Top 10 Meal Planning Tips

Our meal planning tips will help you save time, money and make your family love you even more. Why? Because they’ll get to spend more time with you! Even if you aren’t  the only person responsible for getting meals on the table, most of the time one person is in charge. I love cooking for my family but there are still days when it becomes a grueling task. Meal planning tips to the rescue.

Top 10 Meal Planning Tips

Great meal planning will help you save time, save money and reduce the amount of stress and thinking that goes into cooking great meals. Poor planning on the other and could result in redundant trips to the grocery store, spending too much time in the kitchen and occasionally even not getting meals done.

Fortunately, planning your meals isn’t hard at all. The whole process takes one or two hours a week. The time you save easily pays for itself.

Here are our top ten great meal planning tips to make your meal planning easier and more productive:

1. Which Meals Should You Plan?

Some people like to plan out every single meal of every day. Others only plan dinners and spontaneously cook breakfast and lunch.

Generally, you should plan any meal that’s going to be elaborate. So if you’re regularly cooking elaborate lunches, you should probably include those in your planning. On the other hand, if lunch at home is scrambled eggs and toast, then there’s no need to do much planning.

You might also choose to only plan certain days of the week. For example, Monday through Friday might be your responsibility, but your spouse is responsible for Saturday and Sunday.

2. Limit Your Recipe Sources

It’s very easy to get sucked into the world of recipes, especially when you’re just getting started with meal planning. Online recipe sites have made it possible to find hundreds and thousands of recipes on anything from apple pies to vegan lasagne to BBQ pork ribs. If you’re not careful, you could easily waste hours in front of the computer browsing recipes, when 10 minutes would have done the job.

It’s not just the time either. Spending too much time browsing recipes will lead to overwhelm. You’ll have so many choices to choose from that it makes it difficult to pick any one thing.

So pick just one or two recipe sources. Use a cookbook and one website for instance, or just use one website and your printer. Try not to get sucked in to the vast vortex of never-ending recipes online.

Instead, pick the recipes that appeal to you and move on. Keep a copy (print, Pinterest board, hand written notebook) of your favorites that you would like to use again in a handy place.

3. Create a Detailed Shopping List

Once you’ve picked your recipes, create a comprehensive list of the things you need to buy at the supermarket. The goal is to only go grocery shopping once a week.

Start by gathering all your recipes and putting all the ingredients in one list. If you’re using digital tools like iPhone apps or recipe sites, you should be able to jump dump all your recipes in a basket and have the ingredients added to a shopping list.

Once you have this list, go through your fridge and pantry and remove any items from your list you already have. Even if you think you know exactly what’s in your fridge, it still helps to look through to double check.

Add any additional items you need to replenish, even if they weren’t on your recipe lists (E.g. milk, eggs, ketchup, etc.)

More Top 10 Meal Planning Tips

4. Keep It Simple

Not every meal needs to be a Food Network masterpiece. Most don't. Sometimes simple meals like spaghetti bolognaise more than do the job for flavor and nutritional value. Trying to cook an elaborate meal every night of the week is a sure recipe for disaster.

If you’re running out of ideas for simple meals, just look on a few recipe sites. There are plenty of one dish meals and 20 minute meals to choose from.

Your family might get bored if you keep cooking the same simple meal every week. But if you cook one or two different simple meals every week, nobody will bat an eye.

There are ways to vary even a simple meal, even if it's serving the main course with quinoa or pasta, instead of rice. Or vary the vegetables. Add a cream sauce. Serve your homemade clean-out-the-fridge soup with biscuits instead of rolls or Quinoa Garlic bread

5. Try Something New Once A Week

Want to improve your cooking skills? Want to try some new tastes? Want to surprise your family? Add in one (or two) experimental dishes a week.

These experimental dishes should be outside the box of what you normally cook. For instance, if you normally do stir-fries, why not try to bake a quiche? If you regularly make your meats on the stove, why not try a baked chicken instead?

Plan your experiment meal later in the week. Make sure that you have some leftovers as backup just in case the experiment comes out horribly wrong, which it sometimes will. More often than not however, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the results.

6. Have One or Two Leftover Days

Leftovers are a fantastic way to save yourself cooking time. There’s a lot you can do with leftovers to keep the meal fresh, without having to cook a whole meal from scratch.

The easiest way to use leftovers is of course to just stick them in the microwave to reheat and eat them. But if you want to add some variety to the meal, you can put it back on the stove and try adding a bit of different flavors or sides.

Or if you have certain ingredients left over, you can make a whole new meal from it, like adding leftover carrots to a soup pot the next.

Some meal planning tips help you when all your other meal planning tips don't work out as planned! Me? I love leftovers!

7. Prepare for “No Cooking Time” Emergencies

There are going to be times when life gets in the way and you just won’t have time to cook. Maybe your child scraped his knees, or perhaps work calls. Whatever the reason, sometimes you just won’t be able to cook.

For these times, it really helps to have a few of your best dishes frozen. For example, if you make a great soy sauce chicken wing dish, freeze four servings of the wings for a rainy day. If there’s ever an emergency, you can just defrost the wings and microwave them and serve them with rice or pasta.

8. Buy in Bulk When Foods Are on Sale

At the supermarket, you might find foods on sale that weren’t on your list. If you think you will use the foods anyway though, go ahead and buy them in bulk and then change your meal plan later.

Ask yourself a few questions first, like, will these be eaten up fresh this week? If we only ate 3/4 of it would it still be a good bargain? Are there ways I can cook this food (like make 4 banana bread loaves or a big pot of spaghetti sauce) and put them in the freezer for later use.

Occasionally I come across a family size pack of ground beef marked down and ground beef wasn't on my list. But the deal is too good to pass up. If that expense doesn't fit in my budget, I ask myself, would it make sense to leave something else off. I always knew how I would use that meat.

First, if it is marked down, I want to have it cooked before I put it in the freezer. I want the package broken up into meal size packages. So I would mentally plan something like this: I could make 1 meatloaf, 1 or 2 recipes of Basic Oven Meatballs, have a few packages of cooked meat enough to add to a soup or a plain spaghetti sauce or maybe even cook up a few hamburger patties or make seasoned taco meat.

My next questions would be: Do I have the ingredients for those dishes? Do I have enough onions? Carrots? Is  there anything I would need to buy to get this meat cooked. Sometimes I would just plan to cook all the meat up and then bag it for the freezer but I much preferred to have those meatballs made or that taco meat seasoned so I had meals that were half ready. The bargain marked down package then becomes a money saver and a time saver.

This is a good time to get your family involved. With plastic gloves on, even the most fussy love shaping meatballs - and what a thrill when you serve the meatballs everyone helped to make. Okay, so now that family pack of ground beef (marked down or not) has become a money saver, a time saver, and a family builder. Can't get much better than that.

Buying when things are on sale is one of the most helpful meal planning tips from a budget point of view. It can help you and your family save a lot of money so sometimes it is a good thing to change your meal plans mid stream.

To take this a step further, you can also check out your local newspapers and online coupons sites for special deal advertisements. The more constricting your budget is, the higher your payoff will be for taking the time to check for discounts.

9. Cook More Than Necessary

There are many reasons to cook more than necessary.

For one, you’ll have leftovers. The leftovers can go towards your leftover days, which can give you a nice break from cooking.

You’ll also have a lot of snacks for the kids. If your kids ever get hungry, instead of going for the Pringles they will go for the leftover spaghetti.

Cooking more than necessary can also give you nice side dishes for other meals. For example, if you have a few chicken wings left over, they can make a good appetizer or snack or lunch for one. Or you might give each person a couple chicken wings to add more taste to another meal.

It’s much better to over estimate the amount for a meal than under plan. For a family of four, cook as if you had one more person at the table.

10. Make it a Family Adventure

The last of our top ten meal planning tips is a warm and fuzzy one. Not about saving money or time but about having fun because cooking shouldn’t always be you alone in the kitchen. At least once a week, get the family to help out. This is one of the best meal planning tips. Not only is it a fantastic way for kids to learn how to cook early in life but they will be learning meal planning tips for a lifetime.  It’s also a fantastic way to connect with your spouse and to cultivate a sense of teamwork in the family.

Have the kids do simple tasks at first. Make sure to teach them proper safety technique before handing them anything dangerous. For example, teach them how to use their knuckles as blockers before handing them a knife.

Keep the atmosphere light. It should be a playful adventure, not a chore. Everyone should enjoy the experience.

These ten meal planning tips will help make your meal planning a whole lot easier. Implement these tips and you’ll save money, save time and make cooking an absolutely stress free endeavor.

 Extra Meal Planning Tips & Notes:

Community Kitchen programs are all about Meal Planning with a Group. Generally, small groups plan, shop and cook together at one session to end up with 4 or 5 take home meals for the month. You forma group or use their techniques for your family.

Sample Monthly Planning Calendar

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