Shhh, don’t tell anybody I said this, but…meal planning doesn’t always work. Sometimes I plan out a full menu, buy everything I need for each dish…and we end up eating carryout three nights in a row anyway. (Well, not really because we live in the middle of the boonies, but if we could, we would!)
The problem isn’t really meal planning itself, of course, but the way I approach it.
At the end of the day, I still don’t really enjoy cooking when I’m feeling stressed or overwhelmed; it doesn’t become a creative outlet for me, but just one more thing to do. Even knowing this about myself, I still find myself expecting a menu plan to be the magic pill, or I get more excited about actually planning our meals than I am about cooking them, and then I end up falling flat on my face.
After almost 10 years of meal planning and countless failures, you’d think I’d be better at it, but there are still weeks when I don’t have to buy any ingredients for dinner because I still have all of the ingredients I bought for last week’s meals…and didn’t use.
Although I can’t promise you perfection moving forward (for me or for you!), here are 6 tips that I know work…as long as you’re willing to implement them:
1. Be realistic.
I really cannot emphasize this point enough: Forget what you should be making for dinner. Forget what other people might think. Forget all of your lofty ideals. Instead, focus on what you’ll realistically feel like making on a Tuesday afternoon in between swim lessons and baseball practice or how you really feel about preparing gourmet meals on a weeknight.
This doesn’t have to mean serving junk (although I think there’s a time and place for lowering your standards), and it’s still entirely possible to serve healthy, real food dishes that only call for a few ingredients and don’t take long to prepare. But when you’re unrealistic when you’re planning your menu for the week, you’re pretty much doomed to failure once real life shows up, so focus on what you’re really going to feel like making and not what you think you should feel like making!
2. Leave yourself options.
One way to be realistic while still stretching your culinary skills (if that’s what makes you tick!) is to plan a mixture of easy and complicated dishes for the week. There’s no rule that says you either need to serve one-dish wonders every night or gourmet meals every night, so plan on a variety of meals. That way you can choose easier ones on the nights that you just don’t feel like cooking and still try out new dishes and exercise creativity in the kitchen on other days. Honestly, I tend to plan meals for specific days but end up moving them around anyway!
3. Prep as much as you can ahead of time.
Truthfully, I’ve gotten out of the habit of doing this, and I need to get back to it because it makes such a big difference in how we eat during the week. Taking an hour or two on Sunday to cut up fruits and veggies, brown ground beef, cook rice, etc. makes it easy to just throw things together throughout the week, and I’ll often make big batches of things and stick the extras in the freezer so that I can focus on different ingredients each week.
If, like us, you only grocery shop once a week, be sure to schedule your fresh produce for early in the week so that it doesn’t go bad before you get to it. Wasting food is the meal planning failure that makes me the craziest, and it’s often just a matter of paying attention to make sure you use up the perishables first.
4. Look at your plan at the beginning of each day.
This one is fairly obvious, but one of my biggest downfalls is getting to 5pm and realizing I needed to defrost/simmer/start something hours before. Simply looking at my plan at the start of the day so that I can pull things out of the freezer and start them at the right time helps eliminate some of that stress and keep me on track. And meals that I can start earlier in the day are among my favorite anyway since I love getting to dinnertime and just being able to stick something that’s already prepped right in the oven or serve a meal fresh from the crockpot!
5. Involve the kids.
And my favorite tip? When I just don’t feel like cooking but there’s no other option, I’ll often choose the easiest thing from my list and turn our oldest loose in the kitchen. She’s made dinner for us more than once (and she’s at an age, where it’s pretty much her favorite thing to do), or one of my big girls will help prep veggies or mix ingredients while I cook so that I’m not having to do everything myself. This one takes some work in the beginning, but the more I teach them, the better they do, and the time I’ve invested in teaching them to cook has paid off so much this summer!
Bonus Tip: Use Plan to Eat!
The one part of my meal planning process that doesn’t fail me is using Plan to Eat! Although they’re a regular advertiser here on Life Your Way, and they’re technically the sponsor of this post, it’s a service I use week in and week out even when they’re not advertising because it just makes life so much simpler.
If you’ve ever planned a menu on paper only to get home from the grocery store and realize you forgot an important ingredient, or if you spend an hour hunting for the recipes you want to prepare, Plan to Eat is for you. I can plan a menu in under 15 minutes and have confidence that their automatic shopping list includes everything I need to actually make the meals I’ve planned. Getting dinner on the table is still up to me, unfortunately, but Plan to Eat certainly makes it easier!
Do you ever plan out a menu for the week and then completely ignore it? What’s your best meal planning tip?