Meal or menu planning can be a hot ticket to easy homecooked meals, stress free grocery shopping, and peaceful evenings — but who has the time? The secret to peace of mind and menu success is finding what works for you. A quick poll of families around you will reveal that you probably know someone who plans meals a month at a time, someone who has never planned a menu, and someone who works on a week-by-week plan. You too can be a meal planning guru, and there’s no right way to do it. Skip the apps and online meal services and follow these tips for easy-peasy menu making.
Make Time Count
One of the easiest ways to start a meal planning project is to make some time assessments. Look at your week to see where you have nights with extra time to cook something new or more elaborate, which nights you’ll just have to get take-out, which nights might benefit from a crock-pot style meal, when the weather is perfect for the grill, and when something quick like pasta is key. It’s also a great idea to keep in mind a couple of go-to meals that can be cooked or served at two different times (like when the kids need to eat before sports practice, but you prefer a 7 p.m. meal).
Spreadsheets for the Win
Not every meal plan starts with spreadsheets, but sometimes they do manage to get the job done! Consider your core recipes and start by plugging those into whatever you choose to plan with (Pro-tip: Include the recipe book and the page number so that your spouse or an older child could start the meal for you!). Add the main entrée protein to the table for each recipe. Maybe add a column for a note about how much time you need to prepare each meal. Add in any “odd” ingredients that you might not normally have in your pantry — this way if you decide on that recipe, you’ll be able to make sure those are on your shopping list. You could also add a note about any side dishes that would go well to help round out the meal.
The Pantry Trick
Stock your pantry with non-perishable staples that will work in several recipes, so you always have them on hand. For example, boxes of chicken broth for pan sauces or soups, cans of crushed tomatoes for making quick red sauces, pasta and rice for easy sides or entrées. Keep your refrigerator full of basics like celery, carrots, onions, and potatoes, milk, eggs, butter, and leafy greens. Choose to freeze some of your proteins so you can grab those out the day you need them. Keep a list of your frozen items, and anything that may need using up, and build your menus from there.
Shop Like a Pro
Just a little bit of prep can make grocery shopping for meal planning a snap. Don’t forget to take advantage of things like ordering online for store pick-up to get your pantry stocked. Spend your grocery time on choosing fresh produce, bakery, and meats, and let someone else pick out the cans of tomatoes, bags of chocolate chips, and frozen items. Looking to save a few extra dollars? Take a few minutes to read your local store ads to see what’s on sale — you might choose to put chicken, ground beef or pork on the weekly menu based on the current offerings.
What are your meal planning success stories? Share them in the comments!