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Food52's Top 10 Meal-Planning Tips

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

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

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

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

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!