If you’ve tried meal planning before and didn’t love it, please know that there are dozens of ways to do it and many of them are very hard, very tedious, and very boring. We are not going to talk about THOSE ways. 🙂
Instead I’m going to share my top five tips for simplifying your routine without landing in a food rut. First, though, let’s take a quick look at some of the reasons you might want to give meal planning another shot.
If you’ve ever found yourself staring at the contents in your fridge with the hope that somehow the random assortment of ingredients will inspire you, you know that inspiration is often in short supply when you’re tired or distracted.
Meal prep often takes longer because you have to spend extra time pulling things out and trying to figure out how to use them together.
Plus, if you pull up a recipe at the last minute and need to google three or four substitutions to make it work, you also know that the results can be very disappointing.
Buying just the ingredients you’ll need (and not a bunch of random ones that you won’t) reduces waste and your grocery bill. You can find more tips for saving money on groceries here.
When you’ve planned easy, delicious and healthy meals you’re less likely to end up eating convenient (but less nutritious) options.
With that in mind, here are a few tips that I’ve found helpful for creating (and keeping) things running smoothly in the kitchen:
1. Only plan as many meals as you want to
Don’t feel like you have to plan every meal. I typically only plan dinners because I have a solid set of breakfast recipes that can be easily made on the fly. Lunch is usually covered, too. We’ll talk more about that later in this post.
If you want to plan everything, go for it. However, if dinners are where you really feel the crunch, start by just planning those and focus on quick, healthy meals. You can always add lunch or dinner later if you want to.
2. Try theme nights
Italian night, Taco Tuesday, Soup & Sandwich Night, Breakfast For Dinner, Slow Cooker Sunday . . . you get the idea.
A nightly theme provides opportunities for structured creativity – it takes the pressure off making a plan from scratch, but you’re not locked in to a particular recipe for each theme. There’s room for flexibility based on how much time you have that week, and what sounds good to you.
3. Use Real Plans
If you want to simplify the process, Real Plans is the ultimate meal planning tool.
No more old school static printouts filled with recipes that may not even interest you. Real Plans allows you to pick your style of eating (Paleo, Keto, Whole30, Gluten-Free, etc.), remove ingredients you want to avoid, limit options to what fits your timetable, replace any suggested recipe that doesn’t interest you, and import any favorites you want to add to your rotation.
You can also decide how many meals you want to plan for each week and adjust portions to fit your family size, then all you do is press a button and VOILA.
The meal planning is all done in an instant, and Real Plans generates a shopping list sorted by grocery department that you can access from your phone while you’re at the store.
4. Cook Once, Eat Twice
Doubling or tripling a recipe is a huge time-saver because you get multiple meals from a single food prep session. Pull out the necessary ingredients and equipment only once, plus there’s only one set of pots, pans, measuring spoons, etc. to wash.
After a few extra moments to measure out a second (or third) batch, you’ve got extra for the week. Here are some practical ways to implement this technique:
Instead of roasting one whole chicken for dinner, roast two. Use the second chicken you’ve prepped in advance to make sandwiches, homemade chicken soup, chicken tortilla soup, coconut lime chicken curry soup, chicken salad, lettuce wraps and more.
One of my favorite recipes to double is paleo bread. I make it in advance, then pre-slice and freeze. When errands run longer than expected and we get home late, I make sandwiches for dinner.
Make a double batch of condiments like this easy ketchup and homemade mayo. They can be served as-is or become a base for other recipes. For example, the ketchup can be used to make sloppy joe stuffed peppers or quickly turned into barbecue sauce for livening up a roast chicken or shredded pot roast.
Mayo can be served over burgers or turned into a quick tartar sauce, chipotle mayo, or homemade ranch dressing. Other recipes that usually work well with batch cooking are: Roasts, soups, stews, and casseroles.
Tip: Only double or triple batches when you know you love the recipe. I’ve used this technique before with recipes I mistakenly thought my family would enjoy, and it was really difficult to get rid of the leftovers.
5. Keep It Simple
You don’t have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces – just good food from fresh ingredients.” – Julia Child
My husband still teases me about my one of my first real food experiments – a fancy goat cheese pizza. One bite and he quickly reached for a glass of red wine to wash it down. I should probably mention that he hates red wine. . . he just hated that pizza more. (He did eat it, though. I love him for that!)
Over the years I’ve learned that simple foods can be just as satisfying as complicated, gourmet meals. That’s why quick recipes like egg drop soup, lettuce tacos, and “breakfast for dinner” items like scrambled eggs, frittatas, pancakes, and waffles are my go-to options when I need a quick Plan B (or C, or D).
6. Embrace the power of “good enough.”
While it’s great to strive for every meal to be balanced, sometimes it doesn’t turn out that way. In my house there are times when the pickle on a sandwich counts as the vegetable for our meal, and that’s okay. Keep good things in your fridge and it will all even out over the course of the week.
Did I miss anything? Share your tips in the comments below!