I find one of my biggest enemies when it comes to regularly cooking is lack of preparation. It takes far too much time and is far too frustrating to come up with dinner at the last minute, search around the kitchen for ingredients, and hope there’s enough time to make what we want. When you know what you’re going to eat, when you’re going to eat it, and that you do have all the ingredients on hand, though, the task becomes that much easier, efficient, and more enjoyable.
HOW TO PLAN DINNER
- Plan the entire week’s dinner menu at once.
- Plan for leftovers.
- Plan each night’s meal based on your schedule.
- Plan for variety: Choose a different staple each night.
- Keep it simple: Use only one or two cookbooks.
- Don’t disregard recipes if you just don’t “feel like” it.
- Stay organized: Write all ingredients, check off what you already have, create a shopping list of what you need.
- Make future plans easier: Keep a categorized list of all your favorite recipes, their cookbook, page number, how long it takes to make, and notes about tweaks.
- Try try again.
1. PLAN THE ENTIRE WEEK’S DINNER MENU AT ONCE.
In America, we tend to do a week’s worth of grocery shopping at a time. In that case, it makes the most sense to plan an entire week’s dinners so that you can shop for them all at once. For the most part, we don’t have markets we can shop at on a daily basis and many of us don’t have the cooking know-how to just buy what looks good that day and know exactly what to do with it when we get home. Instead, we rely on recipes, so what works best for us is to pick out a recipe and plan our shopping around that.
My advice is to pick out one full dinner for each night of the week in order to make grocery shopping easier and so you can forget about it for the rest of the week. There are a number of ways you can do this, so just experiment and choose whatever works best for you. I usually create the entire menu Saturday afternoon while the kids are asleep and do all my shopping on Sunday, but you could break up the planning over several days. If you’re ambitious enough and have the time, you could even plan multiple weeks’ or a whole month’s worth!
2. PLAN FOR LEFTOVERS.
I’m guessing most of us end up with leftovers after a meal, so we need to know what to do with them in order to keep from wasting food. When you’re planning your week’s menu, decide what you’ll do with leftovers. Will you eat them for another dinner later in the week (whether reheating the same dish or using the leftovers to create a new one)? Will you eat them for lunch? Will you freeze them for use a completely different time?
Know what you plan to do with any leftovers so you can plan your meals accordingly.
3. PLAN EACH NIGHT’S MEAL BASED ON YOUR SCHEDULE.
My husband’s schedule changes from week to week; he’s guaranteed two days off and usually works two to three days until 6:30 and two until 9:30, but which day he works which shift is always changing, which means we can’t eat dinner at the same time every night if he’s going to eat with us.
What I do is take a look at his work schedule and plan my meals around it. Is he going to be home when I get home from work? Then I’ll plan something that takes a little more prep work or attention at the stove since he’ll be able to watch the kids while I cook. Is he going to be working late and I’ll be eating dinner alone with the kids? Then I’ll plan something quick and easy that I don’t have to give much attention to, like a simple pasta, breakfast for dinner, or leftovers.
Know how much time and attention you’ll have available on a given night to prepare dinner and plan a meal that fits that schedule. Don’t forget that you can always prep days ahead of time, so consider that while making plans, as well.
4. PLAN FOR VARIETY: CHOOSE A DIFFERENT STAPLE EACH NIGHT.
Eating the same thing over and over and over again is boring and tiresome, so it’s important to have variety in meals. Even more importantly, though, variety ensures proper nutrition because different types of foods carry different nutrients.
Contrary to the actual American diet, we should be eating mostly vegetables and all different colors (different vitamins/minerals influence the color of produce differently). So when you’re choosing which vegetable(s) to eat each night, make sure you’re planning a variety of types/colors.
We also place a lot more importance on starches and grains than other cultures; sometimes it just doesn’t feel like dinner without one or the other! But don’t stick to the same old standbys of russet potatoes and white rice. Think about different colors of potato and different whole grains–farro and barley are some of my favorites along with properly cooked brown rice (not that soft, watery stuff). And don’t leave them plain; cook them with onions, herbs, spices, citrus zests, and meat/vegetable stocks.
Lastly, protein isn’t nearly as important as most people seem to think and it doesn’t have to come in the form of meat, though the body absorbs iron best from it. Meat and fish are also usually the most expensive parts of a meal, which is even more reason to lower our consumption somewhat. I recommend only planning for meat/fish (or any seafood) 2-3 times per week, not including leftovers.
Here is an example of one of my weekly meal plans:
Cod baked with a parsley anchovy sauce and topped with breadcrumbs
Skillet red potatoes and onions
Sauteed garlic broccoli
Basmati rice leftover from the weekend
Pasta with tomatoes, green beans, and basil
Raw vegetable salad (carrot, cauliflower, radish, celery, Napa cabbage, romaine lettuce) with peanut sauce
Balsamic glazed pork tenderloin
Brown rice with shallots and herbs
Sauteed carrots and parsnips
Pepper and onion frittata
Potato dumplings stuffed with Thursday’s leftover meat/vegetables
Fontina and rosemary crostini
5. KEEP IT SIMPLE: USE ONLY ONE OR TWO COOKBOOKS.
It took me about half an hour and two cookbooks to come up with the preceding menu. For a while, I restrained myself to only one cookbook to keep the process as absolutely simple as possible. The only problem is that some cookbooks simply don’t have enough variety. For instance, I have one that doesn’t include a single side dish, so I had to use a second book or else we’d spend our nights eating just chicken and just fish. Other books have too many complicated and time-consuming recipes or not enough choice when it comes to a meat dish, a fish dish, or a vegetarian dish. So, while it was a good idea to stick to just one book, actually doing it doesn’t necessarily work out properly.
The more cookbooks you add to the equation, though, the more complicated the process becomes and the longer it takes to choose a recipe (let alone up to seven). So grab two cookbooks that you like and pick your recipes from only those. If you know immediately of a recipe you want to use that is not in those cookbooks, that’s fine because you aren’t searching for it, you already know what you want. But if you’re starting from nothing and trying to figure out what dishes to choose, give yourself some constraints.
Discipline and boundaries are important to keep things simple, which so many of us need in our hectic, complicated lives today.
6. DON’T DISREGARD RECIPES IF YOU JUST DON’T “FEEL LIKE” IT.
Ignore whether you don’t “feel like” eating what’s in the book. Once you’ve put the work in and see how beautiful it is and how good it smells, your body will crave it and you’ll change your mind.
That being said, if you’re not indecisive and you can quickly and easily pick out recipes you “feel like” eating, by all means do it. But if it’s just prolonging the process to turn each page and say, “Uhhhh…no…..I don’t really feel like that……”, then stop it and just pick something that’s feasible to make and looks good regardless of whether you currently want it.
7. STAY ORGANIZED: WRITE ALL INGREDIENTS, CHECK OFF WHAT YOU ALREADY HAVE, CREATE A SHOPPING LIST OF WHAT YOU NEED.
I have a binder where I write all my week’s menus each on their own separate page. When I choose a recipe, I write the title, the book it came from, the page where it’s located, and all of the ingredients and their measurements. Once I’m finished, I think about what I know I already have on hand, I search for any ingredients I’m unsure of, and I put red stars next to the ingredients I need to buy.
After that, I make my grocery list, including anything else I need for the week outside of ingredients for dinners. And my grocery list is organized too. I’m at the store with two kids and don’t have a lot of time to be staring at my list or wandering around, so I make sure to list everything in the order in which I’ll find it at the store (though leaving refrigerated and frozen products for last, especially meat, fish, and dairy), which makes the trip a breeze.
8. MAKE FUTURE PLANS EASIER: KEEP A CATEGORIZED LIST OF ALL YOUR FAVORITE RECIPES, THEIR COOKBOOK, PAGE NUMBER, HOW LONG IT TAKES TO MAKE, AND NOTES ABOUT TWEAKS.
If you keep a list of your favorite recipes, eventually you can look to that to fulfill your menus. Instead of browsing through different cookbooks, you just look through your list of favorites, jotting down which ones you want to make and where to find the recipe.
My recommendation is to do everything either on loose leaf paper or on the computer so that edits are easy. Already filled up an entire page of chicken recipes? Just grab another piece of loose leaf paper and stick it in the binder. If you use a bound notebook, then you risk running out of room under a category. Loose leaf paper is just a bit more endlessly editable.
If you like to be even better organized, though, do it on the computer and then you can make any kind of edits you like. You can even turn the list into a PDF file and store it on your phone or tablet (I do this so I can open my list in Kindle). If you have recipes from the internet, you can add hyperlinks to the recipe title, which will be clickable in the PDF and bring you right to the recipe’s webpage 🙂
And don’t forget that the more information you include in your list of favorites–such as prep time/cooking time, tips, substitutions, favorite brands for ingredients–the easier it’ll be to make a decision and to execute a recipe exactly how you like it. Several weeks ago, I made salmon with salsa verde, but I replaced two herbs with basil and thought it tasted outstanding, so on my list of favorite fish dishes (and favorite sauces), I wrote down where the original recipe comes from, but also to replace these two herbs with basil. In my list for favorite pasta sauces, I list Anne Burrell’s bolognese, but note to add a pureed 28 oz can of my favorite San Marzano tomatoes along with stalks of fresh herbs, and to use Fetzer Merlot for the wine (because that gave me the best tasting batch, so far).
If you add to this list as you come across a new favorite, then it’s no work to keep up.
9. try try again
It takes time to build a routine and for it to become second nature. If you try this out and it only works for a week before you’re back to frazzled weeknights trying to figure out dinner at the last minute, don’t worry about it. Just remind yourself that you can do better and try again. Even if you just start out planning one night a week, that’s great! Once planning for that night becomes a routine, add another night and keep doing that until you find yourself planning the entire week. Heck, you might find yourself planning breakfast and lunch too!
A few years ago, I started planning a full week’s worth of dinners. It made my evenings so much simpler and more enjoyable because I wasn’t spending any time frustratingly trying to figure out what I felt like eating and whether we even had the ingredients for it. It also gave me more energy because I could start prepping and cooking directly after work, which meant I didn’t fall into the trap of relaxing on the couch, never to want to leave it again for the rest of time 😉 Instead, I got all the effort out of the way early, so I had the rest of my evening to relax with no worries about the fact that I still had work to do at home.
That lasted for all of two weeks. At some point, I just stopped making the time to sit down and look for recipes. Then, a couple years ago, I tried a different method. Instead of planning recipes for the entire week, I designated each day with a specific main course. Sunday beef, Monday pasta, Tuesday chicken, Wednesday rice, Thursday soup and/or sandwiches, Friday something new (usually fish), and Saturday a feast (appetizer, main course, dessert!). That made life a lot easier too! What was so helpful was having my options narrowed down, so instead of having every recipe at my fingertips, I could only look for this specific main course. Of course, this didn’t last long either.
And then we come to today. I’ve gone back to planning each week’s dinners, but it’s lasted for three or so months now. Phew! And I have to say, it’s a lot harder to accomplish than it was years ago! Now that my husband’s work schedule is nearly opposite mine and I’m always busy with the kids, I find myself frantically searching cookbooks during Saturday nap time while also trying to get in some TV time to myself (you know, finally watch something that isn’t Daniel Tiger or Strawberry Shortcake or Mickey Mouse!). But don’t let this intimidate you. Planning a week’s meals can be very easy if you allow it to be. Not everybody is running around as frantically as I am and, if you are, well…then stick with me and you at least won’t feel like you’re going through this struggle alone!
If you love food; if you’re not picky or superbly indecisive; if you believe the entire family should eat the same meal regardless of their preferences (in the words of all mothers, “This is not a restaurant!”); and if you have some good cookbooks at your fingertips, then it’s just a matter of sitting down for 15-30 minutes, picking out some recipes, and writing down the ingredients.
If, for whatever reason, you can’t help but make it more complicated than that (as I do because I am picky and indecisive), then just try out my tips and, above all else, don’t give up! Some weeks, you’ll have it all planned out to perfection. Other weeks, you’ll barely be able to eek out two days’ planning. Some weeks, you’ll pick the most awesome recipes. Other weeks, you’ll feel like you’ve wasted your time on a bunch of duds. But stick with it. The more you follow a routine, the more it becomes natural to you and, soon enough, you’ll find yourself writing menus without even having to look through a cookbook. You may even find yourself cooking without one too 😉