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Taking time over the weekend to plan meals, shop, prep ingredients and cook ahead can make your upcoming week a lot easier. Plus, meal planning and cooking at home gives you more control over ingredients and portion sizes than you get when grabbing takeout. Your food goes farther and you get more for your money.
Sound like a no-brainer? The trouble is, it can be daunting to get started. We’ve rounded up a few of our favorite strategies that can help you make meal planning a habit. It’s easy enough for you to get started this weekend!
1. Brainstorm meal ideas. Come up with a list of dishes your family typically enjoys or recipes you’d like to try. If you need inspiration, thumb through some cookbooks or scroll through the many delicious recipes and dinner ideas on our site. Listing your ideas goes a long way to battling the brain freeze when it’s 6 p.m. and someone asks, “What’s for dinner?”
2. Organize a theme night. Tired of planning a new meal every night? Choose a theme instead of a specific recipe for some nights. Family-friendly themes might include Pizza Night, Taco Night, Meatless Mondays or Breakfast-for-Dinner. Choose your favorite type of cuisine and you’ll find your family looking forward to this night of the week.
3. Think seasonally. Plan some of your meals around the fresh produce and other traditional foods of the season. For example, consider serving hearty stews, soups, and roasted meats and root veggies in the fall and winter. Go for lighter fare that features lots of fresh veggies and fruit in spring and summer.
4. Play with new flavors. You know what they say: Variety is the spice of life. Try marinating meats, using spice rubs, and adding fresh or dried herbs to your dishes. Squeeze in some citrus juice to brighten things up. Experiment with recipes from different international cuisines: stir-fry veggies, make a curry, or cook up a pot of rice and beans.
5. Cook some foods ahead. Spend an hour or two on Sunday tackling some of the week’s cooking. Your Tuesday-night self will thank you. Think small, like cleaning and chopping veggies in advance. Or, go bigger, and make your stew, soup or slow-cooker dinner in full on Sunday, to enjoy as leftovers for a quick supper or lunch.
6. Use shortcuts. Seek out ingredients that speed up your prep. Use frozen veggies instead of fresh and canned beans instead of dried. Go with grains like quinoa, barley or couscous that can be cooked quickly. Pre-made pizza dough or pie crust is a time-saving special treat.
7. Mix and match ingredients. As you’re narrowing down your meal plan for the week, think about including some dishes with overlapping ingredients. This will simplify your shopping list; it could also save you some time and money. For instance, roast up some sweet potatoes then eat some plain alongside chicken on Sunday, and use the rest for Wednesday’s sweet potato soup.
8. Keep it simple. You don’t have to plan a different multi-course meal every night. A leafy salad makes a good side dish to any meal; buy and clean greens on the weekend and eat them throughout the week. A loaf of bread is a treat served alongside most meats and vegetarian dinners. Rice or another grain can also be made in bulk and eaten a few times throughout the week; just top with different spices.
9. Let dinner do double-duty. Often, you can make another meal out of leftovers. Eat the same dish again, or transform it. Turn a leftover chicken into chicken soup or chicken salad. Extra tomato sauce from pasta can be used later on pizza or with beef, poultry or fish.
10. Make friends with your freezer. It’s great for storing leftovers you don’t want to eat right away and for conserving ingredients you’ve prepped but aren’t ready to use yet. If you make a big batch of soup or stew, freeze one or two individual portions in baggies; you can turn them into an easy supper at a moment’s notice. Mark each item with a date and use it within six months.
11. Make a shopping list. This sounds so simple, but it makes a difference! Shopping without a list opens you up to impulse purchases, and odds are you’ll forget something. Bring a list that includes everything you’ll need to make your planned meals. Don’t forget to plan for healthy snacks, like fresh fruits, and check on pantry staples to make sure you’re stocked.
12. Don’t be afraid to improvise. Stock your kitchen with items you can throw together for a super quick meal when you need one and the fridge is empty: pre-made pizza dough, dried pasta, canned tomatoes, frozen veggies, canned beans, canned tuna, whole grains and good-quality olive oil.
13. Keep it real. Remember, you don’t have to be a gourmand every night – or any night, for that matter. The point of planning ahead is to make meals more manageable. Easy options like pizza, chili and grilled cheese have a place on the menu, too. Serve them up with a side salad for a more nutritious and well-rounded meal.
14. Plan meals out, too. You’ll still want to go out sometimes. Whether it’s a weekend outing to a favorite restaurant or a weeknight takeout indulgence, you’ll look forward to it more if it’s a planned treat rather than an emergency measure.