Meal Planning 101

One of the most frequent questions I get is about meal planning. I think a lot of people find it daunting to do a meal plan once a week, but once you get into the swing of it, you can often do the entire plan and shopping list in a few minutes.

Be practical

The first thing I do is look at our schedule for the week. Are there any events we have planned in the evening? Are there nights where either Jeff or I will be home late? I note those days on my menu. Last week I tried a new menu plan from the folks at Real Simple magazine. I must say I’m quite fond of it, although I’ll be making my own version in excel so I can add Saturday and Sunday to the list. Once I know which nights are my busy nights and which ones I’ve got more time, I can get to the fun part: picking the recipes.

What to eat

This is my favorite part of the plan. I get to decide how create I’ll be that week. If you don’t have a lot of recipes to work with, try browsing some recipe websites. Food Network, and your major food companies (Betty Crocker, Pillsbury, etc) have tons of recipes for free. Check with family members, too. Get those recipes for all the family favorites you grew up with. Some of my favorite recipes are those I got from my mom, my mother-in-law and others in my family.

When you are putting together your plan, be aware of what you’ll be buying in order to make that recipe. Try to pick other recipes that will help you use up extra ingredients so things don’t go bad. For example, last week Jeff wanted beef stew and chicken marsala. I knew that I would most likely have leftover carrots, celery and chicken. I decided to make tortellini soup with grilled cheese another evening, which used up the carrots, celery and some of the chicken. I used more chicken to make impossibly easy chicken pot pie. I also cooked some extra chicken with onions and peppers and used it to make BBQ chicken pizza and chicken quesadillas. When I made the chicken marsala, I cooked up all the chicken for the different meals I had planned. I froze the chicken for the pot pie, just in case I wouldn’t get to that recipe last week. I always try to plan a few meals that can be put off till later in case something comes up.

Use up what you have

I always look in the fridge to see if there is anything I should try to use up. Last week, it was a pepper. I used the pepper in my pizza and quesadillas. I also had a few potatoes in the cabinet, which went into the stew. This week, I’ve got a bit of chicken left in the freezer and some mushrooms, so I think I’m going to make chicken mushroom alfredo. Menu planning is all about being a little creative and using up what you have in the house before it goes bad.

The first time you do this, it’s going to take a while, especially if you don’t have a lot of recipes at your disposal. Start with simple things like sloppy joes, tacos, grilled chicken. Make sure you plan for side dishes and veggies. Once you get comfortable with the planning, introduce a few new things into the meal plan. After a few weeks, you’ll be able to do your plan so fast.

Here’s a look at last week’s meal plan:

Monday – Chicken marsala (common ingredients: chicken, mushrooms, onions, chicken stock)

Tuesday – Beef stew (common ingredients: mushrooms, onions, carrots, celery)

Wednesday – Impossibly easy chicken pot pie (common ingredients: chicken)

Thursday – Grilled cheese and tortellini soup (common ingredients: chicken, chicken stock, carrots, onions, celery)

Friday – Pizza (common ingredients: chicken, onions)

I had quesadillas and leftovers for lunch during the week.