Hey, What’s for Dinner?

How to Meal-Plan Your Way to a Definitive Answer

Meal prepping is all the rage, especially at the beginning of the new year, when everyone wants to get their eating habits under control. But if cooking huge batches of food and portioning it out into dozens of uniformly sized Tupperwares in your fridge and freezer sounds a little too overwhelming, consider taking a step back from labor-intensive meal prepping to more-manageable meal planning. Simply thinking about and shopping for your weekly meals ahead of time keeps you from starting from zero every night and can help you be more organized, eat healthier meals, prevent food waste, and, once you get the hang of it, save you money. And don’t forget the powerful feeling you’ll have when your kids ask, “What’s for dinner?” and you actually have the answer. Here are six tips to get you on your way.

Review Your Schedule

Take a good, honest look at your schedule for the week and decide when you’ll have the time, energy and inclination to cook. If you have to work late, the kids have sports practice and you have to get the dog from the groomer, that night is better left for leftovers or something from the freezer. But if you see an open evening, schedule in a night to cook, and actually put it in your calendar so you’ll do it. There is no shame in starting with one night a week, because if you make a point of doubling your recipe, you’ll have enough food for a second dinner, and you will have gone from zero nights of home-cooked meals to two! Many see five nights a week as the ultimate goal, but shooting for three with a night for leftovers and one night for takeout (gasp) is often a realistic goal for those with busy lives.

Select Recipes

Pros suggest starting the process of choosing recipes on Friday, shopping on Saturday (late in the afternoon, when stores are less crowded) and using a couple hours on Sunday to prep. Pick things you really want to eat that will leave you with leftovers for lunches and afternoon snacks. Don’t go crazy with new recipes. On most nights, make meals you’re comfortable with and know your family loves, and mix in one or two new recipes each week. It helps to pick recipes with common ingredients and staples you always have in your fridge, freezer or pantry. Creating theme-nights is also a fun way to organize menus and ensure variety; think things like Taco Tuesday, Seafood or Slow-Cooker Sunday, Meatless Monday, Around the World Wednesday to mix in global flavors, Pasta or Pizza Night, etc. You can even ask the kids to give their suggestions, so they feel included in the decision making.

Hit the Grocery Store Prepared

It takes an extra step, but making an ingredient list and a grocery list will guarantee you don’t forget anything. Go through your chosen recipes and write down everything you’ll need to cook for the week. Then, cross the stuff you already have off of that list to make your grocery list. This step ensures you won’t spend extra money on things you already have and also makes you aware of staples that need to be re-stocked. If you’re feeling really ambitious, you can arrange your final list according to what department each item lives in at the grocery store and the order in which you like to shop. You’ll be in and out of the store much more quickly if you have a solid plan of attack.

Keep the Pantry Stocked

Keeping non-perishable cooking basics on-hand simplifies shopping and makes it easier to throw together meals at the last minute. Keep oils and vinegars, canned tomatoes and beans, chicken and vegetable stock, dried herbs and spices, rice, quinoa, pasta, bread crumbs, nut butters and sweeteners like honey and maple syrup, baking needs like flour, sugar, vanilla and rolled oats in stock so you’re always prepared. On the perishable side, make sure you always have eggs, milk, shredded cheese, unsalted butter, garlic, onions, potatoes and lemons, and also some frozen meats and veggies in the freezer.

Prep for Meals

Doing things like chopping garlic, onions and other vegetables, washing lettuce and herbs, cooking quinoa or rice or making salad dressings ahead of time saves valuable minutes when it comes to the dinner-time crunch. If you have time on prep day, you can even cook up a batch of grilled chicken breasts or a pot of marinara sauce to incorporate into your weekly recipes. And remember, if you can’t stand chopping veggies, there is no shame in choosing pre-cut options, garlic in a tube, freeze-dried herbs or any other short-cuts – like frozen pizza crusts or jarred pasta sauce - that will make you more likely to cook than call for takeout.

Let Your Leftovers Shine

If dinner is grilled chicken, roast pork, or basically any other meat, use it in sandwiches for lunch the next day, shred it for tacos the next evening, or try something more out-of-the-box, like chili or a shepherd’s pie. Leftover fish can also be used for tacos, or in a chowder or fish cake. Use leftover fresh herbs for a zesty pesto or salsa verde. Add leftover veggies to scrambled eggs, omelets or grain bowls, or pan-fry leftover rice with those veggies, soy sauce and an egg for a quick fried rice. Turn leftover spaghetti into a frittata, or bread into breadcrumbs or croutons. And if any of these ideas turns out to be great, file them away and remember to double that original recipe so you can use your leftovers in the same delicious way again.