Meal Planning 101

January 9, 2014 – We’ve all been there: You get home with just 20 minutes to cook dinner (if you’re lucky), not to mention you’re missing a key ingredient for the meal you had in mind. On to plan B…frozen pizza it is! Prevent those weeknight woes by planning a week ahead.

Planning a week of meals in advance saves time and money in the long run. When you stock the kitchen with the ingredients to make nutritious dishes and snacks, there’s no need to dash to the store on a near-daily basis. Plus, knowing what you will prepare in advance reduces your reliance on costlier, less-nutritious take-out and convenience foods.

Sound impossible? It’s not! We’ve broken it down into easy steps so you can spend less time in the aisles, have more money left in your wallet and even simplify healthy eating.

Know Thy Schedule
Knowing everyone’s schedule ahead of time can help figure out when you have time to cook – and when you don’t. You may have time to cook a new meal every night, or you may decide to double a recipe and eat leftovers for lunch and dinner the next night. Kids’ activities may also affect dinner schedules. Consider having a slow cooker dish on deck for busy evenings of sports practices or music lessons.

Decide on Recipes, Create a List
Based on everyone’s schedule and dining preferences, figure out what meals make the most sense for that week and add ingredients to the list. Try to find recipes that use some overlapping ingredients so you aren’t left with half-used ingredients that go to waste.

Prep Ingredients
After the grocery store run, go ahead and wash and cut all veggies, if you can swing it. Getting this prep work done ahead of time can save tons of time during busy weeknights.

Have a Plan B
You planned to whip up chicken and dumplings, fresh green beans and fruit for tonight’s dinner, but you had to stay late at work, drop your car off to be repaired or take a sick child to the doctor.  Hey, life happens!

The evening meal catches even the most organized person off-guard. Avoid dinnertime disasters by having ingredients in the house for quick and nutritious “back-up” meals. Here are some ideas:

Asparagus or Broccoli Frittata

  • Breakfast for dinner: Try a vegetable omelet or frittata (use canned, frozen or leftover veggies) with whole wheat toast.
  • Make your own pizza using whole wheat sandwich thins or toast with tomato sauce, shredded cheese and even some frozen veggies on top.
  • Pasta topped with jarred marinara sauce and frozen turkey meatballs, alongside a simple green salad with bottled lowfat dressing.

Here are three more tricks for even less stressful weeknight cooking:

Time-Saving Trick: Cook Once, Eat Twice
You’re already cooking, so why not make at least two meals? Double up on your favorite chili, lasagna or stew recipe. Roast a whole chicken to serve with vegetables and crusty whole grain bread on one day, and use the leftovers to assemble chicken, bean and cheese quesadillas to serve with a green salad and fruit on another night.

Money-Saving Trick: Shop the Sale
To really save big, nab the store circular (or view it online) and plan your meals around the weekly specials and Special Buys. For example, if ground beef is a steal, plan for lasagna one night and a taco night later in the week.

Sanity-Saving Trick: Find Family Favorites
Stick with a tried-and-true routine of family favorites, especially if you have young children.  While you can’t please everybody at every meal, serving what most of the family likes reduces tension at dinner when younger family members tend to be tired and cranky.  A varied diet is important, but it’s easier to introduce new foods at breakfast, lunch and snack time when kids tend to be better rested.

Elizabeth WardElizabeth M. Ward, MS, RD, is a freelance writer and nutrition consultant. She is the author of more than five nutrition books, including MyPlate for Moms, How to Feed Yourself & Your Family Better, which features healthy eating and lifestyle tips for busy women and their families who want easy ways to make nutritious, tasty meals and snacks, and include more physical activity. Follow her on Twitter at @EWardRD.

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