20 Smart Tips for Efficiently Planning Your Dinners

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Efficient meal planning has a multitude of benefits, including time savings and a reduction in food-related expenses. By organizing your meal preparation in advance, you create a routine that streamlines the grocery shopping process, minimizes food waste, and alleviates the daily stress of deciding what to cook.

meal plan

A lot of times, we start out being really optimistic about meal planning and finally getting organized, but I find that being realistic about the time you can dedicate to meal prep is more sustainable. Adapting your meal planning to fit your lifestyle encourages real change, ensuring that you can stick to your plan week after week.

Your plan should be tailored to your unique situation.

Fundamentals of Meal Planning

Meal planning is mapping out your meals for a certain period, be it a week or a month. It involves selecting recipes, grocery shopping with a purpose, and often, prepping components of your meals in advance.

Not only does this process streamline your weekly routine, but it’s also an efficient way to stick to a budget and alleviate stress.

By having a clear meal plan, you eliminate the daily indecision of what to eat, thus reducing the temptation for last-minute, often costlier, food choices. A well-thought-out plan means you’ll buy only what’s necessary, which significantly cuts down on food waste.

1. Set a Realistic Goal

You might be tempted to plan a whole month or even two weeks of your meals, but I would suggest that is not very realistic for most people. Planning just one week at a time will ensure you’re not overwhelming yourself or each step of the process. I’ll explain that more later.

A realistic goal that you can stick to would be to plan for one week at a time. It might also be more realistic to plan only your dinners, rather than all 3 meals. You can purchase a few items that can be mixed and matched for breakfasts and lunches.

2. Determine How Many Meals You Need

Plan your meals for the week ahead to avoid last-minute takeout and make efficient use of your groceries.

Keep in mind that your week might not look the same every time. Take a minute to look at your calendar and determine how many meals you need to plan for. You can build in room for things like eating out for one night and/or eating leftovers for another.

If you can logically say that you need to plan for 5 meals this week, you won’t over plan or over buy your groceries.

3. Choose Meals to Make

skirt steak with chimichurri and a pear and gorgonzola salad
Skirt Steak with Chimichurri and Pear Gorgonzola Salad

There are tons of resources you can use to pick out things that look good to you. Choosing something that looks tasty and you’re excited to make will help you stick with the plan rather than giving up on a meal because it sounds boring.

Our website is packed with dinner ideas, as is our bi-weekly newsletter, and there are a million ideas on Pinterest. Those are my go-to places for coming up with ideas. I’d also encourage you to LIKE our Facebook page, which has a constant stream to great dinner ideas.

4. Pick a Main Dish and a Side

There’s a reason our YouTube cooking channel is called Dinner and a Side. The best way to plan your dinners is to choose one of each for every day you need to cook. We have tons of options available for you, but you can use any of the other resources available to plan this out.

It’s very easy to plan this type of dinner calendar. Write down Monday, then put a main and a side next to it. Move on to Tuesday. Rinse. Repeat. If you want a template to guide you, check out our FREE dinner planner.

Weekly menu

5. Create a Shopping List

Start with an inventory of your pantry and fridge to avoid unnecessary purchases. Make a detailed grocery list that categorizes items by aisle, which saves time and prevents wandering. Before you head out:

  • Check what you already have
  • Make a note of the staples needed
  • Organize the list for efficiency

Using apps or online tools specifically designed for meal planning can streamline this process, where you can find tips on meal preparation that can benefit busy schedules and budget-conscious strategies.

6. Staying on Budget

Maximize savings by being strategic about where and when you shop. Use these tips:

  • Purchase store-brand basics—they offer similar quality for less.
  • Buy in bulk for non-perishable items, which can be cost-effective in the long run.
  • Look for sales and use coupons; plan your meals around what’s discounted.

Consider the time-saving benefit of having the store shop for you. For a small fee, many grocery stores offer personal shopping services, allowing you to pick up pre-gathered groceries at a time that suits you, preventing impulsive buys and sticking to your budget. I use Von’s grocery service. It’s super easy.

7. Batch Cooking Techniques

Batch cooking is a smart approach where you cook larger quantities of certain meals or meal components ahead of time. To get started, choose one day a week to prepare multiple portions of staple ingredients. Here are some specific steps to batch cooking:

  1. Select Your Protein: Opt for versatile proteins like chicken, beef, or tofu. Cook them in bulk to use in various dishes throughout the week.
  2. Prepare Your Vegetables: Roast or steam a variety of vegetables. They can be mixed and matched in salads, stir-fries, and as side dishes.
  3. Create a Base: Prepare large amounts of a base such as rice, pasta, or quinoa that can be used in different meals.
  4. Season Wisely: Keep seasoning simple or diverse to allow for flexibility in flavoring different meals.

Remember, you don’t have to cook every component of your meals in advance – just focus on the parts that are most time-consuming.

8. Repurposing Leftovers

cranberry chicken salad on croissant
Chicken Salad Sandwich

Leftovers can be a gold mine for easy meals throughout your week. View them not as second-rate dinner options but as the foundation for creating new, delicious dishes. Instead of reheating last night’s meal as is, consider how it can serve as an ingredient in a different meal. For example, transform roasted chicken into a savory chicken salad for sandwiches, or blend yesterday’s vegetable stir-fry into a hearty soup.

  • Monday’s Grilled Chicken -> Tuesday’s Chicken Caesar Wrap
  • Sunday’s Roast Vegetables -> Monday’s Veggie Frittata

This approach not only reduces waste but also extends the variety of your meals.

9. Efficient Use of Ingredients

When you buy ingredients, think batch cooking and snacks to streamline your meal preparation. Batch cooking not only saves you time but also ensures consistency in your meals and portions. When planning your grocery list, select items that serve multiple purposes. A block of cheese can be part of a quiche, sliced for sandwiches, or shredded for pasta topping.

  • Buy: Large block of cheese
    • Uses: Quiche, Sandwiches, Pasta

10. Adjust to Life’s Surprises

Life is full of surprises, and your meal plan should be capable of adapting to fit your evolving schedule and needs. On busier days, having quick and simple recipes like tacos or burgers allows you to put a meal together in no time, making sure you’re not sacrificing your diet or resorting to takeout.

  • Weekday Dinners: Prepare ingredients for versatile dishes in advance.
  • Weekend Meals: Plan for more elaborate meals when there’s more time to indulge in the cooking process.

11. Adapting Plans for Picky Eaters

smash burger
Smash Burger

Picky eaters can challenge any well-intentioned meal plan, but with a bit of creativity, you can please even the choosiest members of your family. Start with universally loved bases—think tacos, burgers, and even salads—and offer a variety of toppings like different types of cheese and fresh vegetables. This way, each person can customize their meal to their liking, which makes mealtime enjoyable for everyone involved.

12. Experiment with New Recipes

Keep your meals exciting by trying new recipes and incorporating different cuisines. Exploring new recipes can reinvigorate your weekly meal routine, making dinner more enjoyable and less monotonous.

Delve into different culinary traditions, experiment with unfamiliar ingredients, and embrace unique cooking techniques. Not only does this broaden your palate, but it also allows you to discover new favorite dishes and cooking methods that can become staples in your kitchen.

13. Utilize a Slow Cooker or Instant Pot

Pulled Pork Sandwiches
Instant Pot Pulled Pork

These appliances can simplify cooking and allow you to prepare meals with minimal hands-on time. A slow cooker or Instant Pot can be a game-changer for busy households, providing the convenience of setting up a meal in the morning and coming home to a delicious, ready-to-eat dinner.

These tools are perfect for making soups, stews, roasts, and even desserts with little effort. By using these appliances, you can save time, reduce the stress of last-minute meal prep, and still enjoy home-cooked meals.

14. Plan for Themed Nights

Create themed nights like Taco Tuesday or Pasta Thursday to simplify planning and add fun to your meals. Themed nights bring a sense of anticipation and excitement to your weekly meal plan.

They simplify decision-making by narrowing down choices to a specific theme, and they add variety by encouraging you to explore different recipes within that theme. Themes can be based on cuisines, specific dishes, or even ingredients, making meal planning more organized and enjoyable.

15. Get the Family Involved

family in the kitchen

Encourage family members to participate in meal planning and cooking to make it a fun, collaborative effort. Involving your family in the meal planning and cooking process can transform dinner preparation into a shared activity.

This not only lightens your load but also helps family members, especially children, learn valuable cooking skills and appreciate the effort that goes into preparing meals. It can also be a bonding experience, fostering teamwork and creating lasting memories.

16. Focus on Whole Foods

Prioritize whole, unprocessed foods for optimal health and flavor. Whole foods, such as fresh vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and lean proteins, are nutrient-dense and free from the additives and preservatives found in processed foods.

By focusing on whole foods, you can create meals that are healthier, more flavorful, and better for your overall well-being. This approach supports a balanced diet and ensures that you’re getting the most nutritional value from your meals.

17. Enjoy the Process

Take time to enjoy cooking and eating. Meal planning should enhance your overall dining experience, making it more enjoyable and less stressful. Cooking should be seen as a pleasurable activity rather than a chore.

Set aside time to savor the process, from selecting fresh ingredients to the actual cooking and, finally, enjoying the meal. Create a comfortable and inviting kitchen environment, play your favorite music, and take pride in the meals you prepare.

18. Include a Variety of Foods

Avocado Kale Caesar Salad
Avocado Kale Caesar Salad

Ensure your meal plan includes a range of proteins, vegetables, fruits, grains, and healthy fats for a well-rounded diet. Variety is key to a balanced diet and prevents meals from becoming repetitive. Incorporate different types of protein sources, such as poultry, fish, legumes, and nuts, along with a colorful array of vegetables and fruits. This not only keeps meals interesting but also ensures that you’re getting a wide range of nutrients necessary for good health.

19. Prep Ingredients in Advance

Wash, chop, and prepare ingredients ahead of time to make weeknight cooking quicker and easier. Prepping ingredients in advance can significantly cut down on the time spent in the kitchen during busy weeknights.

Spend some time over the weekend or on a less busy day washing and chopping vegetables, marinating meats, and portioning out ingredients. Store them in airtight containers, ready to be cooked or assembled into meals. This foresight allows you to quickly put together dinners, making the cooking process smoother and less stressful.

20. Safe Food Storage

Proper food safety and storage is critical to ensure the longevity and freshness of your prepped meals. Follow these guidelines:

  • Cool Down: Let your food cool to room temperature before storing to prevent bacterial growth.
  • Use Airtight Containers: Invest in quality airtight containers to keep food fresh and avoid freezer burn.
  • Label and Date: Always label your containers with the contents and date of storage to keep track of freshness.
  • Organize Your Fridge/Freezer: Place newer meals behind the older ones to rotate your stock.
  • Reheating: When reheating, make sure leftovers reach an internal temperature of at least 165°F (74°C) for food safety.

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