The Smart Time-Saving Guide to Meal Planning
Follow our food editor's advice to take the stress out of weeknight meals.
I used to love to cook dinner. I looked forward to coming home from work, pouring myself a glass of wine, and whipping up whatever I felt like eating that night. But now I have a child, and all's that gone out the window.
Today, mealtime requires advance planning. (It may still involve a glass of wine.) It's not about picking up a piece of fish on the way home and figuring out what to do with it on the fly, or taking an hour to prepare a meal, or experimenting with new ingredients. I need meals that are quick and easy to prepare, relatively inexpensive, and that will (or at least pass muster) a four-year-old and two adults. Here are a few strategies that help me check all of those boxes.
Find Your Favorites
I love trying new recipes but I know I can't always do that on a busy weeknight. So I have a steady rotation of simple, family-approved recipes that are my go-tos from week to week. It's important to have a few dishes you can make without consulting a recipe—for me, that's pasta with roasted vegetables, or breaded chicken cutlets, or beef and broccoli stir-fry. To keep things interesting for myself (and keep everyone from maxing out and eventually hating chicken cutlets), I choose one or two new recipes each week that don't seem overly complicated. That way, new dishes get added to the rotation.
Shop for the Week
On weekends, I make one big grocery list and get all of the ingredients I need for the next week based on the recipes I want to prepare. This not only saves mid-week trips to the supermarket, it prevents the dreaded 6:00 PM "What should I make for dinner?" moment. There are many different ways to make a shopping list, but I find that dividing mine into three categories is helpful: produce, meat/seafood, and pantry items.
Stock Your Pantry
Sometimes even the best-laid plans can go awry. The ground beef for Wednesday night's meatballs is still in the freezer. Traffic was awful and now there's only have 15 minutes to make dinner instead of 30. On nights like these, I lean heavily on a few pantry staples that can serve as building blocks for a quick dinner. Things I like to keep on hand: frozen ravioli or tortellini, canned beans, jarred marinara sauce, frozen vegetables, tortillas, couscous. Ideally, you should be able to combine a few of these items and make a simple dinner.
Watch: Our Best Weeknight Casseroles of 2019
Prep Ahead if You Can
I admire people who can spend their entire Sunday assembling casseroles, cooking big batches of grains, and prepping raw vegetables for the week ahead. But that's not me. If I know it's going to be a very hectic week, I may try to get a jumpstart on some recipes by preparing some components, like making a salad dressing or rolling out meatballs, ahead of time. I also try to give myself a little help by buying things like pre-cut and washed greens, a rotisserie chicken, or pre-cooked microwavable grains. These ingredients can really cut down on prep time and get dinner on the table faster.