Recently, a friend of mine started meal planning.
This was something I used to do as well- for almost an entire year, I planned every week what we would eat for dinner every night and then we shopped together from a list that I wrote up. Then, somewhere along the way, I fell out of the habit, and it didn't seem like that big of a deal. But the truth is there are several really good reasons to meal plan.
First of all, it saves both time and money. Having a plan insures that you don't come home with a wide variety of items, but no idea how to turn them into meals. It allows you to think ahead to which evenings in the week you'll have time and energy to cook something a little adventurous, and which evenings you just need a game plan to get something on the table. And it encourages you to eat a mix of different dishes, rather than the same exact meals every week.
All of these points (and talking with my friend about what he's been cooking) have got me excited again about planning our meals. So today I thought I would share some tips, and things I've learned along the way, in case you're interested in starting to meal plan as well.
1. Have a few staple dishes up your sleeve
I've found that it can be really helpful to learn a few dishes really well, that you can later vary from week to week. It can be especially helpful to learn a few recipes that don't take a lot of time or ingredients, so that you can whip them up without needing a lot of energy or planning. But I think it's also good to master a few more impressive recipes. You can always turn to them on the weekend, or when guests come over. (mine is Risotto and Waldi has a bunch, but most recently it's been veggie lasagne).
We have a few week night favorites that we keep coming back to. Each week, I try to make at least one soup, and a curry or rice bowl (I promise, a basic curry is easier than you think! Here's a great starter recipe if you've never made one before. And rice bowl basically means I throw all our random leftover veggies in the pan, add cooked rice and a few eggs or beans and fry it all up) I've gotten to the point where I can cook our favorite soups and curries without really thinking about it, and can make up my own combinations of vegetables, beans, or spices. I usually make focaccia bread to go with our soup, and quite honestly, it's totally changed our lives on soup night. A few other examples of staple meals in our house include big chopped salads, Quesadillas and Frittata (or Quiche). The truth is that my husband could eat spaghetti with tomato sause probably every day (he loves it that much) but I try to cook pasta only once a week and vary it as much as I can. Having a few staples mastered keeps me inspired and away from just picking the same things every week night.
2. Look to a wide range of sources for inspiration
I love Pinterest as much as the next blogger, but I often am so inspired by looking through my favorite cookbooks or food magazines. By mixing up where you look for recipes, I think you can be encouraged to try a huge range of recipes you might not otherwise find. I have several well loved and sause splattered cookbooks that I repeatedly turn to, and will occasionally treat myself to a copy of Jamie Magazine while at the grocery store. (the photos are so beautiful, it really makes you WANT to cook)
The same goes for ingredients. I try to pick one meal a week where we try something new- either a specific dish we've never cooked, a vegetable we never tried, or just a new combination of ingredients we've never thought of.
And obviously, I'm a huge believer in letting the seasons inspire you. It's just so effortless to know what to cook when you're aware of what's growing in your area during each month and center your meals around that.
3. Learn to use leftovers- they're your friends
Recently I stumbled across the idea of planning your meals over two nights. Basically, you cook one dish the first night (making more than you need) and then turn those leftovers into a different dish the next night. Last week I made Minestrone soup, which we then mixed with canned tomatoes to make a delicious pasta the next night. This idea is perfect because you basically do all the work the first night. So if you know you've got extra time one evening in the week, but are super busy the next, I recommend giving this idea a try.
Of course, another way to use this idea of leftovers would be to spend a Saturday making something a little more involved (for example: pirogies, homemade pesto or tomato sause, hummus, or even soup) and then freeze it for those evenings when there just isn't time or energy to cook from scratch.
I've got a separate notebook (a bit like a weekly planner) where I write down our menus for the week and our shopping lists. It could be a bit obsessive to keep separate notebooks for everything, but I really like having a record of what we've been cooking. I can look through the notebook when I'm feeling uninspired and see what we ate over the past few weeks, or what we were eating during this season last year. If you've already done the work of planning once, you might as well keep benefiting from it. You could of course do this just as effectively without a notebook by using a blog, recipe cards, or even a hashtag on instagram (see this feed for a great example).
I also keep a notebook where I jot down recipes I get from family or friends, or ideas/variations I come up with in my kitchen.
5. Do the prep
Really, a good solid meal plan comes down to this- you gotta do the prep work. Planning can save you a ton of time and money, but you have got to be willing to put in the extra time to seek out the recipes you want to cook that week. It's also really REALLY worth it to write down the ingredients you'll need and stick to the plan in the grocery store. Don't buy what you don't have a plan for, but on the other side, buy those extra spices you've never heard of. I've learned if you don't use the spices that the recipes call for, after awhile, your meals all start to taste slightly the same...
And I've learned that it's best to think ahead, and give yourself enough time to prep your ingredients as well. If the dough has to rise or cool several hours before baking, it's best to plan in that time (it's obvious, I know, but I actually had to learn this the hard way). If the recipe suggests chopping all your veggies before throwing ingredients in the pan, you should probably do so. (again, I've learned this the hard way- stressed in the kitchen, frantically stirring and chopping and seasoning all at once...)
Bonus: keep your pantry well stocked
Here's a bonus idea, that although is not directly related to planning your meals, will really help to make the whole process easier: figure out what items are essential in your kitchen and keep them on hand at all times. This will make it a lot easier to whip up your favorite recipes when unexpected guests arrive, or when you forget that one key ingredient for the recipe you had planned. For us, it's onions, olive oil, dried or canned beans (black, white, kidney, chickpeas), carrots, red lentils, rice, frozen peas, flour and canned tomatoes. If I've got all this on hand I know I can whip something up no problem.
So those are the most important lessons I've learned along the way. I hope something in here is helpful for you and your family on your own cooking journey!
(as always, I am no expert in this area. If you have any ideas or recipes, or tips for how to meal plan better, I would more than love to hear them!)