if there's anything I know I'm not going to use for a few days, I'll throw it in the freezer and take it out the day before.
6. Stock up on stock.
I always have homemade chicken stock on hand because it adds so much flavor, and it's so much better than the store-bought kind. My favorite thing to do is freeze it in silicone muffin molds. Mine are 1/3 cup each, so I can just pop three of them to make one cup.
7. Make your own dressing.
Dressings are great because they last for a couple of weeks. A balsamic vinaigrette — Dijon mustard, balsamic vinegar, a little bit of salt and pepper, a teeny bit of honey, and oil — is the easiest dressing and everyone's favorite. I make it in a blender bottle, which has a little whisk ball that keeps it emulsified. Store it in the fridge and just shake to mix it.
8. Roast whole chickens.
A lot of times, I'll roast one or two full chickens because they're so simple. I can use the meat for my son's lunch box or I can throw it on salads or serve it with roasted vegetables. Then I use the bones or scraps, along with peels from vegetables, for chicken stock.
9. Focus on dinner.
For breakfast and lunch, you can always eat leftovers. For instance, if I have roasted vegetables for dinner and there's extra, I'll throw that into a hash with some eggs.
10. Keep it simple!
You don't need to make a huge five-course meal. Keep it simple and pick the standards your family likes and go with those. Our rotation includes roasted chicken, tacos, lettuce wraps, burgers, or spaghetti squash.
Danielle's Meal-Prep Tool Kit
Food processor: I use a food processor to chop vegetables — especially if they don't need to be precise. I'll just throw them in and pulse the food processor a couple of times. It saves a ton of time.
Slow cooker: I also utilize my slow cooker quite a bit. What I like to do is put all the raw ingredients that go into the slow cooker in a container or bag and then freeze it. That way, the night before I want to make the dish, I can take it out and let it thaw in the fridge. In the morning, I just pop it into the slow cooker.
Storage containers: I have an arsenal. I personally don't use plastic, so I like to use the glass ones with locking lids. It's nice, too, because with the glass you can reheat in the same container (so you have less to clean up).
(Image credits: Danielle Walker)