Mealtime “101”: Meal Planning (Part 1 of 3)

If I hear one consistent complaint from friends, it’s that there’s just not enough time in the day. This inevitably creates stress, particularly when it comes to the more relentless tasks we face each week – namely, laundry, cleaning and cooking dinner.

Once I had kids, and noticed a sharp decline in both my “spare” time and flexibility to my schedule, I knew that I had to rethink dinner time. No more stopping on the way home from work to pick up ingredients or peruse the farmers market. I still wanted to serve a satisfying dinner each night, but the constraints I now had meant a different strategy.


And that’s when I started meal planning, and it was a game changer! The hour or so I spend planning meals for the upcoming week not only saves a ton of time over the course of that week, it all but eliminates most of the stress of cooking dinner:

* I never have to wonder what I’m making for dinner each night (woot!)

* grocery shopping will become more orderly and predictable (yes, I just said that.)

* cooking dinner will actually be enjoyable.

Yes – enjoyable.

So – how to meal plan?

Look at the week ahead – wherever possible, try to plan meals that mesh with each day’s activities. Home all afternoon? Dinner can be one that needs a bit more fussing. Home in the morning but then out till just before dinner? Maybe a casserole that can be assembled early in the day, and popped into the oven as soon as you get in. One of “those days”? Take-out (It’s okay. Really).

Copy/scan/print – whether you scan from a cookbook or magazine, or cut and paste from a web site, transfer your most-used recipes onto documents to be filed on your computer. This makes meal planning a breeze, as you can easily peruse your options and pull up or print out the recipes each night as needed. This method is also great for adding notes to each recipe – such as which ingredients should be doubled, advance prep tips, or what side dishes to serve. I’ve been doing this for years, going through my files every few months to delete any “fails” (BBQ chicken pizza anyone? They’ve still not let me live that one down…).

Grocery shopping. Done. – cut and paste the ingredients from each of the week’s recipes to create an organized and complete shopping list. You can group “like” ingredients together and make notes for items to purchase later in the week (such as fish, or delicate produce). Knowing you have all the ingredients you need on-hand makes for less stressful cooking, and gives you the option of doing some advance prep – either the night before or earlier in the day.

Mix it up – I love to cook and try new things. But it can be a challenge to come up with new dishes each week. So I typically strive for one or two “experiments”, mixed with tried and true favorites. This way I can introduce something new to my family, keep things fresh for me, and have at least a few dinners that are “sure things”. Of course there are weeks where I’ve completely lost my mojo and rely more heavily on meals that are easy and predictable.

I’d love to know if you use any of these techniques, as well as hearing about YOUR favorite mealtime strategies.

Next up? Timing – stay tuned!

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