How Meal Planning Saved My Sanity: Lessons (and Recipes) From a Reluctant Meal Planner
Is meal planning a magic bullet to cure your weekday cooking woes? Or is it best left to supermoms with large families to feed? I gave it a shot for my family of two: Here's what I found out.
I've never been much of a planner. I don't like to be boxed in, I suppose; I like to keep my options open. And as much as I do love to cook, it's always been a haphazard sort of process. The result? A lot of satisfying my whims and fun kitchen projects ... and a lot of wasted food, last-minute takeout, and a sky-high monthly food bill (not to mention frequent cases of the hangries). The skeptic in me — or perhaps it was the lazy part of me? — didn't think meal planning made sense for a household of two. But in the interest of science, I took the plunge and decided to try weekly meal planning for two weeks. Here's what worked, what didn't, and what happened after the two weeks were up.
What Is Meal Planning?
To start off, I had to come up to speed on the difference between meal planning and meal prep. It's pretty self-explanatory once you stop and think about it, but easy to confuse because they sound so similar and are often spoken of in the same breath. At its simplest, meal planning is deciding what you'll eat for the week in advance; meal prep is doing work in the kitchen in advance.
Once you've decided on a meal plan for the week, a common next step is to make a grocery list and head to the store. With the ingredients on hand, you may or may not then choose to do some meal prep to give yourself a leg up during the week. This could be as simple as chopping up some vegetables so you don't have to do it the day you're cooking, or as involved as making five bento-box style lunches and packaging them up to grab-and-go each morning.
How to Make a Meal Plan
One of my first lessons learned? Meal planning is nowhere near as hard as I thought it would be! All you need to do is decide what you're going to cook for the week and write it down. That's it. You've meal planned. No need to dedicate five hours in the kitchen on Sunday (that's meal prep), and no need to perfect the balance of macronutrients each day (that's … something else altogether). The harder part of meal planning, of course, is making sure your family is on board and then sticking with the plan — more on both of those topics in a moment.
There are lots of tools you can use to track your meal plan, ranging from a simple notebook or whiteboard to an app or software program. (We're partial to the Yummly meal planning feature, of course!) You can also follow a prescribed meal plan with a pre-built shopping list that someone else has put together, although I find those are rarely flexible enough to account for personal taste preferences and schedules. However you approach meal planning, the key is to write it down (physically or virtually) and buy whatever ingredients you need. From there, it's just a matter of getting home and cooking!
Meal Planning Tips for Beginners
So how did my foray into meal planning go? Spoiler alert: I'm still meal-planning several months later, albeit with some tweaks to make it sustainable (and yes, I take breaks now and again). Here are a few tips based on what I learned:
Be reasonable. If you currently only cook three nights a week, don't commit to suddenly cooking seven days a week. Or if your family refuses to eat leftovers, don't add "leftover night" to your weekly plan, or that will quickly turn into "pizza delivery night." Likewise, if you don't get home on Tuesdays until 8 pm, maybe that's not the best night to plan a complicated meal. Which leads to...
Thursday night is egg night. I'm a typical Monday-Friday daytime worker, and by Thursday night, well, I'm toast. (You know what toast goes well with? Eggs. And maybe bacon). When I first started meal planning, I chose quick recipes for the end of the week, but still found myself going off plan (and wasting food) because when I got home and it was time to cook, I just ... couldn't. My saving grace to avoid takeout? Breakfast for dinner. Or tuna fish salad and/or sandwiches. Or sausages with pre-cut peppers and onions. Point being: Know when you're likely to run out of steam, have a couple no-brainer recipes up your sleeve, and actively plan them in your weekly menu. It's probably what you'll end up eating anyway.
Sunday is casserole night. This was an early lesson that stuck. One of the biggest money-saving changes we made was to start bringing in our lunches. By making a casserole (or pot of stew or other large-batch, microwave-friendly meal) on Sunday night, lunch for the week is ready to go. Can't stomach eating the same thing days on end? Choose freezable recipes and store them in single-serving portions; it's like grabbing a frozen meal on your way out the door, but healthier and cheaper.
Get the family on board. In full disclosure, I'm still working on this one. (Well, except for our dog who is generally on board with anything that involves food). In my initial overzealous excitement about my new routine, I happily whipped off week after week of exactly what my partner would eat for a full fourteen meals, Monday through Sunday! Except I didn't consult with him. Eventually (and unsurprisingly) my enthusiasm was curbed by his lack thereof. Don't be like me: Even if your family isn't particularly interested in helping create a plan for the week, it's always a good idea to get them to "sign off" on the final plan, or at least give them veto power for disliked recipes. I found it helpful to designate one night as "Daddy's Choice" (which of course means I get one "Mom's choice" night in return). Throw in one casserole night, one egg night, and one take-out night, and there's not a ton left to negotiate.
Check your schedule (and the freezer) before you start. A quick and easy way to make planning more effective is to start by adding two types of notes to your plan: any schedule abnormalities and a list of ingredients that need to be used up. Note the days you'll be home late or someone in your family won't be home for dinner, then plan accordingly. Similarly, writing down items you already have on hand can help you prioritize your recipe choices to lessen food waste and save you money.
Include any advance prep and/or mid-week shopping needs in the plan. I know I'm not the only one who has forgotten to take the chicken out of the freezer the day before I need it. Whether you need to soak beans overnight or stop at the store for fresh basil during your Thursday commute home, nothing will throw your meal plan off more quickly than a missing ingredient or forgotten prep step. Don't leave it to chance! A quick note-to-self on Tuesday that says "Take chicken out of freezer" or "Get basil on way home" will make for a happy Wednesday.
Be flexible. Life happens. Remember that your meal plan is there to help you out, not box you in. It's OK to swap meals between days or squeeze in a last-minute dinner out; just keep an eye on any ingredients that might go bad so you can cook or freeze them in a timely manner. Myself, I found that planning a full seven days in advance wasn't sustainable in the long run. Nowadays, I usually plan dinner for Monday-Thursday and then figure out the weekend meals later on in the week. It's a good balance of having a plan and groceries on hand to keep me sane during the work week, while still allowing us to slot in recipes to indulge specific cravings later on.
That's how I made meal planning work for me — what works for you is going to depend on your family size, schedule, diet, and budget. But that's the beauty of meal planning; there's no right or wrong way to do it. Just your way. In my house, I found that meal planning meant fewer hangry debates over what to eat, less takeout, earlier dinner times, and a lot less mental energy required during the week. That last one in and of itself was enough to make me a convert.
Getting started (and my favorite recipes)
If you're also ready to give meal planning a try, I highly recommend checking out the Meal Planner here on Yummly. One of my favorite features is the personalized recipe recommender, which serves up new ideas each week based on the types of recipes you've saved and any dietary preferences you've set up (no one-size-fits-all plans, here). I also love how it integrates with the Shopping List, which you can then access on your phone while you're at the store. Custom meal plan, custom shopping list.
Of course, you don't have to go with our recommendations; you can add any recipe on the site to your meal plan — it's up to you. Want some tried and true ideas? Here are some of the quick weeknight recipes that I turn to time and again.
There's a reason Yummly users search our recipes for chicken more than any other ingredient: it's relatively inexpensive, cooks up quick, adapts to many different cuisines, is healthy, filling, and lean, and appeals to tastebuds big and small. What's not to love? My favorite chicken meals span the globe from the Middle East to Europe to the Americas, so we never get tired of the flavors. And because most of these are done in 30 minutes or less, they're perfect for weeknight meals. (The Zaatar chicken takes an hour, but only 5 minutes of that is hands on — the rest is marinating and baking time).
Quick Family Favorites
These protein-based dishes round out the recipes above for our meat-eating nights. Seafood and pork provide healthy alternatives to chicken ... but sometimes we also just need to splurge on a couple New York strip steaks. The Salisbury steaks are a budget-friendly alternative that clock in at a mere 250 calories per steak. A tip: you can make a double batch of the "steak" patties ahead of time and freeze them; pull however many you want to cook out of the freezer the night before to defrost, and this 50-minute recipe becomes a 30-minute weeknight wonder.
Big Batch Sundays
I could also call this category of recipes "lunch-time lifesavers." In full disclosure, I've never been good at packing a lunch for work, much less packing one for my partner. But with a big casserole or stew made on Sunday night, I knock off a dinner and several lunches for the week (hey, sometimes cooking for two isn't so bad!). I like to choose recipes that use a variety of spices for meals that taste even better the next day after the flavors have had time to meld — it's my favorite trick for hearty lunches that taste anything like leftovers.
I can't say that we eat meatless every Monday, but I do like to throw in some vegetarian options as often as my family will stand for it. The spaghetti squash can double as a side if you're serving four; it's so tasty that I prefer to pile it up on my plate and serve it as a main, myself. Several of these dishes help round out our weekly lunch options — the Autumn Glow salad, chana masala, and tomato casserole all produce leftovers that taste great the next day.
If I'm already making one recipe for a main dish, my side dish recipes need to be easy and simple, particularly on a weeknight. But that doesn't have to mean bland. Sure, I do a fair amount of popping a bag of frozen veggies in the microwave, but these recipes don't take much longer (and those mashed potatoes sure make my partner happy).
I lean on roasting as a low-effort way to prepare all sorts of vegetables from Brussels sprouts or cauliflower to sweet potatoes or asparagus. Just chop (or buy pre-chopped), douse with olive oil, and sprinkle with your favorite spice blend, then pop your veg in the oven and let it do the work. Simple additions — like prosciutto with your asparagus or a quick, creamy sauce for grilled corn — help transform your sides into something crave-worthy without much extra effort.
Pressure Cooker / Instant Pot
Everyone's favorite time-saver, the Instant Pot, has a place in my home as well. Whether used to speed up cooking squash or potatoes, cook up a large batch of hard-boiled eggs to grab-and-go during the week, or make a stew for dinner, pressure cooker recipes are helpful to work into your meal plan on the nights when you know time will be at a premium. I must admit, however, that since I tried the famous butter chicken recipe below, I'm loathe to make anything else with my Instant Pot — it's so good, I just want to make it over and over!
Want more time-saving dinner ideas? Check out all of our meal planning articles for tips, tricks, and recipes.