I used to have a love/hate relationship with meal planning.
The cycle would start with a jolt of inspiration – usually, by reading a great blog post.
I would take out all of my cookbooks with gusto and spend an hour or so marking all the recipes I wanted to make for that week.
I would be so excited. Elated, even.
And, usually the first few days, or even the first week or two, would go really smoothly. I would be amazed and so proud of myself.
I would think I had finally figured it all out and that cooking really wasn’t so hard afterall!
But, inevitably, I would run late one night and have no time to prepare the meal I had planned.
Or, I would realize at 5:45 pm – halfway through cooking dinner – that I was missing an important ingredient.
Exasperated, I believed that I just wasn’t cut out for meal planning.
At these moments, I tortured myself with envy for those cooks who could quickly peruse their pantries and throw together effortless, delicious meals – and post them on Instagram for the world to drool over.
Clearly, that was not my reality and unless I was going to enroll in culinary school, I had to figure out another way.
I knew that meal planning was my answer. But, this time, I had to make it work for me.
Here are 5 fool-proof ways I have discovered to make meal planning actually work:
1. Plan your week before you plan your meals.
Understand your time constraints first.
If my son has soccer practice until 5:30pm, then planning a dinner that can be assembled quickly, rather than cooking a recipe from scratch is key.
On these late nights, I plan meals that I can make with my eyes closed, like black bean and cheese quesadillas with guacamole and roasted vegetables.
But, I don’t just think about making them. I literally schedule these meals into the calendar on my meal planning app, which automatically generates a shopping list.
Before going to the grocery store, I check off the ingredients I already have in my pantry.
Done. And. Done.
So, when these nights roll around, I have no thinking to do. No last-minute scrambling. No rushing. Just execution.
Tip: Take out all the ingredients in advance or organize them together in the fridge in the morning or night before to save precious mental space when you are short on time.
2. Start with the basics.
Come up with your go-to meals that everyone likes and plug those meals into your weekly plan.
In my family, we have tofu scramble on Tofu Tuesdays, personalized sandwiches for Sunday Sandwiches and homemade pizza on Italian Thursdays (doesn’t sound cute, but it works).
Having these meals to look forward to not only alleviates the need to meal plan from scratch every week, but it also creates family traditions that kids (and we parents) love.
Once we have scheduled our basics, then we can add to our plan any side dishes and new recipes we want to experiment with.
For example, when we have sandwiches, I might make a vegetable soup and/or roasted chickpeas. With tofu scramble, I will usually make an Israeli salad.
But, I also like to experiment with adding a new veggie into the tofu scramble, try a new sauce with sauteed vegetables, or make a comforting vegetable curry.
Tip: Make sure that you only add recipes to your meal plan that feel doable. Save bigger endeavors for the weekend, or for nights that you have time for things to go wrong.
3. Have a formula.
Starting from scratch every week when meal planning is exhausting.
A formula can help.
Although there will be exceptions, my basic formula is: Protein, Carb, Veggie or Fruit
The meal planning app that I use organizes all my recipes into easy categories that I can customize, and so when I’m meal planning, I simply choose from my lists.
For example, I would choose baked potatoes with toppings that include diced veggies, black beans, and barbecue sauce.
And, on the side, I would make a salad and roasted chickpeas or a soup.
Tip: Organize your recipes so that you can access them quickly and easily. I am a big fan of online apps, but I also keep my most-used cookbooks close by. Another idea is to write or print out your favorite recipes and post them on your cabinets (inside, or even on the outside).
4. Plan for backup.
No matter how well we plan, things are bound to go awry once in a while. Planning for these times is not only helpful, but also it will eliminate unnecessary stress.
Backups can be as simple as ordering pizza, making veggie omelets and a fruit salad, or grilling frozen veggie burgers on toasted buns with freshly chopped fixings.
One of my favorite backups is pesto. I always make extra and freeze half in ice cube trays. Whenever I need it, I can stir a few cubes into a large bowl of steaming hot pasta and have dinner on the table in minutes.
Tip: The freezer is your best friend when it comes to backups. Choose 3-5 options to be used at a moment’s notice such as frozen pizzas or leftovers that you’ve frozen, like a hearty soup, lasagna or curry.
5. Meal plan together.
It can be hard to figure out a week’s worth of meals on our own. Especially at the beginning.
That’s why I always enlist the help of my family. My son – who is only 8 – has a talent for pairing dishes. Whenever I want to try a new recipe and I’m not sure where to plug it in, he always comes up with great ideas!
I also invite him to make requests, which makes him feel connected to meals and helps me in choosing the menu.
My husband always offers me a reality check. Whenever I get too ambitious and want to try five new recipes in the same week, he will remind me of all the steps above. 🙂
What I have learned is that consistency and predictability are not the enemies. Just because I am not talented enough to whip up something new everyday doesn’t mean that I cannot add new dishes to the mix. I just have to prepare for them.
Accepting that has allowed me to finally make meal planning work for me, and I hope these ideas work for you, too!
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