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Confession: I used to SHUDDER at the very idea of meal planning.
Meal planning was for people who weren't creative.
Meal planning was a crutch.
Meal planning was…. [fill in hoity-toity condecension here.]
But when the time arrived when I NEEDED to start meal planning for our whole family's sanity, I – after eating a whole bunch of humble pie – realized that meal plans weren't a contract, where once I wrote a meal down on a line it was like being set in concrete. Meal planning was simply making a safety net!
And in fact, meal planning was actually quite liberating.
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In the decade since that time, meal planning has become my secret weapon for everything from quick school morning breakfasts to hosting Thanksgiving for 24.
The simple act of planning meals ahead has been both freeing and empowering and has given me time and space to pour myself into other (more delightful) endeavors.
Through the years, I've heard from a lot of people about the stress that happens around getting food prepared day after day after day, and most of the time I hear something like, “I've tried meal planning, but it's too hard / it takes too much time / it's not worth the effort….”
And what I have grieved and mulled over in those conversations is that those people haven't had the deep satisfaction of discovering the freedom that meal planning can bring.
And that's when it hit me – the revolution that took place in my own mind and heart when I started meal planning was because I actually (unknowingly) stumbled upon a method that actually worked for me – meal planning didn't look like what I had expected because it WASN'T what I had expected.
So, this post – as well as our entire Meal Planning Toolkit, complete with the unique Myers-Briggs-inspired meal planning quick start guide I wrote to help people like you create your own personalized meal planning system – exists specifically to help you make meal planning a habit so you can experience the same delightful freedom.
Alright – enough chatting! Let's get down to business.
With our printable toolkit, you can create a meal planning system that actually sticks.
Whether you're brand-new to meal planning or a seasoned pro, our Meal Planning Toolkit is an entire library of (beautiful) printables and resources to streamline and simplify your meal planning, grocery shopping, and mealtime prep in a way that works with YOUR unique personality.
7 Tips to Simplify Meal Planning
1. Keep a List of Go-To Meals
This, more than any other habit, gives you a safety net when it comes to dinnertime. No matter what else you do, keep a list of quick, easy meals that you know your family loves so that if your plan goes out the window, you don't have to spend any brainpower on trying to remember what it was your 10-year-old asked for more of last time – you just glance at the list and choose a meal.
2. Prep Ahead
As anyone who used to use our meal planning service, The Tired & Hungry Cook's Companion, could tell you, I'm a HUGE proponent of prepping ahead.
This comes from my days working in restaurants, particularly when I worked in upscale dining, where every shift begins with all ingredients chopped, mixed, and ready.
In a restaurant, when a customer places an order, the chef isn't back in the kitchen chopping the onions or mincing the garlic – all of that was done hours previously. That way, the meal can be cooked quickly and efficiently and served while it's still at the perfect temperature.
The idea works equally well in the home kitchen – whatever you can prep ahead (even just mixing up all the spices ahead of time or opening the cans of tomatoes – why does opening cans always take so much longer than it should??) makes meal time SO much simpler.
Prepping ahead can also mean making entire meals ahead and setting them aside so they're ready: freezer meals that are ready to dump in the slow cooker, lunches that are packed and in the refrigerator, etc.
3. Get Your Kids Involved
This may not seem like a simplification, because most of the time we just want to get a meal done and served.
However, even if it takes a few extra minutes, pulling in some extra (albeit inexperienced) help can *actually* simplify your task, simply because it helps the kids take ownership of the meal. After helping cook, kids tend to come to the table more eager to eat and participate in the meal, since they themselves helped make it.
Little things like peeling carrots or preparing a basket of crackers or bread are great jobs for little hands, while cracking eggs or chopping ingredients for soup (see how to help kids use a knife safely) are great tasks for older young chefs.
If you want to make this even easier, the Kids Cook Real Food course is a FANTABULOUS online cooking class for kids. It teaches kids essential cooking skills they'll use through their entire life to make healthy choices and cook for themselves (and others!).
4. Make a Skeleton Meal Plan (or better said: a Thematic Meal Plan)
Ever heard of “Taco Tuesday”?
Or “Meatless Mondays”?
Designating each day with a theme around a specific ingredient, cuisine, or ethical/mindful eating habit makes it easy to plan out meals each week, simply because it gives you *just enough* parameters to guide you without become restrictive. It's a great way to get inspired and finish your meal planning in no time flat.
5. Let Your Tools Do the Work for You
Take full advantage of your Instant Pot, slow cooker, and deep freezer.
…Make meals ahead to freeze that you can simply pop in the oven.
…Center your meals around rice or potatoes which can be cooked in a jiffy in the Instant Pot (although with myriad other meals).
…Set-it-and-forget-it and put dinner in the slow cooker right after breakfast so it's ready when you're ready at dinnertime.
6. Make the Most of What You Have On-Hand
With a well-stocked pantry (and even sometimes without it being well-stocked…), you can make up meals on the fly last-minute with a minimum of stress.
Have canned tomatoes and coconut milk? Cook up some rice and make a curry.
Have lots of popcorn? Make a big salad and use them as croutons. Toss on beans if you've got any for protein.
Lots of refried beans? Make burritos and look in the freezer to see if there's corn you could serve on the side.
You can usually come up with something from what you already have!
7. Leftovers are Your New Secret Weapon
Many people I know say they don't like leftovers.
And that's because heating up the same thing a second time usually IS both boring and flavorless (or at least…. flavor-different). A few things get better with age (like yesterday's lasagna), but for the most part, the second go-round tends to be rather meh.
But turning one leftover dish into something new is both delicious AND smart.
Got leftover oatmeal? Blend it with flour, butter, milk, and eggs to make pancakes.
Have leftover salmon? Shred it and serve it on top of a salad.
Leftover pasta? Add water and a few vegetables and have lasagna soup.
Leftovers are often the secret to a super-quick, super-easy, and super-tasty meal.
8. Choose Acceptable Shortcuts
Just because you're making a meal plan doesn't mean you have to cook entirely from scratch!
So decide what pre-made ingredients are acceptable for your diet and lifestyle and use them frequently when you cook.
For example, pre-cooked, pre-sliced, frozen, seasoned chicken breasts make adding protein to any casserole, like Cheesy Chicken & Broccoli Divan, a SNAP.
But for others, pre-seasoned chicken may have too many preservatives or additives, while a hot rotisserie chicken from the grocery store can fit the bill just perfectly.
Other shortcuts, such as pre-cut carrot coins for your todder's snacktime or buying sauerkraut instead of making sauerkraut, can be time-saving sanity-savers.
The key to choosing a shortcut is knowing what you *really* want to make from scratch and being willing to buy shortcuts for the rest. For example, if you don't want to make your own salad dressings, you'll either need to purchase them or go without. But if making homemade salad dressing is a priority for you, you will need to say, “Sorry – I'm not going to make that homemade. I'm putting it on the shopping list,” for some other item.
Because even though I've written multiple books about how to make your own DIY pantry staples and believe deeply in the importance of eating well with real food, I will state this emphatically: The recipe for insanity is trying to make EVERYTHING from scratch, so choose a handful of foods you know you want to make from scratch on a regular basis and be content buying quality store-bought versions for the rest.
Oh, and make sure you add your homemade pantry staples to your meal plan list so you can plan when you're making them. 🙂
So, there we go. 7+ ways to simplify dinnertime!
- Keep a list of go-to meals
- Prep ahead
- Get your kids involved
- Make a skeleton meal plan (or better said: a Thematic Meal Plan)
- Let your tools do the work for you
- Make the most of what you have on-hand
- Leftovers are your new secret weapon
- Choose acceptable shortcuts
And, don't forget – there's no judge or “standard of excellence” certification you're going for here. The important thing is that your family is fed and well-loved, so when all else fails, even if you serve PB&J sandwiches, grilled cheese, grab a hot rotisserie chicken from the grocery store, or serve some other meal that you consider a “cheat” meal, do so with nary a qualm!
There's no harm in feeding your family a “cheater” meal, particularly when everything in that meal is quite decently healthy. It just doesn't happen to be “fancy,” so give yourself a bit of grace when you fall into bed and are already wondering what the next day holds.