We’ve had a long day, and then come home to a hungry family and this question: ‘Mom, what’s for dinner?’ Sometimes, we’re so tired that we blurt out, ‘McDonald’s’ or revert to the same dish, over and over again. ‘Fried chicken, again?’
We can save ourselves a lot of stress by making a meal plan. We don’t have to think about what to cook at the last minute (we can even prepare your ingredients ahead, if we know we’ll have an extra busy week), and we can take advantage of supermarket sales and minimize food waste. Plus, homecooked food is a lot cheaper, healthier and more delicious than a greasy, overpriced burger, right? And meal plans are easy, with the 10 Commandments of meal planning.
1. Thou shalt know your family favorites.
What do they tend to order at restaurants? It’s a good starting point for deciding what to serve and injecting nutrition (and creativity!) into your menu. You just need to scour your cookbooks (or the web) for healthier, cheaper and easy-to-cook versions.
For example, if your love hamburgers, look for a recipe that sneaks in vegetables into the patty. Or, if your husband loves Chinese food, then go find a way to serve his favorite noodles at home.
2. Thou shalt build your recipe collection.
You probably have your own cookbooks, but the web is a great source too. Run a search on ‘quick and easy recipes’ or ’20-minute meals.’ Product websites are also great for busy moms—you can cook a simple, homemade meal with convenience products, from recipes that were developed and tested by these companies. (Of course, you can always substitute any other product for theirs. Just use what’s in your pantry. Don’t worry, we won’t tell!)
3. Thou shalt use what you already have.
Before you make any meal plan, look in your refrigerator or pantry, and find recipes that use the ingredients that you already have. That way, you don’t end up throwing away expired food, and you avoid buying ingredients that you already have in stock.
Here’s a tip: once you find an ingredient you want to use, go to an online recipe site like All Recipes that lets you search recipes by ingredient, and filter out the ingredients you don’t like.
4. Thou shalt use what’s on sale and in season.
See those coupons? Use them. Also monitor for sales (some supermarkets have websites—bookmark them and keep track of any announcements). It’ll save you a lot of money!
And use the produce that’s in season. It’s cheaper and healthier, because something that’s grown out of season probably made use of all sorts of fertilizers and artificial farming techniques. Do you really want those extra chemicals in your system? And pay double the price for them?
5. Thou shalt use a template.
You don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time. For example, you can assign certain types of meals to certain days. Monday can be ‘Pasta Night,’ Tuesday can be ‘Fish Night,’ Wednesday can be ‘Chicken Night.’ That guarantees variety and also helps you narrow down your options.
Or you can make notes on your cook books and recipe cards. For example, on the recipe for roast chicken, write down the page number of a matching side dish: ‘Good with bacon mashed potatoes, p. xx, Betty Crocker Cookbook).
And once you’ve made a pretty successful meal plan, save it—and repeat it in another week. Technically you only need about six meal plans that you can rotate, changing just one or two items if you want to inject more variety or experiment with a new recipe.
6. Thou shalt be flexible.
Feel free to mix items up in your meal plan. Let’s say you come home on Wednesday extra-late from work, too tired to even chop up vegetables. Go ahead and switch today’s planned dish with Friday’s simpler olive oil and garlic pasta. Or what if you have a lot of leftover roast beef from the night before? Feel free to chop it up and ‘recycle’ it as burritos, and postpone today’s dish.
Flexibility also serves you well in the supermarket, when you discover unexpected sales and bargains. Just remember, before reaching for any ingredient, ask yourself: ‘Will I really cook this? What dish will I use it in? What other ingredients do I need to make that dish?’ Otherwise you’re ‘big bargain’ will end up rotting in the fridge, and then the garbage.
7. Thou shalt be realistic.
Consider your lifestyle, your needs, your energy levels, and what’s going on in your life that week. If you know that Wednesdays and Fridays are particularly crazy because you’re shuttling your kids to soccer practice, then pick a recipe that you can prepare ahead and reheat, or uses a convenience product. Or, if you tend to get lazy on Sunday mornings, that might be a good time to do a roast chicken, where all you have to do is pop it in the oven.
8. Thou shalt organize your recipes.
We’re all guilty of this: we have tons of cookbooks, but when it’s actually time to cook, we’re too tired and stressed to wade through them to find the casserole dish we’ve been dying to try.
Mark interesting recipes with post-its or tabs. Some people actually rewrite their favorites in a notebook, but if you’re short on time, you can just make the homecook version of the library file. Basically, get a calling card holder and then write (in small pieces of paper) the name of the recipe, and the website or the book and page number where you can find it. File it under your desired categories (like ‘Chicken’ and ‘Fish’ or even more specific ‘Budget Recipes’ or ‘Low-Fat.’) Whatever works for you.
9. Thou shalt stock your pantry with staples.
After several weeks of meal planning you’ll notice what ingredients you tend to use a lot, plus the recipes that your family likes and you can serve at a moment’s notice. The trick is to keep these items on hand. Most cooks will have olive oil (great for salads and pasta), cream, mushroom soup. But it also depends on your family’s preferences. If your tuna carbonara is a big hit, it won’t hurt to keep a can or two of tuna in case your kid suddenly invites friends over for dinner, and you need something ‘special’ that can also feed a big crowd.
10. Thou shalt make meal planning a habit.
Set a particular day, preferably right before you’re scheduled to go to the supermarket. Give yourself an hour, so you have time to browse your pantry and your collection of recipes.