Instead of taking part in the normal What I Ate Wednesday post today, I wanted to revisit a lighthearted and (what turned out to be informative, thanks to the comments) post on meal planning last week.
In case you missed it, I don’t like meal planning. In fact, it overwhelms the casual planner in me and puts unnecessary stress onto my weekends. I’m just not into it.
Due to an ever-changing and anything-but-normal weekly schedule, I have always been one who “wings it” for dinner most nights. The older Scott and I get, however, the more I crave a regular dinner schedule with a plan of attack for meals at home on weeknights.
Last week, I asked for any tips you might have regarding meal planning, and I received an incredible response. Thank you so much for taking the time to comment and help a sister out!
Per your request, I have complied your suggestions below with some of my own, and I hope you enjoy this (rather lengthy… sorry) post on meal planning!
• Don’t stress about making dinner every single night.
Start with planning 4 meals per week. Monday through Thursday can be planned ahead of time, but leave another night for leftovers, the next for something new you might feel like cooking over the weekend, and finally, a dinner out!
• Use part of a weekend day to plan out your week of meals.
Decide what you feel like making the next week, pull the recipes, make a list of ingredients you need, then make sure to grab everything during your weekly trip to the grocery store.
Sundays don’t have to be spent prepping food and meals for hours if that’s not something you are into. Instead, focus on having the ingredients you will need at home and on hand for later.
• Try loose meal planning.
Similar to the first point, start with baby steps. Plan out 3 meals a week to make on whatever nights make sense. Pencil in days to grab dinner out with friends or enjoy leftovers at home. You don’t have to stick to a set 4, 5, or even 6 night schedule!
• If planning out entire meals overwhelms you, go back to the basics.
I like to stick to the cardinal rule of including a protein, a starch and a few veggies in every dinner. If you aren’t one who likes to take the time to plan out whole meals (or… what I have been doing since I moved out of my parents’ house), stock up on plenty of options in the categories mentioned above.
Think ground turkey meat, chicken, fish, shrimp, steak, and specialty meats you might see on sale at the store. Think sweet potatoes, quinoa, rice, and noodles. And finally, pick up a variety of vegetables (spinach, broccoli, brussels sprouts, zucchini squash, mushrooms, etc.) both in the produce and freezer sections. I always have bags of frozen, organic vegetables ready to go!
• Freeze your leftovers.
Are you sick of eating that soup you accidentally made for twelve?
Stick it in the freezer and pull it out weeks or even months down the road when you’re ready to eat it again. If you happen to go crazy buying meats and notice they are about to spoil, stick those in the freezer too. Occasionally, I will intentionally make extra (veggie and meat loaded) spaghetti sauce to keep in the freezer to be able to whip out on nights I need to get something on the dinner table without much time.
• Prep your produce.
This is one I have been doing for years.
How often do you buy fruit or vegetables and let them turn before you get around to eating them? Prep your fruits and veggies! Taking a few extra minutes to wash, slice and place fruits like strawberries in sealed containers will make them so much easier to enjoy when you are in a hurry. I always have fresh produce on hand, but I am more likely to actually dig into it as part of a healthy snack or breakfast topping if it’s already prepped and ready!
• Try cooking in bulk.
On the contrary to loose meal planning, some people prefer doing it up big. Plan a few full double-recipe meals at a time, spend a good amount of time cooking them, then separate them out into single or double portioned (depending on your family size and needs) bags and throw them in the freezer. Move the bags to the refrigerator the night before you want to eat them to unthaw, and heat them up when you get home from work the next day.
Think about it… if you plan four meals this way, you could potentially make enough for four weeks worth of dinners at once. If you have the patience and time to cook in bulk, it can certainly prove to be worth it!
• Plan around what you have.
Every night doesn’t have to be an elaborate cooking event. Keep things simple and cost effective by basing your meals around what needs to be used up. Are there a handful of vegetables that are about to turn? Roast them. Need to use up that pound of lean ground beef or diced chicken?
Tacos are where it’s at!
• Pre-cook dinner time-suckers like meats.
If you’re not into cooking full meals ahead of time, but would like somewhere to start when you get home in the evenings, try to at least cook the meat ahead of time. This way, you can pull sides together and get dinner on the table quicker than you would otherwise.
• Casseroles. Learn to love them.
I don’t make enough casseroles. If you think you aren’t a fan, I highly doubt you have given them a fair chance. Here are a few of my favorites!
• Slow cookers. Learn to use them.
Just like casseroles, I don’t use my slow cooker half as much as I think I should.
Recipes that literally only require throwing a few ingredients into a Crockpot, turning it on, and cooking it (untouched) for hours until its ready to eat do exist. This Chicken Crock-Pot Recipe is proof!
I have a ton of slow cooker recipes on deck to try out, and I know that a lot of you are in love with yours too!
• Don’t forget about the successful meals of your past. Remake them!
Gather anywhere from five to ten recipes you know your family loves and continuously rotate them. Add a new one into the mix every week or so, and you will eventually have plenty of go-to meal options to satisfy a variety of tastebuds.
• Mix up what you do with your leftovers.
Last night’s steamed cauliflower can become the next day’s mashed cauliflower. If you make a meal like pulled barbeque sandwiches, get creative with the leftover meat. Make lettuce wraps, tacos, or keep it to place on top of a salad the next day.
• If you make a meal that requires random ingredients, make it again a few times.
Repeating recipes that call for a special trip to the store and several servings left over might be worth making again the next week. And, if it’s awesome, the week after that too. Get the most out of your trips and money invested in cooking at home!
• Constantly keep an “all out of” grocery list.
This is one habit Scott got me hooked on when we got married. I love it.
Any time you run out of something, even if it is something as simple as ketchup or baking soda, put it on your grocery list right then and there before you forget to. This way, you’ll most likely be stocked with the staple items you might need to throw a recipe or dinner together later on.
• Take it to the grill.
Weather permitting, grilling can actually be quite enjoyable. I can’t tell you how many times I have run by the grocery store to pick up some type of meat to throw on the grill, then accompany it with a big salad and a side or two. That’s pretty much all we did in Florida.
One of my all-time favorite meals on the grill to make with Scott is super simple: chicken and steak skewers with sliced peppers, onions, and tomatoes. Boil a pot of rice, serve it under the skewers, and call it a day!
• Create a balance in your meals.
Spice up your meal plans with a variety of your favorites. Include a slow cooker night, a Mexican food night (like tacos), an Italian night (like pizza, lasagna or pasta), a night to grill out, and throw in breakfast for dinner every once in a while. Growing up, I remember my family going by a similar pattern and it always worked out really well for us.
Also, breakfast for dinner was always the best. I’m just throwing that little side note out there.
• Get a food steamer.
This extremely early blog post on steaming vegetables is one hundred percent embarrassing, but it’s worth a mention, nonetheless. I forget I own a bomb veggie steamer all the time. We have the Black and Decker 7 Quart Food Steamer, but you can find similar ones for a steal online here, here, here, and here.
It may sound lazy, but let’s face it… we all want to be lazy sometimes.
Do yourself a favor and invest in a food steamer! If you have a grill (see point above), or even get one with a divider, you can have dinner in minutes with little to no effort.
And while we’re on the subject…
• Get an onion (fruit & veggie) chopper
Now that I know they exist, this is one kitchen gadget that I will never go without. Instead of dicing and crying for what seems like forever while chopping onions, cut one into quarters and let an onion dicer do the rest. It’s so much quicker and a lot less painful.
After years and years of use, the plastic on ours chipped and broke. We replaced it the very next week! The cheapest I’ve seen them is the Onion Chopper Dicer at Walmart, but you can find them at most kitchen and home stores like Bed, Bath & Beyond.
• Ask your family for meal ideas or requests.
Who doesn’t love coming home to a dinner they specifically requested? Filling them will plan out at least one if not most of your meals for the week, and you can rest assured knowing that your dinner will without a doubt have fans.
• Keep recipes you would like to try handy. Go for adding a new one into your planning once a week.
Snip magazine articles, bookmark recipes you find on blogs or online, and (hello!) use Pinterest. Enough said.
• Get a dry erase board and plan your meals out around events and nights you know you won’t be home.
I saw a good friend of mine do this and thought it was so smart. Choose to label a day with a recipe or keep it open to recipe 1, 2, 3, etc. for the week, depending on how structured you like your planning calendar to be.
She was detailed in planning Monday with one dish, Tuesday with another, and that really worked for her and her family.
Great Meal Planning Blogs/Websites:
Phew… now that’s a list! I hope you took something away from this huge compilation of tips.
Feel free to leave more in the comments section!