It’s five PM, the day was long, the kids are loud, and the freezer doesn’t seem to be hiding a life-saving pizza. Sound familiar? You’re not alone. The hour before dinner stresses out parents worldwide, but it doesn’t need to. Follow these four easy meal planning steps… Okay, fine then. Most of them are not perfectly easy, but give them a try, because the only thing worse than planning dinner is not planning for it, and having to experience the harried dinner hour without a roadmap.
Create a Monthly Plan
The first step to meal planning is to make a monthly dinner map. No doubt you’re thinking that a weekly meal plan is good enough. It’s not. Here’s why: The idea of making a plan for meals is daunting every single time. It does not sound fun, probably because you’ll associate it with the desperate meal searching that happens right before dinner. You only want to make yourself do it once a month because it’s harder to decide to take the time to put it to paper than it is to actually do it. The reality is that this step never takes more than an hour, unless you’re very new to cooking, and it usually takes much less than 30 minutes.
You can make this part even easier by assigning each day a food category. For example, Mondays are for pasta, Tuesdays bring out the salad recipes, Wednesdays mean soup, Thursdays for breakfast cereal, and so on. If you use the internet to find your recipes, don’t forget to include the website where they were found, because, by day 20, you will most certainly have forgotten where that recipe came from and get frustrated trying to find it again. Don’t do that. The whole point of this exercise is to avoid frustration.
Write this plan on a calendar or create a spreadsheet, and put it somewhere secure so that you can refer back to it in the future. The reason for this is twofold: you will reference it every day throughout the month, and also, each following month’s meal calendar will be easier to create and recreate based on meals your family enjoyed in past months.
Now that you have a plan, you are onto the shopping prep. Once a week, ideally the day you go grocery shopping, sit down in front of your meal plan and create a shopping list that covers the next week’s dinners. This is a quick exercise. As long as you wrote down the source of each recipe, it should take 10 minutes to run through each recipe and consider if you have the ingredients on hand already or if you need to purchase them. It can be helpful after you’ve created the list to organize them according to type. Lump the fresh fruits and vegetables together on your list, list all the meats in a row, etc. This extra step saves valuable time navigating (and then re-navigating) through a grocery store.
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After a few weeks and months of having a plan, you will begin to see patterns in your shopping list. Take advantage of these patterns to buy larger amounts of often-used items, particularly on sales. This will grow your pantry while shrinking your shopping list, saving you more time and hassle.
Step three will happen after the meal calendar is created and the shopping is finished. When you start your day each morning, give a quick thought to the plan for the day. If anything needs to be thawed out or put in a slow cooker, now’s the time to do it so you’re not pressed for time during that end-of-the-day push.
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This is also a good time to rearrange items if need be. Say you have leftover rotisserie chicken and want to use it up quickly, swap that chicken and rice stew scheduled on the weekend for today’s meal. These kinds of decisions are much easier with a plan in place.
Step four, make your meal. You were already doing this before. It was already hard. But now, the 20 minutes you used to spend desperately rifling the internet for ideas that incorporate both your wilted cabbage and frozen ground turkey are 20 minutes you can dedicate to vegetable chopping and meat seasoning and owie kissing and board-book reading. A fair trade, no?
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Also, with a plan in hand, you will find it much easier to share tasks and create teaching moments in your dinner prep. Toddlers are great at rinsing produce and stirring up marinades. Grade school children are often able to help chopping vegetables. Older tweens and teens will be able to take over a night of cooking. Everyone can help with cleanup.
While technically there is no step five to this list, just watch yourself appreciate meals a little bit more as you’re able to create a better variety of food that you can look forward to throughout the month, and see if imaginary step five isn’t your favorite part. You created a plan that eased some of the stress of meal planning and shopping, gave your family more time, and a wider variety of foods to enjoy. It sounds like high time to celebrate with a piece of cake.