My husband and I have a standing date Saturday night. Dinner out? I want. No, after the kid has gone to bed, when the hectic weekdays full of duties have taken a short break, we sit down and talk about dinner – more specifically what to do the following week. Sure, sometimes it happens Friday night, sometimes even early Sunday morning, but we always make a point to do so.
Taking the time to devise what you plan to cook is smart for a number of reasons, including that it saves you time, money and stress. This task has practically transformed into a lifestyle with cookbooks, blogs and newsletters on the subject. You can take the concept as far as you want, but at its core, meal planning (or meal preparation) is just that: planning. Simple, right?
If this year you decide to cook more often and more efficiently at home, here are a few achievable tips to get you started.
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Have a list of your go-to dishes. Years ago, in my infancy, when we had more free time than I ever realized, my husband and I made a “what’s for dinner” spreadsheet. It includes such details as the type of kitchen, who makes it, and whether it can be done on a weekday evening, which was easier back then. You do not have to be too fancy or even update it every time you try a new dish (if you do, more power to you), but the simple exercise of a brain dump of at least some of the dishes in your repertoire can be extremely helpful when it’s time to choose what to do. That way, you will not feel like you are starting from scratch every week and you may be reminded of old favorites you had forgotten.
Shop smart. Once you have made your list of dishes, research the ingredients you have on hand and then make a list of what you need. Make an appointment to shop for the week, whether it is in the store, curbs or delivery. That way, you make sure you get what you need before you need it and you do not have to drive to the store multiple times. When unpacking, place your groceries where you know you will find them. I even like to gather ingredients from the same recipe to cut down on the time spent rummaging around for things.
Make use of your freezer. I will continue to hit the drums as long as they let me write here. See, I will always find room for ice cream and other sweet treats in my freezer. But devoting as much space as I can to things that will make my dinners easier is a priority. Try to include a mix of ready-made items, such as burritos or soups, and ingredients that can be used for quick, flexible meals, such as cooked beans or pesto. And what about ready meals? I give you permission to have your favorite frozen meals on hand once in a while. When planning, look ahead to your week for nights where you know you might otherwise be tied up and set them for a meal from the freezer. Note if you need to pull something out to thaw in the fridge overnight, and set a reminder on your phone to do so.
Stock pantry. This is the consequence of my freezing advice. Make sure your closets are stocked with versatile ingredients that can be used in a variety of ways, depending on what you feel like cooking. At the top of my list would be canned tomatoes (cut and crushed), dried pasta, dried and / or canned beans and grains (rice, barley, etc.). Extra points if you keep a current inventory somewhere.
Let someone else plan. You do not have to reinvent the wheel. It’s more than okay to follow someone else’s trail.
You can probably find a personality with a meal plan that suits any interest and diet, either online or in print. Among recently published books, The meal plan for Fit Foodie by Sally O’Neilys and Clear, clear, low food by Dawn Perry echoes both.
Set aside a free evening. If your budget and diet allow it, plan one night a week when you are not cooking. This helps ease some pressure and also supports your local restaurants in a challenging time. Knowing that you have already booked your free night can be a motivation to cope with the other six-day dinners. When your break rolls around, you deserve it.