What’s for dinner?
It’s an innocent enough question. But it’s one that’s often met with disgust if you’re the only one planning and prepping meals.
Or maybe you’re not planning meals. Maybe you’re just winging it. Hoping the food fairies will magically plop a meal down on the table for your family. (Someone let me know how you sign up for that.)
Meal Planning Is a Must
I’ve finally just accepted that I have to meal plan. If I don’t, we end up getting takeout a lot more.
And I go to the store a million times a week and end up spending a lot more on groceries.
Plus, I can get more of the prep work done ahead of time when I know what I’m cooking.
In short, meal planning makes dinner easier.
Make a List of Go-To Meals
You know you have those go-to meals that hit your rotation all the time. Maybe you’re tired of those family favorites because you eat them all the time. But they still make planning a lot easier.
Write down all of the meals your family likes. You probably don’t even need a recipe for them since they’re so second nature.
Here are some of the go-to meals on our list:
- Chicken salads and baked potatoes
- Grilled chicken
- Grilled cheese
- Chicken with rice
- Chicken fajitas
- Sub sandwiches
- Chicken and veggie soup
- Breakfast for dinner (rotation of our faves: eggs, pancakes, breakfast potatoes, biscuits, etc)
Keep that list handy for when you plan. You can sprinkle in some new recipes among your standbys when you’re planning.
Create a Pool of New Recipes
My family is picky, but I love trying new things. So I sprinkle in some new recipes that they’ll probably sort of like a little bit. I usually add 1 to 2 new recipes per week.
If you also like trying new things, start a collection of new recipes you want to try. As you’re planning your meal, work in a few of these new recipes among your family favorites.
Pinterest is my go-to spot for keeping new recipes organized.
If Pinterest is too overwhelming for you, consider a meal planning service like $5 Meal Plan. You can try it free. You can also read my review about $5 Meal Plan to see what we thought of it.
Plan a Month at a Time
Listen, I don’t love meal planning. Maybe if I didn’t have a million other things on my plate I wouldn’t mind. But it’s not my favorite.
So I do it as infrequently as possible. That means I end up planning a month at a time.
Yeah, it takes a little longer to do so many meals at once. But if you have your list of standby meals, it’s really just a matter of plugging them into the calendar.
Once I have my month planned out, I can make a shopping list for the whole month. Some things, like produce, need to wait until closer to the day we cook them. But many things can be purchased ahead of time.
Be Flexible With Your Days
I always assign my meals to a specific day. My son plays soccer, which means he usually has some type of practice, game or something going on that might affect the menu.
But it’s not rigid. Sometimes I’ll move meals around during the week. Usually because I forgot to thaw chicken or didn’t make it to the store for an ingredient I forgot.
If you want more flexibility, just choose your meals for the week or the month but don’t assign them to a certain day. Just have a list of meals for the week or month and cross them off as you go.
You can still do all of the planning for them, including grocery shopping and prepping, so they’re just as easy to cook. You just get to do it on your own time.
Recycle Your Menus
Don’t recreate your entire menu every month! That just takes unnecessary time.
Come up with a few different month rotations. Then just keep reusing them. You can swap out a few meals if you want to try new things. But otherwise, those old menus are perfectly fine to use again.
Work With Your Calendar
If you have a busy schedule or your family’s activities change frequently, grab your planner before you create your menu. Mark special events on the menu. Maybe you and your partner are going out to dinner with friends this weekend. You’ll need something simple for the kids.
For us, the planning issues usually revolve around my son’s soccer schedule. I swear coaches schedule practices during meal times just to be difficult. Ha!
On those nights, I try to make crock pot meals, soup, salads, sandwiches or other things that everyone can dish up themselves when they’re ready to eat. My son can eat before or after practice, depending on how he feels. He doesn’t feel left out, and we don’t have to cook him a separate meal at different time.
Pick Easy Recipes
Am I the only one who clicks out of a recipe if it has a list of ingredients a mile long? Even if most of them are seasonings, it just turns me off.
Choosing recipes that are easy to throw together makes you more likely to stick to the meals you plan. By dinner time, I’m usually tired and not really in the mood to cook. So choosing simple things makes me more likely to actually make the meals I planned.
If you want to try something more complicated, save it for a weekend or a day when you have more time. You can actually enjoy the cooking process and have time to make it.
Shop Monthly (Preferably Pickup Orders)
I love to buy the bulk of the ingredients I need for the entire month at once. It keeps me out of the grocery stores, which is definitely good for our budget!
Plus, I’m not huge on grocery shopping. I’m an old crabby lady and crowded aisles drive me crazy. Especially when people stop in the middle of the aisle and don’t move!
So when I meal plan, I write out the grocery list for the month. If you have things like fresh produce or dairy products that won’t last the whole month, you can save those for smaller weekly shopping trips.
I personally love doing pickup orders for groceries. I don’t have to walk through aisles and aisles of people. Everything gets loaded in my car and I’m done. So easy.
Walmart is my favorite for grocery pickup. You can save $10 on your first order if you’re new to Walmart Grocery Pickup.
I’m not a huge fan of ordering produce on pickup orders. I’m just kind of picky about my fruits and veggies. But everything else is just fine for pickup.
and Prep as Much As Possible Monthly
Listen, I know when you’re done grocery shopping, you just want to order takeout and do nothing else for the rest of the day. But doing as much prep work as possible now saves you so much time when you go to cook the meals.
Something I liked to do is prep all of my meat for the month. Boneless, skinless chicken breast is the main thing we use. It freezes beautifully. But it’s much easier to cook if I’ve already trimmed and cut it before tossing it in the freezer.
So if I’m making chicken fajitas, chicken soup and grilled chicken, I would slice some of chicken thinly for the fajitas, put that chicken in a bag and label it with the meal and date I’m cooking it.
I would cut chicken into small pieces for the soup and again label it.
For grilled chicken, I would trim it, pound it thin so it grills better and add marinade to the bag before it goes in the freezer.
You can add all types of seasonings, sauces and marinades to your chicken before you freeze it. When you’re ready to cook it, all of those initial steps are done.
If I’m going to make chicken stir fry with frozen veggies, I’ll cut up the chicken and put it in a quart-size baggie. Then I put that and the bag of frozen veggies into a larger gallon-size bag with the meal and date label. That way I just grab the whole bag and have everything I need from the freezer instead of digging for the veggie separately.
Many recipes will give prep instructions for the freezer. This makes it easier to figure out exactly what you can do ahead of time and which ingredients will do well in the freezer.
Then Prep Again Weekly
Not everything can be prepped a month in advance, but you can do a little more prep work at the beginning of the week.
Chopping up fruits and veggies for your meals is a good one to do weekly. Set aside an hour or so on Sundays to finish prepping your ingredients for meals that week.
Look Ahead Each Week
At the beginning of the week, look over your menu. Do you really have all the ingredients you need? Even if you did your monthly or weekly shopping list, something may have fallen through the cracks.
I’m notorious for just scrapping a whole meal if I forgot an ingredient.
Also, look for special things you might need to do for each meal.
If you have your meat prepped and ready to go in the freezer, don’t forget to take it out to thaw. Maybe you’re doing a meal in the crock pot and you need to remember to start it in the morning.
Take the Stress Out of Meal Planning
Meal planning doesn’t have to be stressful. Take an easy, smart approach to meal planning to take some of the work out of cooking.
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