Meal planning, zzzz. It sounds like such a boring and daunting task, right? I always thought so too. But there’s nothing I hate more than trying to figure out what to eat for dinner at 7pm when I’m already starving. Once I started planning meals, my weeknights and hangry attitude were changed forever. Ok, maaaaybe that’s a bit of a stretch. Realistically, my hangriness improved slightly.
I’ve posted a handful of easy weeknight meals, but really, the best way to make them truly a breeze is to plan ahead. It doesn’t have to be as hard as it sounds. I know a lot of people suggest chopping vegetables over the weekend and portioning foods for the week, but to me, that seems terribly time-consuming when I’d rather be enjoying my weekend time doing other, more fun activities. I’m sure those methods work well for some and maybe one day, when I’m even more pressed for time, I’ll change my tune. For now, all I do is spend 15 or 20 minutes max on the weekend to lay out a basic plan for meals throughout the week. What a lifesaver it’s been!
Here are some tips to make meal planning into a habit for effortless weeknight cooking.
Plan meals that use some of the same ingredients.
This is helpful for a couple reasons. The first is to make grocery shopping easier, cheaper, and create less food waste. If you’re going to buy mushrooms, brainstorm two uses for mushrooms if you don’t think you’ll use all of them (which is usually the case).
Another reason is to make for less prep later on in the week. For example, when you’re chopping onions on Monday, chop some extra for meals that also use onion later in the week. That way, you don’t have to separately make time for this task over the weekend, but you get all the chopping out of the way at once.
Keep a mini whiteboard, chalkboard, or paper meal plan list in your kitchen. We keep ours on the side of the refrigerator.
Make a rough list, writing out each day with a dinner idea next to it. This is another habit that helps immensely with planning ahead for prep, as discussed above. Seeing your plan right in front of your face helps you know whether or not you need to chop that extra onion. The same goes for meat — if you’re baking chicken one day and making a casserole later in the week, bake some extra chicken breasts and shred them for the casserole.
Having a written list that is always in the same place helps you to remember your plan and stick with it. I used to keep my list in my head, but my overloaded brain could never remember what I had planned or what ingredients I might need for those meals.
Though I personally prefer to write my plan out, there are plenty of meal planning apps too. I’ve tried a few and haven’t found one that was easier than what I already do. But if there are any apps that you absolutely love, please comment and let me know!
On the same whiteboard, write down your grocery list too. When you run out of something, add it to the list.
This has been the best thing we’ve done. When we use the last of the coffee (terrifying!), we write it down on the list. Before heading to the grocery store, I’ll snap a picture of the whiteboard and head out the door. That way, I don’t have to try and remember everything we used up throughout the week right before I go. Much less stressful. And this is especially helpful when I’m at the store, so I’m not just wandering, trying to remember what we need (dangerous when hungry.)
P.S. This tactic might not be as sophisticated as the new refrigerator that you can look into from your phone, but hey, it works for us and is thousands of dollars cheaper. Do you guys remember when smart refrigerators were something that you could only find in that house of the future at Disney World? Wild.
Find somewhere to store new recipe ideas, keeping them in one place.
I used to be guilty of emailing tons of new recipe ideas to myself, never to read them again. And then there was Pinterest. And a food blog or ten. And a friend who would tell me about some recipe she saw on Food Network. Recipe ideas were everywhere, but yet, I never seemed to be able to find them again when I wanted to make them.
Once I started compiling all new recipe ideas into Evernote, it was ten billion times easier to find potential new dinner ideas quickly when I got tired of the same old. I made a habit of not only adding online recipe links into Evernote, but copying/pasting full recipes and ingredient lists there too. That way, while planning meals, and while cooking, I don’t even have to navigate away from the Evernote interface.
Speaking of new recipes, don’t feel like you have to try something new all the time.
There’s no need to put extra pressure on yourself to be adventurous. Busy nights aren’t the time to be inventive. Stick to the staples that you already know how to prepare and cook. If you enjoy trying new recipes, go for it! But if not, it’s ok to have your favorite baked chicken recipe two weeks in a row. Or two days in a row. I know it goes.
If you try a new recipe and like it, make a recipe card and keep it. If you don’t like the recipe, delete it.
There’s no reason for clutter and complication when it comes to food. If you weren’t thrilled about a recipe, chances are you’ll never use it again. Just get rid of it.
If you liked it, either make a recipe card to file away neatly (if you like having a physical card like little old me), or move it to a different notebook in Evernote where you keep your favorite recipes. It helps so much to have your go-to recipes right on hand when you need them on a busy weeknight.
If you can repurpose meals throughout the week, you’re killin’ the game.
I want to be able to say I do this, but this is one I’m still working on myself. If we make a pork tenderloin, I have a hard time re-imagining a new meal with the leftover meat. My boyfriend, on the other hand, will repurpose it into BBQ pulled pork sandwiches or pork quesadillas. He kills the game. I’m really only a bystander in this thing called cooking.
If all else fails, order a pizza.
I’m actually serious because ya know what, if you’ve been trying your damnedest and you just can’t seem to get a home-cooked meal on the table, it’s ok. Order that pizza; life’s too short.
What else am I missing that makes weeknight cooking even easier? What works best for you? I’d love to hear your ideas. Happy meal planning!