32 Meal Planning Tips That Will Make Your Life Easier
Meal planning doesn't have to be a chore. These simple meal planning tips will help you make the most of your prep time.
The benefits of meal planning are many, but it can be hard to learn how to meal plan correctly. Taking time over the weekend to plan meals, shop, prep ingredients and cook ahead can make your upcoming week a lot easier. Plus, it 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!
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Brainstorm, Brainstorm, Brainstorm
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 these meal plan ideas. 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?”
At dinner, ask your family what they want to eat next week. Kids are likelier to eat healthy if they get to help choose the meal. Need ideas? Check out these kid-friendly meals.
Plan a Theme Night
Tired of finding 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.
Create 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 as you compile your grocery list, check your pantry. You might already have a good portion of your list taken care of.
En-List Your Family
Post a list of your family’s must-have grocery items. Get everyone in the habit of circling the item when it’s used up or almost gone.
Never Shop on Sunday Afternoons
Sundays are one of the most crowded times at grocery stores. Skip the crowds, long lines and picked-over produce by going any other time. Off hours are typically first thing in the morning, late in the evening and during the week. Want to learn more? Check out these grocery shopping secrets that will make your life easier.
Shop the Salad Bar
If you only need a small amount of something, like chopped peppers, pick it up from the grocery’s salad bar. Veggies on a salad bar will cost almost twice as much, pound for pound, as those in the produce section, but you’ll prevent food waste if you need less than a whole fruit or vegetable.
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. Check out everything that’s at peak flavor with these guides for spring, summer and fall.
Play With New Flavors
You know what they say: Variety is the spice of life. Try marinating meats, using different spice blends, 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. Get started with these recipes from around the world.
Find Make-Ahead Meals
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. Try these make-ahead dinners to start.
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.
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.
If you know you need chopped onions in three recipes this week, chop them all at the same time and store ‘em in the fridge. Better yet, if you have some time after shopping, prep all your meats and veggies for the week so that all you have to do on weeknights is grab ingredients and cook. The same goes for fresh herbs, as long as you know how to chop and how long they last.
Reuse Good Meals
Why reinvent the wheel? Repeating hit weekly menu plans is a huge timesaver. Just be sure to note what worked well and what needed some tweaking.
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. Did you know you can meal prep smoothies for breakfast or a healthy dessert too?
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. Here’s how long common leftovers last.
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. These easy freezer meals are a good place to start.
When it comes to olive oil, stick to small bottles unless you’re heavy-handed. Once opened, olive oil can go rancid in as few as three months (even though the bottle might say it will last longer). Fresh olive oil smells like ripe green olives and has a bright, peppery taste with a kick. Be wary of crayon- or putty-like odor, which indicates spoilage. Make sure you’re storing olive oil the right way.
Clear Things Up
Storing dry goods like pasta, beans and rice in clear, airtight pantry storage containers makes it easy to for you to gauge when you need to restock them. And arrange canned goods on graduated step organizers so each label is visible. We love these pantry organization tips, too.
Create a Kitchen Drive-Thru
Use a bin with three compartments so people can grab breakfast or lunch for on-the-go eating. Stash, say, energy bars in the first compartment. Store microwave soups, individual bags of nuts and dried fruits, and other lunch foods in the second. Keep utensils and napkins in the third.
Empower the Kiddos
Remove individually wrapped children’s snacks from their boxes, which take up precious pantry space. Store snacks in baskets with fruit, crackers and other age-appropriate treats on a low shelf within reach of little hands.
Organize Your Pantry by Zone
To easily locate what you’re looking for, create pantry zones for categories, such as baking supplies, canned items and snacks. Use bins to organize ingredients you’ll need to make dinner each night. For example, taco fixings in one bin, spaghetti fixings in another.
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. Here’s what to make for dinner when your fridge is bare.
Make the Most of Your Mayo
Store mayonnaise in the fridge door. In the inner part of the fridge, mayo gets too cold, which will cause it to separate and leave oil at the top of the jar. If kept in the refrigerator door, your tasty sandwich dressing will last two to three months past the purchase date. Learn how long other condiments last.
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. Meal prep is made easy with these chicken meal-prep recipes.
Plan for Dining Out
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. (Or you can always make these restaurant takeout copycat recipes at home, too.)
Work Around Your Schedule
It is your meal plan after all! If Wednesdays are your busy nights, make sure you plan to make a 15-minute meal for that night. If you have no plans lined up for Friday night, go outside your comfort zone and try one of these impressive dinners.
Having trouble keeping track of your meal plan in your head? Write it out on a chalkboard or whiteboard and place it in your kitchen for a daily reminder of what’s on the menu that night. Plus, it’s easier to stick to!
Make Easy Dietary Swaps
If you have dietary restrictions in your household, load up your menu with meals that you can easily swap or add/subtract ingredients from. Tacos, salads, pasta and bowls are great options. Create a “bar” and let everyone fill up their plates with the ingredients they’d like on their plate.
Have a Backup Plan
Don’t make things harder on yourself if you’re in a time crunch. Always have a backup store-bought meal on hand in just in case. Hello, frozen pizza!
Plan Based on Servings
If you live in a small household, you know how hard it can be to plan out meals wisely without wasting food. You can curb food waste by using these tips to avoid throwing away food. That’s why we also recommend cutting down your ingredients based on serving size. For example: If you live in a household of two and you want to make a yummy four-person-sized meal, just half the recipe! Or better yet, try out one of these dinner ideas for two.