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Food52's Top 10 Meal-Planning Tips

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For anyone who wants to get a home-cooked meal on the table without frenzy or financial fall-out, we’re here to help. Whether you're a novice or a meal-planning master, we've got top 10 meal-planning tips to help you get dinner on the table, on time, at least a few nights a week. (Bonus points if you shoot for more.)

Ready? Let’s get started.

1. 7 Nights is for Superheroes

First things first: it takes time to build up to 3 to 4 made-from-scratch dinners per week, and more than that is a rare feat. Don’t bite off more than you can chew – it’s better to underestimate the number of meals you’ll have time to prepare than waste food you didn’t have time to cook.

2. Fill Your Fridge with Favorites

Stock your fridge with a few ingredients that pair well together, and use them for weeknight meals, filling in the gaps with pantry staples. Take chicken breasts, capers, olives, roasted red peppers, and feta: toss everything with nutty farro one night, and then whip up pepper and feta-stuffed chicken breasts with tapenade the next. Feel free to get creative – just make sure that before you buy any ingredients, you have 3 ideas for using them together. Waste not!

Recipe: Herbed Tuna and Israeli Couscous Salad with Cumin, Coriander and Citrus

Herbed Tuna and Israeli Couscous Salad with Cumin, Coriander and Citrus

3. Pack Your Pantry

There's nothing like having every ingredient you need on hand, just waiting to be turned into dinner. Enter the pantry meal. Dishes like pasta with oil-packed tuna and canned tomatoes or Spaghetti alla Foriana can be surprisingly satisfying. If you have leftover veggies in your crisper drawer, even better.   

4. Try a Theme Night (or Two)

Assign a theme to dinner one night each week: tacos, breakfast for dinner, stir-fries – something that you’re happy eating regularly and that takes less than an hour to make. Write out 5 variations on the theme (if you choose a breakfast-for-dinner theme, your list might look like: omelets, pancakes, French toast, breakfast sandwiches, frittata) and rotate through them, adding more variations as you wish. Like it? Add a second themed dinner night each week.

Recipe: Chicken and Tofu Stir Fry with Celery and Cashews

Chicken and Tofu Stir Fry with Celery and Cashews

5. Marinate, Marinate, Marinate

Marinate quick-cooking proteins like chicken breasts, pork chops, or flank steak ahead of time so all you need to do is drain and cook. Serve with your favorite veggies and a starch that can be made in the amount of time it takes the protein to cook (think: couscous, rice, quinoa).

Recipe: Sugar Steak with Bourbon

Sugar Steak with Bourbon

6. Be a Weekend Warrior

Designate Saturday or Sunday as a cooking day and prepare your meals for the week in one fell swoop. Just make sure everything reheats well (read: no fish).

7. The Freezer is Your Friend

Make a double batch of recipes and freeze extras (in individual portions for easier defrosting) for weeks when you don’t have time to spend at the stove. Here, being Type A pays off: when freezing food, labeling is your friend.

Recipe: Sweet Potato Soup with Feta and Zaatar Oil

Sweet Potato Soup with Feta and Zaatar Oil

8. Prep Components, Not Meals

Instead of complete dishes, use the weekend to prepare a few different vegetables, proteins, and whole-grain starches separately, and then mix and match for meals during the week. It’s remarkable how a simple vinaigrette or pesto can tie everything together.

9. Build a Base Shopping List

If you’re cooking regularly, you’ll likely end up buying a lot of the same items week after week. Simplify everything by making a master list of recurring items and then supplement with seasonal ingredients. Wasn't that easy?

10. Spreadsheets are for Sharing

This might sound crazy, but you'll be amazed how it streamlines your weekly shopping. Track your grocery list and your fridge and pantry inventory in a spreadsheet. Then get your family involved: saving it to a shared device and adding a column for “special requests” will inspire everyone to get in on the meal-planning fun.

What are your meal-planning tips and tricks? Share your comments below!

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Anna | www.tallgrasskitchen.com says …

Each year I aspire to meal-planning, and it never quite works out. My fickle tastes are partly to blame--sometimes I plan a week's worth of menus, and by the time I get to Thursday I just don't feel like squash curry. But I do utilize the theme idea, and it works great for me (I change the themes every few weeks and seasonally). But for now: Sunday is Big Family Dinner (often a roast chicken), Monday is Soup Night (utilizing stock made from aforementioned chicken), Tuesday is Pasta, Wednesday is Leftovers, Thursday is Big Salad, Friday is Homemade Pizza, and Saturday is Breakfast for Dinner. Thanks for the tips!

Callie Ree says …

love the blog

Mirna says …

I would love to prepare some meals ahead of time. Can you name a few more items besides fish that don't reheat well?

Viola Saldanha says …

Great tips for successful food management.

Nikki - Community Moderator says …

@MIRNA - I think fish is going to be the most difficult to reheat from your options of proteins. Reheating steak might dry it out a bit but don't let that get you down. You can always improvise and put the fish or steak on a salad and eat it cold!

Teal says …

I find that beyond the typed list of our staples I force myself to shop for the whole week which saves time and money. I don't include anything we don't love so not wanting what we have is never an issue. Having extra beans, canned tomatoes and stock always helps in the winter.

Melinda Hinson Neely says …

I just gave a talk on this very topic and I love tip #10. I had not though to that one and I'll start doing it to make my own life easier and share with friends, too!

Dawn says …

not finding too many acceptable recipes.... requesting more without dairy i.e. cheese and lower protein.

Melinda says …

I am a fanatic when it comes to meal planning. I shop on Saturdays and try to do a seafood dish. Sunday is a meal which usually requires hours to cook like roasted chicken, soup, chili etc and will make enough for Monday. Two week night dishes - one will need to be made in 20 minutes or less and the other something simple and vegetarian. Friday night? Dinner out!

Nikki - Community Moderator says …

@DAWN - You can find more recipes on our website that will feature vegan options at https://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/recipe/search/%20?f[0]=field_special_diet%3A158786. Hopefully this will help you out!

Diane says …

Food recipes are awesome, new and different to our usual way of meal planning. Thank you for the options

sonochic says …

I used to can homemade pasta sauce and salsa--but found that time was such a factor with the canning side of it. Now I make them from scratch and then freeze them in freezer containers--just as yummy and half the time.