One of my cookbook authors taught me something incredibly important this year: meal planning is about matchmaking.
As a literary agent specializing in cookbooks, you could say I have some pretty unrealistic expectations about dinner. Every day, I pore over stunning photos of perfectly seared fish and carefully layered cakes, then I come home and eat taco salad for dinner.
I vowed to overhaul my meal planning. But before I could do that, I had to figure out what exactly was keeping me from translating that perfect recipe on the page into my actual, real-life dinner. Eventually, a much-wiser author stepped in and pinpointed the problem: I had no idea how to find the right recipe for the right circumstances.
It's All About the Match
Cookbooks, like a great dating site, can offer hundreds of appealing matches right at your fingertips. But that gorgeous cake on page 46 has no place in your Wednesday night. A happier match would be sharing your Wednesday night with the slow cooker Peruvian chicken on page 113.
So, after years of struggling to meal plan from my cookbooks, I've finally picked up a few tips that help me wade through the hundreds of recipes I see each year, sort them into the categories that matter to me, and have them ready at a moment's notice to whisk me off to another great dinner.
These little lessons have done the heroic task of making me try new cookbook recipes multiple nights a week, helping me cook my way through my authors' beautiful books, and avoiding the meal-time meltdowns of a grown woman sobbing on the kitchen floor because she can't replicate her author's béarnaise.
If you're also ready to quit feeling guilty about the beautiful books you never cook out of, and to turn your cookbook collection into the best thing that ever happened to your meal planning, start here.
5 Little Lessons in Actually Cooking with Cookbooks
1. Set up a shelf of pinch-hitters.
An organized bookshelf is an organized meal plan. And an organized meal plan is a week full of food that'll you'll actually want to eat.
So, set yourself up for week-after-week success by getting all of your weeknight-friendly cookbooks in one place. You don't need to be sifting through a 500-page encyclopedia on bread or a beautiful-but-way-too-aspirational coffee-table book when you're half-starved and more than half-impatient. I love those kinds of books just as much as the next person, but they live on my nightstand or coffee table or living room shelf, where I can calmly (read: unhangrily) read them and plan for weekend projects.
Instead, let's set up a shelf of the pinch-hitters — the cookbooks you know have easy, quick recipes that require minimal ingredients and minimal thinking. Within this shelf, sub-categorize your books by scenario: all healthy cookbooks together, all one-pot cookbooks together, all slow cooker cookbooks together. This will help you with implementing the next tip.
2. Start with your schedule, not the recipe search.
This is the key lesson that my very smart cookbook author taught me, and it completely changed the way I meal plan. See, I used to start a typical meal planning session by browsing Pinterest, or flipping through a new cookbook, or scrolling through the archives here at Kitchn. Then I'd end up with five great recipes to try that week, all of which were laughably mismatched to my schedule.
Volunteer event at 7 p.m.? I'd make stuffed peppers, so I'd be burning my mouth on steaming hot peppers as I raced out the door at 6:50. Long day at work? I'd try a precision-dish like carbonara and end up grumpily eating pasta with scrambled eggs.
So now, before I look at a single recipe, I look at my schedule.
Now, before I look at a single recipe, I look at my schedule.
Have to be somewhere after dinner? Try a one-pot meal, a foil-packet recipe, or a sheet pan supper so you're not stuck doing dishes on your way out the door. Won't be home until late? Try a slow cooker recipe, so you can come home to something delicious and done.
Know you have a busy day ahead? Go ahead and fall back on a recipe you've made a thousand times, so you don't have to think too much about it.
3. Create your own recipe index.
Now that you have your pinch-hitter cookbooks shelved together and you know exactly what type of recipe you need for each night, make it easy to locate those recipes within your books by setting up your own mini-index.
As great as the built-in indexes in books are, there's nothing like knowing your own tastes and interests when it comes to categorizing recipes. Whenever you get a new cookbook, take some time to sit down and flip through it, marking off which recipes appeal to you and work for certain situations.
I like to use these cute printable cookbook tabs I made for myself, so that I can mark off which recipes are extra easy, which are healthy-ish, or which are weekend projects. That makes it easy to immediately spot which recipes I need (and it means I actually cook all that beautiful food!).
But you can also set up your own tabbing system — try dog-earing the upper corner of a page for weeknight recipes, the lower corner for weekend projects, or double-folding to signal a no-shopping-required recipe.
4. Use an online recipe collector to find recipes for unused ingredients.
Is there anyone on the planet who hasn't started (or ended) their week with extra ingredients cluttering up their fridge? I always seem to get stuck with extra parsley, or little nubs of cream cheese that have outstayed their welcome.
Online cookbook archives like Eat Your Books are perfect for finding recipe homes for those abandoned ingredients. You can add your whole cookbook collection, then search by ingredient to see if you already own some recipes that call for exactly 1/4 cup of cream cheese.
I also like that you can add your own recipes to the archive, since I know so many of us have treasured recipes on scraps of paper that are just one tomato sauce spill away from being lost forever. There's something reassuring about knowing that even if you won't always have Aunt Mary's beautiful handwritten recipe card, you'll always know how to make her pecan pie.
5. Assign each day a category so you get both variety and balance.
Instead of wading through hundreds of recipes and flailing for a balanced menu plan, set a template for every week and stick to it. For instance, I like to make Monday salad day to make up for all that pizza I had over the weekend. But by Wednesday I need some indulgence to get me through the week, so Wednesday is usually pasta day. You can set Tuesday as soup or meat + veggies day, and Friday is always a fun night to do a make-your-own pizza or taco bar.
But whatever categories you set for your weekdays, limiting your search to one type of meal will make it much, much easier to find a fun yet manageable recipe to try. Over time, you'll learn how your cravings change over the week — when you want comfort food and when you want something lighter — so you always end up with something that sounds just right for that particular night.
And yes, "chef's night off" is definitely a category! Takeout might just be what your Wednesdays need.
Pizza night is non-negotiable: 5 Nights, 5 Dinners: My Simple Weekly Meal Plan
One Last Word of Advice
It's also perfectly fine to not assign recipes to certain days at all. Sometimes, life happens, and what you thought was going to be a low-key day turns into a panic day. As long as you have a list of meals you're stocked up for, you can give yourself some flexibility and reach for whatever recipe feels good to you that night.
Because the best dinner is the one you actually enjoy cooking and eating. Whether that came from a glamorous new cookbook, an old favorite, or the thing you know by heart. It's all good.