Our Editors’ Favorite Meal Planning Tips

published Mar 26, 2017
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I wish I could say that I am an expert on meal planning, but I have it far from figured out. Each weekend I try to be a little better than the weekend before, getting myself as organized as I can be at that moment for the week ahead. I fail a lot, to be honest. Luckily, there’s frozen tortellini and my colleagues, who never cease to amaze me with their abundance of great meal planning tricks and tips. They inspire me to keep on this meal planning train because when it’s a success, it feels pretty darn great. Here are a few of my most favorite tips from our editors.

1. Start planning now!

Our Associate Food Editor, Meghan, says it like it is: “Start meal planning now. Quit waiting for a week when you have less on your schedule or when the kids aren’t sick or you aren’t stressed at work. An easy, open week almost never occurs in real life and experience is the best teacher when it comes meal planning, anyway.” It’s true that if you keep waiting for that quiet week to come, it won’t — it never really does. So today is as good a time as ever to try meal planning.

There’s no need for it to be perfect, though. Start by simply planning out two or three dinners a week. Then you can slowly start adding additional planned nights to your roster. Soon even lunch and breakfast might make it into your routine.

2. Set time aside to plan (with a cocktail in hand, preferably).

Meal planning may sound like a chore, but it can actually be quite fun, if you let it. “I’ve tried to turn the recipe search process into a really enjoyable activity. I set aside time for it, look at cookbooks I haven’t had a chance to cook from, and generally try to make that part as enjoyable as possible,” says Food Editor,
Hali. She took Meghan’s advice for planning on Fridays with a cocktail because, well, that makes just about anything more fun.

3. Pull from the recipes you know, and love, by heart.

Embrace the recipes you turn to time and time again. They’re probably easy and crowd-pleasers, both of which makes them star candidates for your meal plan. “I pull from about 10 recipes I know by heart, which gives me a rough understanding of what the week is going to look like, and then I base my shopping off that,” says Production Editor, Lauren. “I also use those recipes as templates themselves sometimes, keeping the general structure the same but swapping in different seasonal veggies, grains, proteins, and fresh herbs to keep it interesting.”

4. Keep big batches of cooked basics on hand, always.

Even if you don’t plan out every single meal, having things on hand that you can transform into meals will make your life easier. Managing Editor, Geraldine, doesn’t plan out her meals to a T, but she does always have some things ready for quick meals. “I make a big batch of roasted veggies, a grain like rice or quinoa, and a sauce or two to have on hand through the week.”

5. Embrace the pantry.

Similarly, having a stocked pantry can save you when it comes to meal planning. “I’ve finally learned to embrace a pantry (mostly because I finally got one for my first time in my entire adult life). I keep certain shelf-stable items on hand at all times (chickpeas, butter beans, rice, etc.) and I know I’ll be able to count on pulling something out of there,” says our Lifestyle Editor, Lisa. You’ll be able to build a schedule of meals around what you have on hand already, which can make the recipes you have planned feel a whole lot less overwhelming.

A pantry becomes super useful especially when your meal plan might not go the way you imagined. “I’ve recently been really into meal planning. I think my biggest takeaway, thus far, is that I need a few ’emergency’ meals for when my weekly meal plan fails me. For example, sometimes I think a recipe will last me a few days and it only lasts one — maybe some friends stop by, for example, and they eat all my food. Instead of ordering in and going out the next day, I’m trying to build out a couple pantry meals — something that only requires a few ingredients and can be made in less than 20 minutes,” says News & Culture Editor, Ariel.

6. Be flexible!

Assistant Food Editor Kelli says, “Be flexible and remember that your meal plan is not written in stone. It can be tough to anticipate what your food mood will be five days from now. If you’re craving a burrito or something other than those chicken thighs you took out of the freezer, listen to your stomach and save the chicken for another night.” Don’t punish yourself if you wake up one morning and just really don’t feel like eating what you had planned for dinner.

Most importantly, “Go easy on yourself if you don’t end up cooking what you planned, and keep trying,” says Meghan. Be OK with the fact that you’re probably going to fall off the meal planning bandwagon. Just dust yourself off and get back on.

What are your favorite meal planning tips and tricks?