When I finally decided to write my first cookbook, Make It Easy, I promised myself that I would only add something new to the conversation about meeting the challenges of home cooking in today’s busy world. After all, we’ve all heard the same suggestions repeated—and still the conversation persists.
Though I have no delusions that my recommendations will be the ones to finally solve the issues, I was dead set on making fresh suggestions. And for the most part, I succeeded. But one oft-repeated solution kept creeping its way into my writing: the dreaded meal plan suggestion.
The cold, hard truth is that if you can get into the habit of meal planning, it will totally and completely change your life as a busy home cook. I’m not exaggerating, and I’ve seen it help clients even more than I could have ever predicted.
I’ve also seen, though, that some busy cooks just can’t, don’t, or won’t meal plan. If you’ve tried and just can’t make meal planning work, forgive yourself and move on. If you haven’t given it the old college try, though, and think that you might be ready to commit, I encourage you to give it a go (or another go?).
Since there are plenty of tips already out there for those of you who want to attempt meal planning the good old-fashioned way, I’m going to share some practical meal-planning tips that have helped even the most resistant of my clients instead.
These tips can be incorporated into your routine even if you can’t, don’t, or won’t formally meal plan. Any or all of these ideas can be incorporated as you see fit:
1. Set aside no more than 10 minutes to think about meals for the week.
If you allow meal planning in any form to take 20, 30, or 40 minutes—or worse, you let thoughts of it span across days—it will remain (or quickly become) an unsustainable practice.
Instead, force yourself to do it in 10 minutes, once a week. If you’re formally meal planning, be focused, go to recipe resources you trust, and be decisive. You might even set a timer to help keep you on track.
If the extent of your meal planning is thinking about what’s for dinner at some point in the day, force yourself to keep the thoughts from lingering too long. Be decisive and stick with it. And, if you can, think about the week—or as many days as you can—at once, and at the beginning of the day, not the end.
2. Keep track of meals that work.
Keeping notes on recipes that are easy to cook and meals that are a hit with everyone you’re feeding keeps you from having to re-create the wheel every week.
Put favorites on regular rotation so that you don’t have to plan all new meals every week.
3. Have other members of your crew help.
Ask the rest of the people in your crew what they want to eat. Delegate some of the meal-planning responsibility, even if you’re the only one who does the shopping and cooking.
If you have a family, maybe each kid gets a day of the week, or every Friday is Mom’s choice. Having a few meals that you don’t have to think about makes meal planning easier.
4. Plan a few meals around what’s already in the fridge.
Food waste can be a big source of guilt and, worse, a huge waste of money. When taking your 10 minutes to meal plan or at the beginning of the day you will do some food shopping, take a look at what’s in the fridge.
If you’re not great at dreaming up meals based on one or two available ingredients, flip to the index of your favorite cookbook or go to your number one recipe source and do a search.
Once you get good at planning around what you have in the fridge, you can also incorporate the foods in your pantry and freezer. This will help keep you from finding four-year-old freezer-burned meat or who-knows-how-old cans of beans buried in the way back.
5. Cook once, eat twice.
While meal planning or, if you haven’t planned ahead, while cooking, try to double up on side dishes, veggies, or even main proteins so that you can cook them once and serve them twice.
For example, when making steak tacos with rice and beans one night, cook a double portion of everything. Then you can have grilled chicken with a side of rice and broccoli one night, an Asian steak salad another, and bean and avocado tostadas on a third. On all three subsequent nights, you go into the kitchen with an idea of where to start, and your cooking time is greatly reduced since once element is already made. And, hey, that's four meals already planned—just like that.
Though I admit that doing this masterfully is an advanced kitchen skill, just having the thought in your head can help, especially with sides like rice or quinoa and simple proteins like roasted chicken or pork loin.
Meal planning reduces stress and cuts down on time spent in the kitchen because you enter it armed with a clear idea of what you need to do.
While it's true that just keeping these principles in mind doesn’t do this with the same efficiency, it certainly helps provide clarity and, for the non-planners among us, sometimes that’s enough.