Cooking Ahead / Meal Planning 101

Does dinnertime roll around & you panic because you have no idea what you’re fixing?  Have you heard about cooking ahead & you’re not sure what it is or what it entails?  Not sure where to start with planning your meals?  Seems a little overwhelming, right?  Fear not, friends!  Seriously, if I can tackle this, you can too.

I started doing this because I was famous for waiting until the last minute to decide what I was making for dinner.  I’d go to the grocery store each week, wandering around, buying random things, only to realize, I didn’t have what I needed to make certain things.  I didn’t have a plan.  I was just buying random things, hoping that I’d be inspired to make something.  Turns out, I wasn’t and therefore, we went out to eat a lot more than we should’ve!  My youngest would ask each morning at breakfast “what’s for dinner?”, and my normal response was “I don’t know“.  By planning out meals, it alleviates stress for me.  I know what I’m cooking & when, it saves us moolah, and my youngest no longer has to ask me what’s for dinner – he can now look at the fridge & either delight in that it’s something he loves, or grumble because yes, I’m making him eat asparagus.

There are so many ways to do this, but what has worked for my family is this…

  1. Print out a blank calendar for each month of the year (templates can be found online:  Free Calendar Template , or on MS Publisher), or use an extra calendar that you have laying around.
  2. On the calendar, write in kids’ sports events, appointments, meetings, or any event that would affect mealtime/preparing meals, etc… (this helps me determine what meals to have on what night)
  3. Get your family involved!  Make a list of all of your family “favorites”, your standard “go-to” meals.  This helps you determine easy meals -v- meals that take more time to prepare.  Open up those dusty cookbooks, surf Pinterest… look for new things to try to break up any rut you may be in meal-wise!
  4. Of the above lists, are there meats that you use a lot of?  Say, chicken or ground beef?  Could you benefit from cooking ahead?
  5. If you answered “yes” to #4, then do it!  When you’re baking chicken/browning burger for one meal, why not do it for 2 or 3?  This is such a time-saver!!
  6. When I look ahead at my meals, if I know I’ll be using chicken for several meals, or meals that will use burger, I buy up extra of those meats, and cook them all at once.  How?  I throw chicken breasts in the crock pot with chicken broth, and when finished, they can either stay whole, or it can be shredded.  When I buy extra burger, I usually buy the big 5-lb tube, and brown it all at once with chopped onion & garlic.  I usually don’t salt it.  Why?  If I heat it up later for say, tacos, I season it with taco seasoning.  Then the meat doesn’t end up too salty.
  7.   Take stock of what is already in your pantry/freezer/cabinets/fridge.  Sometimes this helps me plan meals — if you use what you already have, think of the $$ you’re saving at the grocery store!
  8. If you get a newspaper, comb the grocery ads.  If there’s a great deal on veggies that you eat a lot (and can be frozen), stock up, and portion out for future meals.  Your freezer will be your friend!
  9. If you’re willing to take some extra time, cooking ahead is a great time-saver for the future.  Sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it?  Take time on one day to save it on another?  I guess it’s a trade-off.  But if you’re like me, sometimes at dinnertime (or as I like to refer to it, “The Witching Hour”, it’s crazy… and anything I can do to make the process faster & less complicated, the better!  Knowing that there’s a pound of ground beef already browned in the freezer, and all I have to do is heat it up, boil some pasta, throw some marinara over it, and make a salad?  That’s easy!
  10. When making out your meal plan, write each recipe down with the meal… this makes your grocery shopping easier so you can see exactly what & how much of it you’ll need.  I saw a version of this on Pinterest, but made my own (very simple) template:  Meal Planner Template – pdf
  11. If you know your family will only eat certain things (and trying new things is out of the question), when you make one meal, why not make 2, and put one in the freezer for the next week?  If you’re going to make the mess, make it once & be done with it!  Actually, this is a good idea even if your family isn’t picky!

Okay, I know that list was long (sorry, it’s just a brain dump for me!), but really, the things on the list are just basic things to think about.  Meal planning doesn’t work for everyone, and it’s hard to stay focused some weeks.  I’m not going to lie & say that each week is perfectly planned out.  Of course, there are those surprise evening meetings, kids getting sick, or just the fact that you’re too damned tired to cook, and going out to eat is not only necessary, it’s MANDATORY!  😉  Life happens.  But, the more I try to plan things out, the less stressed I am and the more money we save.