Meal Planning Basics - Dinner

Meal Planning Basics - Dinner

If you hate cooking or dread coming home to the task of making dinner for yourself or your family, I have a suggestion for you.  Make meal planning a new habit.  Here are some basic instructions to get you started….

1. Planning Your Meals in Advance is HUGE!

I typically plan a week at a time, but you can definitely plan a few weeks’ worth of meals and recycle those plans if you have a very consistent schedule. Let’s break this down with additional tips for planning:

Where am I short on time?

Look at your schedule for the week. For me, I like meals with under 5 ingredients for weeknight meals.  After a day of work I don’t want to have to think too much to make dinner and don’t want cooking to take an hour or more. 

Also, note which days you have time to actually prepare from scratch meals and which days you just want to rewarm something before an evening meeting or child’s activity.  

If you know you don’t have a lot of time any given night, you can plan for that by doubling one or two recipes for leftovers, or scheduling a crockpot recipe.

Narrow Your Options

There are so many great sounding recipes out there you can get easily overwhelmed by the sheer volume, and that can prevent you from completing your meal plan. By identifying types of foods or certain cooks you enjoy, your choices will be naturally limited to recipes that work for your family and are healthy.  I like to have 14 go-to recipes that I can almost memorize the ingredients of so it is also easy to shop and I typically have ingredients on hand in case plans change at the last minute and you need a quick meal.

Go Autopilot

Another great way to take some thinking out of meal planning is to have theme nights. Some popular themes include Meatless Monday, Taco Tuesday, Seafood Sunday…you get the idea. The benefits to this approach are that the theme dictates your recipe options while also ensuring you have variety in your menu (assuming your themes differ from day to day or week to week).

Share your plan with the household

Many times I am not the first one home and so my husband ends up cooking.  I like to keep a menu plan posted on the frig so he knows what I had planned for dinner.  I also keep ingredients on a certain shelf in the frig so he can easily just grab and start chopping.


Most weeks I actually just plan the main basic protein for the weeknight meals and just chop whatever veggies are in the frig and try to vary a sauté each night so I really don’t have to think.  I save the more involved recipes and new dishes to try for the weekends when I have more time.

If you like using recipes, keep them organized for easy reference.  Maybe you use an electronic system like a board on Pinterest or some recipe app.  I like paper copies of recipes so I have a binder of go-to meals or dishes.  Then I have another for new recipes to try categorized by type – chicken, fish, sides, salads, dips, etc.  This helps with planning and shopping.  You can also leave a recipe for your spouse if they are cooking that night.  If you have an electronic cookbook or recipe then you can just text the chef the recipe.

2. Shop Once per Week, or Twice for Small Refrigerators

If you aren’t a planner of meals you probably aren’t a planner in the shopping area.  I like to go once, sometimes twice a week since we use a lot of fresh veggies and we don’t have a huge frig.  If you have your meals all planned out you know what you need and can get it all in one trip. This saves time and stress instead of stopping at the store because you forgot some ingredient.

3. Food Prep Time

If you are short on time one night, do some meal prep earlier in the week or the night before. You don’t need to measure out all of your spices and oils, but I do recommend that you cut, peel, chop, slice, cube, etc. your produce ahead of time. This way, when you get home and you have 20 minutes to get a meal on the table before you head back out the door, you are ready.  Many people prep all their veggies on Sundays, and it usually only takes 45-60 minutes to prep everything for the week, which is well worth the convenience.

Another way to speed up cooking time is buy produce that is already peeled, chopped, sliced or spiralized.  On weeks I have a full schedule day and night I like to spend the extra money and let someone else do the work.

4. Final Notes

You might find that your grocery bills are a little higher than usual the first few weeks. This should level out after your pantry is stocked with the primary oils, spices and seasonings for the recipes you typically use. I’ve found that, now grocery store trips are quicker and easier as you know the typical ingredients.  We also have less waste, since we only buy what we plan to eat.

How do you make cooking enjoyable? I’d love to hear your tips!