The 5 Most Important Things to Know About Meal Planning, According to a Chef

Struggling with meal planning? These things will help.

Grilled Chicken Caesar Pasta Salad ingredients

The Spruce / Ali Redmond

While you most likely don’t have experience as a professional personal chef, I guarantee you have been your own personal chef if you live on your own. Some form of menu planning happens in your head, even if that is just Taco Tuesday and leftovers. Yes, leftovers is considered menu planning–cooking one night knowing you will have prepared food for the following night(s). But now let’s take this concept and put some respect on it! 

For those that joined us for our first Weeknight Cooking School: Ready. Set. Cook. EAT!, thank you. I took great joy in sharing some of my insights and tips as a personal chef for home cooks. One of the important elements of the school, meal planning, was covered in Week 1: Ready, but I want to go a little deeper here.

1. The Importance of Managing Your Time

This one is not as intuitive as one might think. It is in fact a muscle that gets developed, ironically, over time. In the early years of my personal cooking business, SCHOP!, I wanted to show off what I could do and therefore would plan involved menus. Some early service days would be upward of seven hours after everything was said and done. As an entrepreneur, I had to determine what my time was worth and how much of it should be spent in a service day and work backwards. 

After 20 years, I’ve learned how to equate the time for which I am compensated to a menu that will satisfy that client. This doesn’t mean I cannot present new dishes to the client. Instead, I allow time in the schedule to prepare it and round out the menu with dishes I have prepared many times prior. Also a firm understanding of active versus inactive cooking can be a huge time saver.

2. The Difference Between Prepping and Cooking Ahead

I am of many minds about the difference between these two. Cooking ahead is obvious and needed for most slow-cooked or oven dishes. However, prepping ahead is not only perfect for all forms of salads (who is mad at a fully prepped salad bar in their refrigerator?), it is also a great way to manage cooking during the week. Should your household not like eating leftovers or you just enjoy cooking in the evenings, preparing your mise en place, seasoning or marinating proteins, and flash steaming vegetables can be a great way to offset your time before or during cooking. 

Again, in the early years, this difference is something on which I pinned my business and had to learn to meet the client where they are. One week, a client requested tamales. I was proud of myself for making them from scratch, leaving only the steaming to the client so they would be fresh when served. What I didn’t think about was the hour it would take to steam them. The lesson? Cook the recipe.

3. Why Focusing on Dinner Is Important

We as humans are not a monolith when it comes to food. We eat a combination of fresh, raw, packaged, and ready-to-eat foods produced by others and meals prepped and cooked by us. So when it comes to meal planning, we can create a week’s worth of meals using different permutations of these six categories. The good news is many weekly breakfasts involve mostly fresh, raw, and packaged (fruit, eggs, bread, cereal, milk, yogurt) and the same for most lunches (sandwiches, salads, fruit), adding ready-to-eat foods to the mix when not bringing our lunch to work. This means we can focus our menu planning energy mostly on dinner.

4. How to Strategize Against Waste

Waste of food, waste of time, waste of money. These are all too important not to take seriously. So make only what you will eat and/or repurpose for the week and plan for those that are actually eating your food. I push my clients to think about what their upcoming week will look like so I can cook accordingly. Though my client might be a family of four, in a given week one parent might travel for business so ultimately I will cook for three.

5. The Value of Shopping Your Kitchen

When menu planning, you should know your kitchen like you know your closet. Going to a cocktail party in a week’s time? You look for that LBD you bought on vacation. You find your favorite vintage shirt you haven’t worn in a while. You start building an outfit around it. This is the same thing in meal planning. You most definitely already have ingredients to inspire and support your menu. Make some room for new groceries, prevent overbuying, and save yourself some money in the process. You might uncover ingredients for an easy-lift pantry meal in the process. I know my clients’ kitchens well, but even I double buy by accident sometimes because the fear of not having what I need to execute a meal plan in a short window of time is not cute.

If you forget everything you read above about meal planning, remember this. It’s just a plan, a skeleton of an idea for you to reference. So stay nimble my friends. Stay nimble.