A Busy Cook's Guide to Successful Meal Planning

Organize Your Time In and Out of the Kitchen

Slow cooker chicken or turkey pie

The Spruce Eats / Julia Hartbeck

Meal planning sounds simple enough, but it's not always that easy if you aren't sure how to get started. The good thing is that once you get the hang of this style of cooking and eating, it makes life easier, cheaper, and more efficient—at least on the food side of things. With that in mind, pull out a pen and paper or download one of the many meal planning apps on your smartphone and figure out a way to not only eat better, but be more organized at the same time.

Benefits of Meal Planning

Nobody wants to waste time, money, or food, and meal planning proves one of the best ways to efficiently eat waste-free(ish). Last year, a study funded by the United States Department of Agriculture discovered that on average American consumers waste between 225 to 290 pounds of food per year. With that much thrown away, around two billion people could be fed annually. You may not be able to stop all of that food from getting trashed, but you can help minimize your family's waste by planning what you eat each day.

Aside from the obvious environmental effect, meal planning helps one make healthy choices. Instead of stopping for fast food on the way home because you're tired and don't know what to eat, you can have a plan in place to make a simple pesto pasta with fresh vegetables, for example.

Choosing what's on your plate also means you can avoid overly processed foods and meals chock full of oils and bad-for-you fats. And, if you want to indulge and make that lasagna for your family, it's a decision you're making ahead of time so not only will the ingredients be there, but you can balance out the heavy food with lighter fare the rest of the week.

Sounds great, right? But how does one even know where to begin?

How to Get Started

The first step proves easy: you have to want to change the way you cook and eat at home. Then, get a piece of paper and a pen or download an app such as Mealime or AnyList. From there you just have to decide what you want to eat that week, taking into account when you'll be home, what's activities the family has, and how much time you want to spend in the kitchen.

Try to pick ingredients that work together, such as cilantro, lime, tomatoes, and cucumbers. You can use these in multiple dishes that still have a unique flavor, and it's a good way to use up a bunch of fresh herbs.

Keep in mind your lifestyle, too. That night you have to stay at work for a late meeting may not be the time to try a new and complicated recipe. You don't want to plan to cook on an evening when you're going out with friends and, if you have a lunch date in the books, don't count on bringing a meal to the office. A quick glance at your personal calendar will help with all this.

After figuring out what meals you will be preparing at home, it's nice to find some inspiring recipes to work off of. Do you have a favorite cookbook or food magazine to flip through? Maybe a friend suggested a recipe for lamb stew you're dying to try. If you have kids and it's a busy school night, figure out some simple recipes that can be done in a slow cooker or in one dish. As you pick recipes, write down the ingredients you need and, on your list of meals, add a spot where the recipe is located so you're not hunting for it last minute.

How to Shop Smartly

When it comes to hitting the grocery store you should have two goals in mind: saving money and minimizing food waste. That's what meal planning is all about, right? That's why it's imperative to write up a shopping list, which you do after you know what you'll be making all week long. Keep portion sizes in mind and don't stock up on something perishable unless there's something you can do with it.

For example, getting a value pack of ground beef can be a great idea if you portion out what you will cook that week and then freeze the rest. But picking up an extra bunch of bananas won't do you much good unless you have banana bread on the mind or want to freeze them (unpeeled) for smoothies. Both these instances represent smart shopping during sales, but just make sure not to deviate from the list too much once you get to the store. To better utilize deals, try and check out fliers or the grocery's website to see what will be discounted and work your menu around that.

Keeping a well-stocked pantry also proves useful and can help make the basis of many dishes. Think things like pasta, rice, whole grains, beans (canned or dried), olive oil, red wine vinegar, canned tomatoes, and spices. There are also tasty accouterments to store in the fridge, from miso paste to capers to hard cheeses like Pecorino Romano and Parmesan.

Cook With a Purpose (And Have the Right Tools)

Obviously cooking remains a big part of meal planning, though it doesn't have to take as much time as you might think. Tools like slow cookers, immersion blenders, food processors, and pressure cookers can make preparing meals easier and less time consuming. A good cookbook also proves an invaluable tool, and we found that checking out food tomes from the library was a great way to find authors and chefs we really liked, without having to collect a plethora of books and find room to store them.

Another way to make cooking work for you comes through preparation. Since you have your menu, it doesn't hurt to chop kale for the whole week, marinate meat ahead of time, or portion out salad fixings. If you're doing something in the slow cooker, make sure you have enough space in the morning to get it started. This sort of tool proves great for nights when you're coming in later and don't have a big cooking or eating window. It's also a good way to make a big batch of something so you have food for another meal or two.

Creating Menus

Now that you know how and why to meal plan, here's the best way to craft a menu. In order to lessen food fatigue—you know, when you eat pizza so much you don't want to look at another slice for a while—try and mix up cuisines, styles, and methods of cooking. As much as beef stew proves delicious, no one really wants to eat five soups in a week. Think of it like this: one day for fish, one day for beef, chicken or pork, one meal out of the slow cooker, and two that take inspiration from other countries.

When a recipe really resonates with you and your family, earmark it for future menus. Just don't put the same thing on more than once a month, even if we love bolognese sauce and pasta, it can get boring after a while, especially if leftovers are taken into account. Plus, then the eaters around the table get excited when their favorites come into rotation!

Ready to get started? Check out our Dinner Plans series, which shows you how to make multiple meals with one big-batch protein, such as roast beef, sausage, or mushrooms.