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The Ultimate Meal Planning Guide

How do you get dinner on the table — almost every day — without becoming bored or losing your motivation? We answer that age-old question by sharing a few of our personal experiences and giving you our best meal prep and meal planning tips. Find what works for you, something you can stick with, and you may just find yourself enjoying weeknight cooking.

By Madalyn Bendgen & Amanda McFarlane

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It’s no secret that meal planning and meal prep are hot topics right now. Your friends, family, co-workers, and even celebrities are jumping on board with this trend. I mean, who can blame anyone for wanting to have a plan in place for meals during the week — everyone must eat to survive. To us, it’s common sense. If I can check one thing off my “To Do List,” sign me up.

Now, not everyone has the same idea of meal planning, which I love. The best part about meal planning is that it’s flexible. Whether you buy a bunch of groceries to have on hand for weeknight meals, or go all in and prep and portion every meal for lunch, dinner, breakfast... the list goes on and on.

What is meal planning, anyway?

At its core, meal planning is your system for organizing your weekly meals, from recipe selection to grocery shopping to preparing the meals and sitting down to dinner. Some people plan far out and have a plethora of meals ready in the freezer, while others plan weekly, or even daily by shopping the markets or deciding what sounds or looks good that day.

We all have different takes on this matter, so two of our staff members weighed in.

here is Maddy’s version:

I am a full-time working mom to two daughters (you all know that already) and wife. To say that I have a lot of down time would be a lie. So, to make the most of our few hours that we have together during weeknights, we keep a stocked pantry and fridge for meals ready to go. By ready to go, I mean we have all the ingredients on hand to make 5 or 7 different meals during the week. To make this happen, it does take a little time out of our weekend to do some planning and shopping. My Saturday morning consists of me sitting down with my husband, with coffee of course, and we put the pen to paper. I literally write out the days of the week, and which meals we want to have on those days. Do we always stick to the meal that’s scheduled for that day... absolutely not. Some days we aren’t feeling that dish, and that’s fine, so we choose a different meal and swap days around — crisis averted. Once we get the meals locked in for the week, I start making the grocery list. Some people may not know this, but I use to do a lot of the grocery shopping for the magazine, which in turns makes me a professional grocery shopper at our house. I even sort our grocery list to match the store layout... I know... total nerd. But hey, time is valuable people! Once I get home, I sort the groceries and put everything away, and we are on our way to a successful week of meals.

Here is Amanda's Version:

I don't so much meal prep as I do meal plan. I do my meal planning in a similar fashion as Maddy — I plan out what meals I'm going to make each weeknight (I cut myself a little slack on the weekends). If there are new recipes I'm going to try — and there almost always are as I rarely make the same meal twice, unless it's these sheet pan fajitas — I print them out and keep them all together in a folder. I write out my grocery list and try to shop on Saturday or Sunday. I absolutely hate going grocery shopping during the week, and if left to my own devices, I usually won't and end up eating out or fridge/freezer foraging for food. The weeks that I don't meal plan, I actually end up not excited at all about eating or dinners ... and that's saying a lot for someone who lives, breathes, and obsesses over food.

I don't meal prep at all (aka chopping, portioning, rinsing, and all the other verbs you can think of to prepare food), unless you include making enough at dinner to have leftovers for lunch the next day. For the most part, cooking is relaxing for me, unless I'm serving 10 people who are all in the kitchen, asking questions and wanting to help! So I really don't mind preparing a full meal after work, although I do my fair share of complaining some nights when I'm ravenous and tired.

Best Meal Planning Tips

  • Research and find new recipes to cook! This will make your cooking and dining experience more enjoyable and will encourage you to try new foods and ingredients.
  • Be consistent! Set aside a date and time to meal plan, shop, and prep, and try to stick with it.
  • Stay organized! Write out your meal plan and make lists for your grocery shopping. We can't emphasize this enough!

Here are our favorite meal planning guides on Amazon

  • If you're into meal prepping, clean your fruits and veggies when you get home from shopping, and store them appropriately. You can even go so far as to chop, slice, or dice your ingredients for easy meal prep.
  • Stock up on meal prep containers, whether it's compartmentalized containers like bento boxes for storing meals, or plastic or glass containers for storing prepped ingredients.
  • Embrace the freezer meal. Have a few freezable meals ready to go for those nights you're too busy or don't feel like cooking.
  • Don't put too much pressure on yourself. Plan for at least one impromptu meal a week, whether it be going out to eat, eating leftovers, or going completely off script from your meal plan.
  • Have a plan for leftovers (if you're into that), but not enough for more than 1–2 meals to avoid getting sick of eating the same thing (unless you're into that).
  • Have a few favorite recipes that you can always rely on when you're feeling uninspired or if you have a busy day. Recipes that you've frequently made and that you're familiar with make for speedy weeknight meals.
  • Theme nights are fun — whether it be Taco Tuesday or Pizza Friday.
  • Keep a well-stocked pantry, with spices, grains, carbs (like pasta), condiments, canned beans and tomatoes, oils and vinegars, dried fruits, nuts, and baking essentials. Also, keep a well-stocked fridge and freezer, with a few staple cheeses, dairy products, herbs, and fruits and vegetables. You can store bread and several cuts of meats, like chicken, bacon, or steaks, in the freezer so you always have protein on hand (if you're a meat eater).
  • Keep track of your favorite recipes, whether it's a Pinterest board, physical folder, folder on your computer, or meal journal.
  • Batch cook where you can. This includes things like soups and grains like rice or quinoa.
  • Take advantage of time-saving or little- to no-effort gadgets, like your pressure cooker, slow cooker, or sous vide machine.
  • Find a way to make cooking fun! Turn on a podcast or your favorite music, or get someone else involved to keep you company (and help speed up the process).

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