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How to Simplify Your Meal Planning Routine

 

Simple Meal Planning Routine | Meal Planning Guide | Meal Planning Tips | Meal Plan | Menu Planning

From planning and preparation to cooking and execution to serving and enjoying, food is a focus point for any family. It’s no wonder food takes up so much of our time and effort.

While variety is (of course) the spice of life, there’s something to be said for the amount of time we waste agonizing over what to wear and what to eat.

Have you ever noticed just how many successful people out there wear the same thing every day? They’re avoiding decision fatigue caused by an abundance of choices. When we focus too much on all the tiny details, we can become too distracted to make big decisions when it really matters.

DIG DEEPER


Meal planning eliminates dinnertime stress and overspending. Rather than navigating weeknight meals without a plan, go in with a plan and dinner is served. Simple!

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It might just be time to simplify & to make time for more important things.

The reality is I love food. My family loves food.  I love leafing through cookbooks and thinking up new recipes. I love going out to eat, and I enjoy experimenting with new flavors.

I don’t, however, enjoy spending hours upon hours at the stove. I get frustrated when I spend a bunch of time on a meal, only to find out my kids or husband aren’t thrilled with it, and I could have just made some grilled cheese sandwiches instead. My love of freezer meals grew from this idea: life is too short to spend all of it in the kitchen!

So, how can we simplify our food routines? How can we make meal planning an exercise of joy and relaxation? How can we bring happiness into our cooking and unstuff our meal plans?  Here are a few ideas that might just help!

Simple Meal Planning Routine | Meal Planning Guide | Meal Planning Tips | Meal Plan | Menu Planning

1. Simplify Your Ingredient List

The easiest way to simplify your meals? Cook simple meals. Really! Simple meals are composed of a starch, a vegetable and a protein, like grilled chicken on a bed of greens, with a baked potato side. Soups with hearty bread or simple sandwiches can be comforting and delicious. Try rice, grain, or noodle bowls with a variety of sauces and add-ins.

Try to aim for only 5 or 6 ingredients for each meal. For example: protein, salt, pepper, tomatoes, rice, and cheese. Look for whole ingredients (fruits, vegetables, grains) that are unprocessed, simple and delicious. Sometimes lovely fresh produce can be enough to make a meal feel elevated and special.

Simple Meal Planning Routine | Meal Planning Guide | Meal Planning Tips | Meal Plan | Menu Planning

2. Take Help Where You Can Get It

When it comes to your grocery bill, preparing your own produce can save you quite a bit of money. However, chopping, grating and preparing can also take quite a bit of time. While there is something to be said for making your own bread, almond milk, or tomato sauce, sometimes the convenience of jarred or canned foods trumps the cost savings.

Frozen vegetables often contain higher nutrient levels because they’re flash frozen at the time of harvest, unlike many “fresh” vegetables that deteriorate while in transport for weeks. If you opt for additive-free and organic items, you might find yourself very pleased with the flavor and nutritional values. Many well-known stores (including Trader Joe’s, Aldi and Costco ) offer quite the cost savings on organics, and you can even find pre-chopped, prepped items to simplify your meal planning routine.

Simple Meal Planning Routine | Meal Planning Guide | Meal Planning Tips | Meal Plan | Menu Planning

3. Enjoy “Taco Tuesdays” and More

Come up with a few family favorites, like Meatless Monday or Fish Sticks Friday, and make them a regular thing. (Don’t worry about the cute alliteration in the name. If your family likes Spaghetti Thursdays, go for it.) This solves the “what to eat tonight” conundrum each week—and believe me, your family won’t mind a bit!

Regular meals in your repertoire also means you can easily shop for ingredients and keep them on hand. You’ll save time at the store searching for new ingredients for new recipes. Plus, keeping it consistent means you can reuse spices or ingredients each week. For example, making a stir-fry once a week means you can plan on always keeping the basics in stock (rice, soy sauce, spices and brown sugar), but you can change up the veggies or meat you incorporate each week. If there’s a deal on chicken one week, enjoy a chicken teriyaki dish; if tofu is on sale the next week, give it a shot.

Simple Meal Planning Routine | Meal Planning Guide | Meal Planning Tips | Meal Plan | Menu Planning

4. Learn to Love Leftovers

Not everyone is a big fan of leftovers. I get it. If your family is resistant, it might be time to encourage them to get over it. Cooking once and eating for several meals is a huge time saver. A lunch of last night’s leftovers tastes significantly better than a frozen “boxed meal” anyway, plus, you’ll save all that money you would have spent in the office cafeteria or at a lunch spot.

Family still resistant? Find ways to cook once and use ingredients twice. For example, last night’s roasted chicken with baked potatoes becomes filling for tonight’s chicken fajitas with spicy Mexican hash browns. If your family balks at a second spaghetti night in a row, try a baked spaghetti pie for the second round. It’s fairly easy to make the second meal different enough so it’s doesn’t seem like yesterday’s microwaved meal.

Simple Meal Planning Routine | Meal Planning Guide | Meal Planning Tips | Meal Plan | Menu Planning

5. Try Sunday Meal Prep

I’m a big fan of Sunday meal prep. It sets up my week for success, and there’s something very comforting about looking into a freezer or fridge full of ready-to-go meals. I’ve really streamlined the process, so I can prep a whole week (or two) in just an hour. It’s a wonderful time saver and Big time stress-saver. If you want to give Sunday prep a try, you can easily go beyond dinner and plan out your family’s breakfasts and lunches as well. Once you try it, you’ll be hooked.

Preparing oatmeal ahead of time, individually bagging lunch components (like chips and carrot sticks), or making bread on a Sunday afternoon makes for a fun and relaxing process. I really feel Sunday meal prep helps me enjoy cooking much more in general. I can do it at my own pace and it feels productive and planned, rather than stressful and thrown together. It’s a great way to start Monday off on the right foot.

Simple Meal Planning Routine | Meal Planning Guide | Meal Planning Tips | Meal Plan | Menu Planning

6. Embrace Make-Ahead & Freezer Meals

Similar to Sunday meal prep, make-ahead meals and freezer meals are an amazing way to streamline your meal-planning process. A freezer full of go-to meals saves so much time. It makes dinner planning simple and easy, and you have plenty of variety available to suit your family. Not only that, but you also save money by shopping once, prepping once, then making the meals right then and there. No more heading to the store on a whim for a last-minute ingredient only to come home with a bag full of items you didn’t plan on purchasing.

When you get home from work or at the end of your busy day, the last thing most of us want to do is haul out pots, pans, and cutting boards. Preparing meals beforehand allows you to simply pop what you need in the oven at the end of the day, or come home to a delicious creation that’s been cooking away in the crockpot all day. With make-ahead meals and freezer meals, I can focus on my family, hear about their day, help with homework, and enjoy our time together, rather than stress out in a hot kitchen with hungry kids underfoot.

To get started, try one of our 10 Meals in an Hour™! Here’s a sampling of my favorites:

 Simple Meal Planning Routine | Meal Planning Guide | Meal Planning Tips | Meal Plan | Menu Planning

7. Make What You Know

Occasionally I like to make something more complicated. It can be deeply satisfying to follow a gourmet recipe—making your own ravioli, creating beef Wellington, or cooking up jambalaya. Save these special high-prep recipes for an occasion when you have plenty of time and patience, you haven’t worked all day, and you don’t have guests arriving for dinner.

When you’re under time constraints or pressure, keep it SIMPLE. In a pinch? This is the perfect time to pull out your go-to recipes. It’s fun to experiment in the kitchen, but if you’re looking to reduce stress, don’t try meals requiring extended cooking times, many steps, or new and unfamiliar components. Stick with what you know and it’s sure to turn out wonderful each time (like Grandma’s Sloppy Joe’s).

Simple Meal Planning Routine | Meal Planning Guide | Meal Planning Tips | Meal Plan | Menu Planning

8. Use Flavorful Ingredients

A secret to simple meals? Use only the best, most flavorful ingredients! Fresh herbs, strong Parmesan cheese, or a squeeze of lime can make basic meals sing and feel so much fancier! Grow herbs in a container or vegetable garden, then use them to add a little polish to your dishes. Plain ol’ pork chops and rice can get really special when you have fresh rosemary or thyme.

If you have delicious food from your garden or if you find some really nice produce on sale, make it the focus of your meal. Fresh ingredients rarely need much preparation—steaming and adding a little salt and butter can generally be enough. Celebrate and highlight the best qualities of your ingredients by allowing them to shine through. Don’t bury them in sauces and heavy (time-consuming) preparations!

Simple Meal Planning Routine | Meal Planning Guide | Meal Planning Tips | Meal Plan | Menu Planning

9. Make the Most of Pantry Staples

Another secret to simplifying your meal planning is to make the most of what you have in your pantry. If you have rice or pasta, cook a large batch and switch it up as the base for several meals. Quinoa, rice, barley, couscous, noodles or orzo can be the base for a “bowl” along with some sauce and veggies.

Beans, lentils, and other legumes can be a great source of protein, and they’re easy to prepare ahead and incorporate into dishes throughout the week. If you find your food budget is a little tight from week-to-week, these pantry staples don’t cost much, plus, they can stretch your meals and they’re simple to make in advance.

Simple Meal Planning Routine | Meal Planning Guide | Meal Planning Tips | Meal Plan | Menu Planning

10. Don’t Fear the Microwave

I must confess: I’m NOT a big fan of the microwave. When it comes to meal preparation, microwaving feels too “convenient” and cheep to me. Things never seem to heat evenly and they just don’t cook as nicely in the microwave. However, when it comes to simplifying your meal preparation, the microwave can be a necessary tool.

Steaming vegetables in the microwave (use a glass container) is beneficial and helps them retain their nutrients. You can serve steamed veggies right from the dish, and you don’t have to dirty and wash yet another pot. Reheating soups and make-ahead dishes, as well as leftovers, comes easy in the microwave. If you’re like me and you avoid your microwave, it might be time to give it another chance.

When all else fails, you can always have grilled cheese or cereal for dinner. I’ve found that even though we put pressure on ourselves to cook delicious and healthy meals for our families, our kids often don’t mind the occasional “cheater” convenience meal. Keep things simple and give yourself a break!

Simple Meal Planning Routine | Meal Planning Guide | Meal Planning Tips | Meal Plan | Menu PlanningP.S.  Want more ideas for how to simplify your life?  The new Living Well Planner has been updated and is better then ever! Find out all about the awesome updates to this year’s version HERE.

 

 

 

Simple Meal Planning Routine | Meal Planning Guide | Meal Planning Tips | Meal Plan | Menu Planning

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What other tips and tricks to you use to declutter and unstuff your meal prep? Do you have some go-to simple meals you love to cook? I’d love to hear your ideas!

 

17 Comments

  1. April 6 at 12:34PM

    We do a lot of these things but I haven’t dared try make ahead freezer cooking yet, it seems like such a lot of work, perhaps that could be my next challenge ! Thanks for your great blog !

  2. April 6 at 01:15PM

    These are great tips for meal planning because it can be discouraging thinking about all the time you need to spend in order to get your meals ready.

    I tend to buy the frozen vegetables as well, what a great tip, they definitely keep longer and most stores have the organic option if you wanted to go that route.

    P.S. – I am never opposed to a good grilled cheese dinner 🙂

  3. April 6 at 01:26PM

    Great tips!

    Meal planning is my downfall! Will try to do better!

  4. April 7 at 03:11AM

    I love Sunday meal prep time – I use it as an excuse to binge watch Netflix. It makes me feel like quite the domestic goddess (which is a rare feeling for me, someone who doesn’t even own an iron), but one that’s having a whale of a time. I also find that if I prep the veg, I’m waaaay more likely to actually eat it, rather than letting it chill in the fridge until it dies, and then chuck it out.

    • Emily
      April 8 at 05:01PM

      Agreed! Having things ready ahead of time makes me less tempted to grab the kids’ Easter candy off the counter… 😉 Haha!

      I also love prepping big batches of meat for the freezer: cook all the ground beef & bag it in 1-pound servings, cut up chicken for nuggets and bag that, precook some chicken and bag it in strips for salad or fajitas, etc. Then when I do come home right at 6, and nobody’s started dinner, it’s easy to grab meat from the freezer and make a quick taco night!

      Our boys are tweens now, so we also do “YOYO” nights – You’re On Your Own. 😉 They love it, it gets the leftovers out of the fridge, and I feel like I’m helping them develop the skills to feed themselves.

  5. April 7 at 09:13AM

    Where I’m not much of a meal planner I agree with many of the tips you’ve mentioned. We’re now an empty nest home so meals have been a matter of learning how to cook in smaller portions. It’s fun, almost like cooking in a restaurant.

    I do like to have homemade spaghetti sauce in the freezer for those days when everything falls apart. A good dinner on the table in 20 minutes is a wonderful thing.

  6. April 7 at 03:24PM

    I always try to keep my recipes five ingredients or less.

    I see that your picture includes chicken to be frozen and reheated later. I cooked a bank of BBQ chicken drumsticks and when I reheat them in the microwave, they do not have as much flavor as they had when I first cooked them. Did I miss something?

  7. Rachel
    April 8 at 05:19PM

    Thanks for the ideas. I like to try new things but my husband would be fine with the same things every week. I love freezer meals.

    By the way, as a helping proofing note, planning on your picture is spelled wrong and so is cheap in #10.

    I love your blog and your 31 day decluttering emails have change my life.

    Thank you!

  8. April 20 at 11:04AM

    These are great tips! I too like Sunday for Meal Prep day. I usually pick my groceries up on Friday after work (huge fan of ordering groceries online from my local grocery store!). Then, I look at some of my favorite recipe sites for inspiration and save their recipes into my meal plan list on Google Docs. I only order the ingredients I don’t already have for the week, and if my grocery budget is exhausted, I use sites like MyFridgeFood to come up with something yummy using the ingredients we already have in the kitchen. So far it has made weeknights WAY less stressful! It’s so easy to just throw that casserole dish in the oven and bake or dump everything into a pan to heat.

    HOWEVER, meal prep usually takes me about 4-5 hours each week. So I am definitely interested in checking out your 10 meals in 1 hour posts! Thank you so much for posting this.

  9. Nikki Collins
    August 18 at 04:15PM

    Thanks for the help, my family and I just created a monthly meal plan for spring/summer and winter/fall. They are very similar with a few changes. We always have two left over meal days, once on Thursdays and then again for lunch on Saturdays. I have a home daycare, so we always have lots left over at the end of the week. We also make sammi and salad, or soup and salad days on Mondays since that’s our girl scout meeting day. Chicken Tuesdays, Pasta Wednesdays, “Take Out At Home” Fridays (making take out meals at home, not just ordering out), Hot Dog Saturdays and Comfort Food Sundays. This makes planning easier. We know what the “entree” will be, and just keep staples of grains (rice, bread, etc.) and canned/frozen veggies (broccoli, corn, green beans) on hand for the sides.

  10. Sue
    November 16 at 10:20AM

    While I applaud and appreciate what you are trying to accomplish with the freezer meals, I looked at all of your recipes and many of your ingredients are packaged, ie. canned soups, and therefore processed foods. While these may add a lot of flavour and are convenient, they are NOT good for you. This sadly transforms your otherwise great family dinners into unhealthy meals. I would challenge you to redo your meals without the packaged ingredients. Whole, natural foods are delicious, healthy and easy to cook and take mostly under 30 minutes, from start to finish! As Mums, we all want to give our kids the best of everything and that starts with their health. Processed food is just too readily available and we need to teach them about the good stuff. That way they know that the “junk”, while tasty, should be used in moderation and should not be the norm.

  11. December 2 at 07:28PM

    I’ve just started meal planning this year and it’s taken the stress out of 5pm! The one step that helped my husband and I was to write all the meals that we KNOW our family enjoys. We use that as a basis for our weekly menu and frequently repeat meals weekly! As llong as everyone is full on healthy food we count it a success!

  12. Amy
    December 10 at 11:41PM

    OKAY! I’m so excited to see that others do the SAME things we do. I just posted a blog video about this very thing….http://lovemyschedule.com/dailyschedule-weekly-meal-menu-planning/

    Thanks for the post!

  13. betty music
    September 23 at 01:15PM

    what does this cost

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