Last week we asked our readers for their best tips for meal planning. How do you get dinner on the table, week in and week out, without getting bored? How do you stay energized and engaged with the act of cooking at home? Here are fifteen of our best and most universal tips for learning how to plan your meals.
What Is Meal Planning?
What is meal planning? It's whatever way you organize yourself to cook a meal, whether that's breakfast, lunch, or dinner. It is the plan you make before you shop. Some people plan a month in advance, freezing neatly-labeled packets of soup and stew. Others wing it, shopping for that evening's meal at the farmers' market and picking up whatever looks good to them. Meal planning is a really personal thing. What works for you may not work for me. The goal, I think, is to find a process that is both enjoyable and effective.
One of the things I sensed in our readers' comments is that many of them enjoyed reading through cookbooks, clipping recipes from blogs and websites, and taking some time to anticipate cooking. I think this is an important part of meal planning. Meals aren't just solutions to the problem of needing to eat; making a meal is also an expression of creativity — even if it's just cutting a PB&J sandwich into a new shape. Find ways to inspire yourself and to look forward to cooking. That's the spirit that animates this whole endeavor.
Secondly, I saw that readers were doing whatever worked for them. There's no right way to plan your meals; you should just do what is effective for you. I read over ten ways of gathering and organizing recipes. Your way may be messier and less elegant than you like, but if it works, why worry? Don't spend too much time looking for the most perfect and impeccably-maintained system. The system is just the tool. The point is the meal. Well, really, it's people, and enjoying good food with them and nourishing oneself.
This list of tips is all over the map — there are plenty of ideas here for getting more organized and helping yourself think ahead. Others are to just jog your memory and help you get inspired to dream up meals you'd love to eat.
15 Tips for Meal Planning
- Getting Inspired
- Spend time each week looking for recipes.
This may feel like an indulgence, but just let yourself do it. Browse blogs and websites for recipes that look delicious. Hang out on Tasteologie. Pile up some cookbooks and reach fo the sticky notes. Get inspired! In terms of figuring out what to make we have a list of meals that we love and are easy to cook hanging on our fridge. Those staples make it into the rotation frequently and then I go through my pinterest boards as well as cookbooks and magazines to find 1-2 new recipes to add into the rotation. Our staples list is getting longer and longer. - Shelf81
- Create a place to save recipes, and keep it SIMPLE.
Do whatever works for you. Don't get caught up in a system, just use whatever works best and most easily. Personally, I like Pinterest because it's easy to visually browse what I've saved. (Watch for another post coming soon with a rundown of our readers' favorite places to save recipes.) I use Springpad (kind of like Evernote), to store my recipes. I add them to a Board view, so I can create a visual display of what I'm making when, and with the way they have recipes set up, you can easily add ingredients to a shopping list. - Riddles
- Ask your partner, family, and roommates what they like to eat.
This might sound obvious, but it's easy to get caught up in our weeks and forget to ask our households what they would like to eat. I get extra inspired, too, when I feel like I'm cooking a meal as a gift — trying to please and delight the palate of someone I love. Meal planning can be daunting and to get my husband involved I had to take several steps back by asking simply what foods he liked. I wrote a post on the process. - KMarie
- Check the weather.
Again, you may say, duh, but seriously. Right now, the weather is changeable in many parts of the country. Look at the weather forecast, and try to predict if you're going to be in the mood for soup (or grilled shrimp salad!) on Friday.
- One of my best inspirations is my own record of things I've cooked in the past. Take a look at what you were cooking a year ago, two years ago. It's a good way to remember things you used to cook, and still love. I use a blank monthly calendar and plan the week's meals on the weekend, basing my grocery list on only those items. I now have a year and a half worth of meals to look back on - especially handy for ideas and to see what we were eating the same time a year ago. - JenniferJulia
- Start a calendar.
Now that you're getting inspired in what to eat, start a calendar of what you'd like to cook over the next few days or few weeks. It can be as organized as a Google Calendar, with notes on each day for that day's menu. Or you can just jot notes to yourself in the corner of your laptop screen. The important thing is to write it down. We have a shared Google calendar and I've created a sub-calendar just for meal-planning. We'll take an evening (after dinner, so our cravings are lessened slightly) and dig through all of our cookbooks and printed recipes for what looks good, putting them on the calendar as we go. - Knitasha
- Go with theme nights (soup night, pasta night, beans).
Some readers found it really helpful to have a theme night each week. Monday is pasta, Tuesday is fish, Wednesday is tacos. This doesn't work for everyone, but it may be especially helpful for those with kids. See if they want to get involved with planning their favorite tacos one week, or suggesting soups for the next month. Keeping the focus narrow will help you and your household make quick recipe decisions. I use general guides like Soup Night, Pasta Night, Beans to make it easier. I use Fresh Direct, and you can store shopping lists in there. I can simply dump the Tomato Soup Week list into my cart and I'll get everything I need for a typical week. - CMCINNYC
- Choose a shopping day and make a shopping list.
A lot of the readers who seemed to have success in meal planning shopped very purposefully. They looked at their recipes and made a shopping list. Some of the meal planning and recipe-saving services let you do this easily, extracting ingredients from the recipes you have saved. I start with a blank index card. I list at least 7 meals that I will be interested in cooking for the next week. Usually this includes a composed salad of some sort...