Meal Planning Tips
Updated: Oct 19
I‘m no star in the kitchen but I have gotten more confident in my cooking abilities over the years. Cooking nearly everyday and feeding a family can give one a lot of experience, and experience often leads to progress of some sort, am I right?
WHERE TO START:
Start with repeats! Old family recipes? Simple, tried and true? Favorite blogger? Favorite cookbook? Make a list of what you know your family likes and start from there.
I found a box and note cards at the Dollar Store and typed out some of our favorite meals. Some are complex, some are simple like hot dogs, french fries and carrot sticks. If it’s a meal you’ve repeated - write it down!
One of the ways I try to minimize the stress of planning is keeping some sort of routine in the meals. For example, one night a week in the summer it’s a big salad for dinner, in the winter it shifts to soup. Tuesdays I try to keep Mexican - ah taco Tuesday we love you! One night will be a pasta dish of some kind. I like to try to have one night featuring an Asian recipe, whether it’s Indian, Thai, or Korean that’s flexible. One night will be some sort of sandwich - maybe a turkey burger or grilled steak sandwiches - something between 2 slices of bread! I try to mix up the proteins as well. We eat a lot of chicken here. My daughter and I love seafood, but my husband literally gags at the smell, and certainly won’t eat it. So if and when I cook something like salmon, I cook it on the grill and need to make an alternative for him and my boys. We do eat red meat, but no more than once a week. I’ve been experimenting more with Tofu and like to have one night of a meatless meal, though the kids think that’s insane! I’ll cook pork maybe twice a month - whether slow cooked pork shoulder shredded, pork chops, pork tenderloin, sausage, bacon or a spiral ham - it’s pretty popular with the boys of the house.
Start with your list of tried and true!
Find a theme, rotate protein then mix it up!
While I don’t hold myself to this, here is a general idea:
Monday = Salad - Strawberry poppy seed salad with chicken and french bread
Tuesday = Mexican - Fajitas
Wednesday = Pasta - Cavatelli with sausage and a tossed salad
Thursday = Asian - vegetable curry with rice
Friday = Pizza Night!!!
Saturday = Sandwich - Hawaiian grilled turkey burgers with roasted broccolli
Sunday = miscellaneous - Mississippi Pot Roast with mashed cauliflower
These are all linked to Amazon, but don’t forget to take advantage of your local library which is where I usually try out a cookbook before deciding if it has enough recipes that I’ll use before buying.
Where would we all be without this gem of a resource. There are so many talented food bloggers out there and I am so thankful they share their work to Pinterest. Some nights while I’m watching TV, I’ll just scroll and pin meals that look good. Then on the weekend when I am actually planning, I’ll look through and pick the ones I’d like to try and write it in my notebook along with the source and any ingredients get added to my grocery list. My boards are also a place where I can return to see meals I’ve made in the past. If I try a meal and it wasn’t favored by the fam, it gets deleted so I don’t accidentally try it again!
Favorite follows on Pinterest: pinchofyum.com skinnytaste.com lecremedelacrumb.com sunkissedkitchen.com damndelicious.net https://www.averiecooks.com/ https://www.apinchofhealthy.com/ https://www.nourish-and-fete.com/
The actual planning part
On Saturday or Sunday I like to get out my notebook and plan out 7-10 meals for the week or two ahead. I think about what I have in the pantry and freezer and meals we haven’t had in a while. I look through my note cards of tried and true then, I scroll Pinterest or get out a cookbook. I make a list of the meals I want to make and then jot down ingredients I think I’ll need to buy. If I’m not sure I write it down anyway. Then I hit the pantry, refrigerator and freezer and be sure I’m not adding anything to a list I already have. After shopping, all the meals I am prepared to make go on my chalkboard in the kitchen. I don’t typically follow the order in which I write them down but it helps me to know what our options are. Typically, at night I’ll check the chalkboard and decide what I’ll make the next day. Then I double check ingredients are on hand and take out any meat that needs to be defrosted for the next day.
Consider your schedule
While Covid-19 has meant we aren’t rushing out of the house for activities, it’s worth while to mention that when times were more rushed that always went into my meal planning. If my son had baseball practice on Thursdays that usually meant I’d prepare a crockpot meal that day so that I could set it and forget it until we all were back around the table when we got home. If my daughter had to work or had practice I’d think about what might be good reheated when she got home or if I knew she would be eating with friends then I would cook something she was less fond of. Being aware of your lifestyle and weekly schedule really helps when planning. I try to avoid that panicked, “what’s for dinner? Let’s grab drive through” feeling!
I’ve never been too fond of freezer meals or preparing entire meals ahead of time, I think it just does something to the flavor. However, I do like to find time to prep some things ahead. When I get home from the grocery store I’ll wash and cut up produce for the week. This helps when I cook, but we are all more likely to grab a healthy snack if, say peppers, are already cut and washed ready to eat! I also have been known to cook extra protein. So if I know I’m grilling chicken on Sunday, I may grill twice as much then put the extra aside to use for salads the next night or even lunches.
These storage containers have a tray at the bottom to absorb moisture after washing and chopping produce. I also try to use the meals that require the fresh produce earlier in the week. Those meals that utilize pantry or freezer items, come later in the week.
Leftovers are usually stored in Pyrex fresh lock glass containers. I like how we can all see what's inside and the locking lids mean the food stays fresher for longer. With a family of five, we don't tend to have a lot of leftovers, if we do, my husband usually eats them the next day for lunch. Glass containers also means they can go directly into the microwave to be warmed.
Some of my other frequently used kitchen gadgets:
Some of our favorite meals:
Asian: lettuce wraps, deconstructed sushi bowls, cashew chicken, beef and broccoli, bulgogi and rice, chicken low mein, orange chicken and fried rice, pad thai with peanut noodles, egg roll in a bowl
Mexican: fajitas, quesadillas, fish tacos, taco salad, crunch wraps, tortilla soup, enchiladas
Italian: spaghetti and meatballs, ravioli and sausage, baked ziti, lasagna, stuffed shells, pesto cavatappi, broccoli and chicken Alfredo, chicken Parmesan, zoodles with turkey meatballs, cavatappi with bolognese, gnocchi with salmon
Sandwiches: BLT's, patty melt, Reuben, Rachel, Italian sub, frontega chicken panini, caprese panini, meatball subs, french dip, pulled pork sliders, hot dogs, burgers, sausage and peppers, philly cheese steaks, grilled cheese, buffalo chicken sliders
Salads: strawberry poppy seed, chopped Asian, chef, Caesar, Greek, panzanella
Soups: zuppa toscano, pasta e fagioli, broccoli cheddar, french onion, minestrone, chicken noodle, creamy tomato, chicken and dumplings, white chicken chili, chili
Miscellaneous: Mississippi Pot Roast, Loaded baked potatoes with proteins, chicken cordon bleu, bbq chicken corn on the cob and potato salad, Grilled Salmon and roasted veggies, Pan seared scallops and Parmesan orzo
Stay tuned for a more recipe specific post that features some of these favorites from my kitchen!
A note on dietary needs: Last year I lost 40 pounds following Weight Watchers. I would often make minor substitutions for myself such as making zoodles, and serving everyone else spaghetti or making myself cauliflower rice while the family had long grain basmati! For me, it was about making sure I ate low point healthy foods for breakfast, lunch and snacks so I didn't need to be as mindful at dinner. But know that some of my choices I've listed may not be the healthiest meals you've ever seen! Making substitutions whether for weight loss, allergies or picky eatters becomes easier over time!
A note on sides: I have a standby of sides we tend to rotate through based on what my family will eat. If I'm making a simple grilled chicken then I'll spend more time making a fancier side like Parmesan orzo or a medley of roasted veggies. Most days we keep it simple with broccoli, corn, zucchini and squash or sometimes just some cold veggies and ranch dip. Roasted potatoes, mashed potatoes, fries, rice or just dinner rolls will sometimes be added as well for my carb loving hubby.
A note on breakfast and lunch: These meals are usually kept simple.We all eat the same few things for both meals so I don't tend to plan ahead. I know what we will need for these meals and those are basics that are on our weekly shopping list. I can share another post about some of our regular rotations for these meals if that would be valuable to you!
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