5 Ways Meal Planning Saves Time

5 Ways Meal Planning Saves Time

See how choosing recipes in advance can save you hours when you need it most—busy weeknights. Plus, we’ve got 13 time-saving recipes!

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: My life is too busy. And that stresses me out.

After too many dropped balls, I’ve figured out some strategies to cope, like color-coding my calendar. Dividing entries into green (work), purple (family), brown (school commitments), red (doctors’ appointments), and blue (personal) lets me keep track of dozens of commitments at a glance. Meal planning for my family helps me manage my time (and my stress level) in the same way—with its time-saving benefits, I never find myself panicked in the kitchen at dinnertime, frantically trying to throw something together. When my kid strolls into my office at five o’clock, asking what’s for dinner, I have an answer ready. And the Yummly Meal Planner Tool makes the planning even easier. Here’s how I incorporate it each week into my five time-saving strategies.

1. Shop only once

My favorite part of planning the week’s meals in advance: It’s easy to buy everything I need for the week in one trip to the store. No last-minute dash to pick up one or two items. When I’m super-stressed I let the Yummly Meal Planner Tool create the list for me, and the tool organizes it so I can zip right through the grocery store. I plan strategically to use the most perishable items like fish early in the week, and save sturdier fare like beans for later. 

A picture of a salmon fillet topped with lemon slices on a board with garlic and parsley

The Easiest Honey Garlic Salmon by Lively Table

The Easiest Honey Garlic Salmon really is that easy: You just drizzle a salmon fillet with honey, sprinkle with minced garlic, and broil. It’s shockingly flavorful for almost no effort. While you’re getting it ready for the broiler, roast some Garlicky Lemon Asparagus to serve alongside, and dinner’s ready in about 30 minutes.

A picture of a platter with asparagus spears topped with chopped garlic

Garlicky Lemon Asparagus by Yummly

A picture of a platter and a plate filled with Crispy Black Bean Tacos with Feta and Lime

Crispy Black Bean Tacos with Feta and Lime by Yummly

Crispy Black Bean Tacos with Feta and Lime turns canned black beans into a zingy, lightning-fast taco filling with a handful of lively ingredients. You’ll use this recipe’s skillet-crisping technique again and again.

2. Prep ahead for easy weeknights

Meal planning lets me know exactly which vegetables I’ll need chopped during the week, which means I can prep them as soon as I bring them home from the store. Once they’re all cut up, I consult my meal plan to package and label them by day and stow in the fridge. Then on the night in question, I pull out exactly what I need and get started. I take a similar tack with things like Buddha bowls, which usually call for cooked whole grains, a mix of raw and cooked vegetables, and a sauce or two—if that’s all done on Sunday, the weeknight dinner is a breeze.

A picture of bowls and a pot filled with red Vegetable Soup, with parsley and bread on the counter

Vegetable Soup by Two Peas & Their Pod

Making vegetable soup often takes 20 minutes just to chop all the vegetables. If you get that out of the way on Sunday, you’ll have this cozy, soul-soothing soup on the table in 45 minutes. Add a sprinkle of Parmesan and some crusty bread and dig in.

A picture of a bowl filled with quinoa, cucumber, salad leaves, radishes, butternut squash, roasted red pepper, and avocado for Vegetarian Buddha Bowls with Spicy Peanut Sauce

Vegetarian Buddha Bowls with Spicy Peanut Sauce by Kitchen Sanctuary

This recipe for Vegetarian Buddha Bowls with Spicy Peanut Sauce uses quinoa as a foundation and roasted butternut squash as one of the toppings; and that spicy peanut sauce...yum. I’d prepare all three items on Sunday and refrigerate them, which leaves me with a minimal amount of chopping and assembly on the day I plan to serve it. 

3. Cook once, eat twice

This is my most reliable way to save time with meal planning. I love to spend a few hours on the weekend cooking a larger quantity of something yummy, and use it for more than one meal during the week. Here’s how it works:

On Sunday, I might double up on a can’t-miss classic like Basic Roast Chicken and refrigerate the cooked chickens. Monday night all I’ll need to do is cut up one bird and reheat it gently, to serve with roasted vegetables. A few days later, I’ll use the meat from the second chicken for 20-Minute Chicken Parmesan Soup, a hearty, Italian-accented meal-in-a-bowl. Then I'll freeze the carcasses to make chicken broth when a lazy afternoon rolls around (don’t laugh—they happen!).

A picture of a whole Basic Roasted Chicken in a baking dish with lemon wedges and parsley sprigs

Basic Roasted Chicken by Yummly

A picture of a bowl of 20-Minute Chicken Parmesan Soup with rotini pasta, tomatoes, and a spoon

20-Minute Chicken Parmesan Soup by Chelsea's Messy Apron

On Sunday, I could also bake eight russet potatoes as directed in steps 1 through 4 of Loaded Baked Potatoes and refrigerate them. Monday or Tuesday, I’ll warm up four of those potatoes and finish making the recipe, filling them with butter, sour cream, bacon, scallions, and cheddar cheese to get dinner on the table in a flash. A few days later, I’ll use the remaining spuds to top a six-ingredient Easy Shepherd’s Pie—it only takes 35 minutes.

A picture of a plate of Loaded Baked Potatoes topped with cheese, bacon, sour cream, and green onions

Loaded Baked Potatoes by Yummly

A picture of a spoon taking out some Easy Shepherd's Pie from a casserole dish

Easy Shepherd's Pie by Real Simple

4. Keep it simple

Fewer ingredients means less time spent preparing each one, and one-pan recipes mean less cleanup. I love that Yummly’s personalized search asks me how many ingredients I want to use. Let’s say my color-coded calendar tells me Tuesday’s going to be super-busy with work meetings, doctor appointments, and after-school stuff with my son. I’ll search out recipes with five ingredients or less and find possibilities Yummly knows my family will love. From there I’ll winnow by time, diet, and cuisine until I find the perfect recipe. I click that little notebook icon on the top right, and it’s added to my meal plan.

A picture of a cast-iron skillet filled with gnocchi and sliced mushrooms, with a glass of white wine

Skillet Gnocchi With Mushrooms by Urban Bliss Life

Skillet Gnocchi With Mushrooms popped up when I searched for five ingredients/vegetarian/30 minutes. It definitely satisfies my simplicity requirements, since it all goes into the one skillet. I love the combination of crispy gnocchi, savory mushrooms, and garlic.

A picture of a platter of chicken breasts topped with pizza sauce, mozzarella cheese, pepperoni, and sliced basil

Sheet Pan Pizza Chicken by Yummly

Sheet Pan Pizza Chicken also boasts just five ingredients, and this one only dirties a single sheet pan. And with rich marinara, gooey mozz, and crisped-up pepperoni, nobody’s going to whine, “Chicken again?” 

5. Use the slow cooker 

The slow cooker de-stresses me because I can set it up in the morning and come home to dinner, ready to go. But to pull that off, I need to have all my ingredients on hand ahead of time—I really don’t need an emergency trip to the supermarket at 7 AM because I ran out of onions. With meal planning, that never happens.

A picture of a brioche bun filled with shredded slow cooker pulled pork

The Best Slow Cooker Pulled Pork by Slow Cooker Gourmet

The Best Slow Cooker Pulled Pork makes luscious meat that tastes like your down-home BBQ joint. A simple spice rub and a bit of vinegar turn a 4-pound pork shoulder into the makings of multiple meals—think sandwiches with barbecue sauce, nachos, grain bowls, even pizza. And it all happens while you’re off doing other things.

A picture of the inside of a slow cooker filled with shrimp, sliced sausage, and broth for Slow Cooker Jambalaya

Slow Cooker Jambalaya by The Recipe Critic

Slow Cooker Jambalaya takes just 10 minutes to get going, then simmers away all day long. You come home to a rich, Cajun-spiced stew of chicken, andouille sausage, and shrimp, ready to serve over rice. 

Interested in learning more about meal planning? We've got lots of meal planning articles on Yummly!