Having a plan in place for anything will eliminate a great deal of stress from your life, and meal planning is no different. It allows you to do all the thinking required at a time of your choosing, rather than forcing you to figure out a solution when your brainpower is already stretched to the limit. Aside from reducing your stress, meal planning:
- Reduces food waste
- Makes grocery shopping quicker and simpler
- Allows more variety
- Promotes healthier eating
- Saves money
- Puts you in control
Contrary to what you may think, meal planning really doesn't take that much time or effort once you have a system that becomes a routine.
Step 1: Gather your meal ideas
Note that I say "ideas", because for those of you who don't enjoy cooking, the word "recipes" may be scary. Rest assured that meal planning does not require you to become the new Gordon Ramsey. You don't need complicated recipes or fancy knife skills...just a list of the things you like to eat for dinner. For those who do enjoy working with recipes, your idea list should include your recipe source, whether it be a URL, Pinterest post, cookbook, magazine or one of Grandma's handwritten recipe cards. The key is to be able to find it easily when you need it. (Be sure to include page numbers on your list too, where appropriate.)
If you have picky eaters in your home, selecting recipes that can be easily modified to suit everyone will save you time and effort. Remember, you are not a short-order cook! Ask your family for feedback and ditch the recipes no one likes. Note the recipes that are more time-consuming or complicated so that you avoid them on busy nights. Keep building and adjusting your list as you go.
Step 2: Plan around your calendar and refrigerator
Pick a day each week to do your meal planning. Look at your calendar for the week ahead to see which days will be your busiest and require a make-ahead or quick meal. Which nights are you having company or planning a special meal? Also check the refrigerator and freezer to see what ingredients need to be used up before they go bad and plan to incorporate these into your plan. Take advantage of shortcuts on busy nights, like buying precut veggies or partially-made components. You can still wow your guests with a "homemade" pie made from store-bought pie crust you bake yourself! Or use your own homemade, make-ahead mixes for some of your favorites. (Get recipes and instructions for some of my favorite homemade mixes!)
Step 3: Write it all down in one place
Write down your dinner menu for each night in one central place. Your plan should include:
- Recipe source, if needed
- Advance preparation required (prepping vegetables, setting up the crockpot, thawing meat, etc.)
- Heating instructions (if using pre-made dishes)
- Ingredients you need to buy
Tip: Always plan an extra "back-up" meal for nights when nothing goes according to plan and you need a quick and easy save. This meal should rely on pantry or freezer staples you know you'll have on hand. (My favorite back-up meal is Broccoli Soup.) It should be quick to prepare and not require advance preparation.
Step 4: Shop for your plan
As you compose your meal plan, create your shopping list at the same time. Include all ingredients you will need to make the meals you've selected for the week and add breakfast, lunch and snack items. Shop once to save time. Take your plan with you to the store in case they are out of an essential ingredient and you need to make a substitution. (Don't forget to note changes on your written plan.)
A tool like the downloadable EasyPeasy Meal Planner PDF can help you get started. It may feel a little ovewhelming at first, but once you are in the habit of meal planning each week, it will become second-nature and will require only a small investment of your time. You'll wonder how you ever managed without a plan!
With a little forethought and planning, even feeding your hungriest crowd will be easy peasy.