The hardest thing about nailing down a week’s menu is the need to plan ahead. Not a lot of us are great at it, especially planning seven days at once. I find it can feel overwhelming, particularly because it has to be done week in, week out.
But to be most efficient—and therefore become less overwhelmed—planning is the key. Here are a few tips I’ve discovered to help make you into a meal-planning whiz.
- Sit down to plan at the same time every week. Most people probably do this on Sunday morning or some other time over the weekend, but it can be done any time. Just be consistent so the week doesn’t get away from you and leave you going “whoops!” as Monday’s dinnertime rolls around and the cupboards are bare.
- Take advantage of apps. There are a bevy of apps now available to help you with meal planning and grocery shopping. These can be your friend, especially if you have one or two that you master and use consistently. However, they can also be your enemy, as they can overly complicate what should be a simple process.
- Cook simple things. No one expects you to be a Top Chef contestant when you get into the kitchen every evening. Don’t aim for the duck breast stuffed with walnuts, cranberries, and pancetta. Instead whip up a simple chicken breast with a side of broccoli. Learn how to spice things well and let the true flavors of your food do the work.
- Cook things you’re excited about. Okay, so you can’t make steak every night, but you can certainly find dishes for your menu that make your taste buds tingle. No need to just slop a can of Hamburger Helper into the pan when you can almost as easily whip up a quick stir fry that’s bursting with your favorite flavors. Simply wanting to cook and eat the meals will make planning them feel a whole lot more fun.
- Repeat your favorites. In our house, both taco night and pasta night occur once a week. They aren’t always on the same days of the week, and they don’t always consist of the same types of toppings, noodles, and sides. But having these two dinner types locked in eases the stress of planning substantially. By now I can rattle off the set of ingredients I’ll need without a thought, which makes shopping easier. And I can make these things with my eyes closed (which is dangerous, don’t try it at home), so prep is pretty easy too.
- Embrace leftovers. Whether you have them for lunch or repurpose them for a second dinner, leftovers are a godsend to the harried cook. In fact, it can pay to make more than you know your family will eat just so you can have some left for later. This is also an economical way to cook. I like to stew up big pot of chili or chicken soup on Sunday night and have everyone eat it throughout the week.
- Use the freezer. If you have a lot of leftovers or if you cook a bit batch of something that you don’t want to eat again right away, freezing portions of it is a way to make sure you can still enjoy the benefits down the road. You’ll end up with very easy dinner-prep nights. Which leads me to the final point:
- Give yourself a night off. Whether you like to go to your favorite burger (or salad) joint or pop a frozen pizza (or some of those frozen leftovers) in the oven, give yourself a break at least one day a week. That easy night will give you energy and motivation to tackle the rest of the week’s meals. It also makes menu planning easier, since you only have to plan six dinners instead of seven.
- Consider investing in food storage for items that you can easily add water to and also have on hand for emergency situations.
Ready to hit the kitchen? Remember to start with a good plan—an organized cook’s most important tool is a pen, not a knife.