Meal planning helps answer the question “what’s for dinner?” Done regularly, it can help alleviate the stress of cooking weeknight dinners, reduce food waste, and save you money.

First things first, think about your approach to meal planning.

  • Will you make a weekly or monthly plan?
  • Do you prefer to prepare ingredients or meals ahead of time, just before a meal, or a combination of both? 
  • What dietary needs for yourself or your family do you need to consider?

Next, create your menu. Set aside a day of week and time of day to devote to meal planning. The weekend is usually a good option, but there may be a day of the week that works best for you. Either in your phone notes, on your computer, in a calendar book, or on a sheet of paper, create your menu. You may find this meal planning worksheet helpful.

  1. Check in with your schedule and your family members’ schedules. Are there any days certain family members won’t need dinner, you plan on dining out, traveling, or eating elsewhere?
  2. Decide how many meals you will need for the week. Typically, it will be 3 to 5 per week. If you’re just starting to cook more at home or you live by yourself, start small with 1 to 2 meals per week. Over time you can add more as you gain confidence in the kitchen. 
  3. Take inventory of the ingredients you already have on hand and want to use up. It’s best to practice, “first in, first out,” meaning prioritizing using up ingredients that are closest to expiring but still safe to eat. It’s good to rotate through food items, rather than store them for long periods of time.
  4. Aim for variety in meals throughout the week. Try to get a variety of lean proteins, colorful vegetables, and fiber-rich starches such as whole grains or potatoes.
    1. It can be helpful to assign a theme to each day of the week. For example: 
      1. Meatless Monday
      2. Taco Tuesday 
      3. Stir-fry Wednesday
      4. Salad bowl Thursday 
      5. Fish or seafood Friday 
  5. Find recipes by flipping through cookbooks, social media, or online sites. Save them to the same place for easy access when it’s time to cook. Consider the level of cooking skill and time required to make a recipe, as well as how many servings it will make. 
  6. Consider in season ingredients that are available where you shop when choosing recipes. Produce that is in season tends to be more flavorful and less expensive. 
  7. Build your grocery list with the ingredients you’ll need to purchase for each recipe. It can help to organize your grocery list by category or where they can be found in the store. 
  8. Procure your ingredients by going grocery shopping, visiting farmers markets, or completing an online order for grocery delivery or pick-up.
  9. Prep ingredients ahead of time. Chopping veggies, washing fruit, and pre-cooking whole grains or proteins can help cut down on time in the kitchen later in the week. 
  10. Consider leftovers. Extra servings make for a great packed lunch the next day. Consider food safety  as refrigerated leftovers should be used within 3-4 days or frozen for later use. Freezing chilis and soups is a way to preserve them for a later date. 

At the end of the day, the best laid plans may go awry. There’s always a chance something unexpected will throw off your plans or a recipe turns out to be a flop. It’s good to keep notes on which recipes went well to keep in your rotation. It’s also helpful to keep your pantry and freezer stocked with basics that can be put together to create a quick balanced meal. Below are some ideas of foods you may want to keep on hand based on your personal food preferences and health needs.

Vegetables: The flash-freezing process locks in vitamins, minerals and other nutrients to frozen spinach, peas, stir fry vegetables blends and other frozen veggies. They can easily be reheated and incorporated into a meal. Canned tomatoes (diced, crushed, whole, or strewed) can be used in soups, sauces, stews, casseroles, and more.

Fruits: Frozen berry and other fruit blends melt right into warm oatmeal or can be blended up in a protein smoothie for extra sweetness. Dried fruits such as raisins, craisins, figs, apricot or mango are loaded with fiber. Pair them with mixed nuts for a homemade trail mix, add them to a salad, or mix them into your whole grain dishes.

Whole Grains: Oats, quinoa, barley, farro, and a variety of long grain, short grain, basmati and wild rices can be kept in your pantry and provide a fiber-rich kick to any meal. Pastas with fun shapes make for a quick and easy family meal - try out pasta made from chickpeas or legumes for extra protein and fiber.

Nuts & Seeds: Mix together walnuts, almonds, pecans, cashews, hazelnuts, pistachios, Brazil nuts, or macadamia nuts for a snack with a variety of vitamins and minerals. Slivered almonds, pumpkin seeds, or sunflower seeds can be added to a salad grain bowl or baked into a high fiber bread. Ground flax, chia seeds, and hemp hearts provide omega-3 fatty acids and can be added to oatmeal, cereals, yogurts, salads, and baked goods.

Proteins: Frozen salmon filets, shrimp, poultry, or lean meats can easily be defrosted for a protein-packed meal. Tip: move your frozen proteins to the refrigerator one day before cooking to allow adequate defrosting time. Canned beans such as black, pinto, garbanzo and kidney beans provide plant-based protein and lots of fiber to a taco bowl, soup or chopped salad. Canned tuna, anchovies, and sardines provide healthy fats, protein, and add flavor to a meal.

Oils, spices, and condiments: Don’t forget the versatility of oils and vinegars which can be used to marinate proteins or make quick salad dressings. Dried herbs and spices add flavor without excess sodium to a meal. Also opt for low sodium versions of vegetable, chicken or beef stocks and broths.