I hate seeing good food go to waste. But when I cook dinner at home, I’m often stuck with leftover ingredients that don’t necessarily go together. One of my pet peeves is when a recipe calls for a single stalk of celery, and then you’re left with the rest of the head to use up before it goes bad. There’s only so much crudités a girl can take before she never wants to see raw celery again…
Between the wasted food and the sheer amount of time it takes to cook, I recently found myself ordering takeout way too often. So a few weeks ago, I decided to buckle down and get serious about meal planning. My goal was to cook healthy dinners at least 4 or 5 nights a week without wasting any food.
I’ve been going strong with that goal for about a month now, so I decided to share a few of my meal planning tips with everyone. Besides not wasting food, meal planning has a number of other benefits. Once you get the hang of it, meal planning will save you time, money, stress, and is much healthier than the microwavable meal or takeout you’d turn to in a moment of hangry desperation.
So without further ado, here is The Smart Girl’s Guide to Meal Planning…
Start With a Well Stocked Pantry
One of the least fun and most time consuming parts of cooking is doing the grocery shopping. But you can cut your shopping time in half just by having a well-stocked pantry. Start with this list of 10 versatile items to always have in your pantry, and then add other shelf-stable ingredients that you use most often (grains, canned goods, condiments, etc.). Buy as many of these items as you have room for, so that you won’t have to shop for them often.
If you plan on making Thai one night, Mexican the next, and Italian the night after that, it’s going to be hard to use a ton overlapping ingredients. Instead, plan your menu so that you have overlapping flavor palettes at least a couple night of the week. For example, if you’re making a Greek salad one night, you can make burgers topped with feta, red onion, and olives later in the week. Spread out these similar menu items so that you don’t feel like you’re eating the same thing two nights in a row (Greek on Monday and Thursday, Mexican on Tuesday and Friday).
Take the 20-Ingredient Challenge
The best way to ensure that you’re saving money and not wasting food is limiting the number of ingredients you buy each week. Challenge yourself to cook with only 20 fresh ingredients per week (this does not count those staples from your well-stocked pantry). Get creative, and find a way to incorporate any produce, dairy, and fresh meat you buy into more than one dish. Bonus: This will make your grocery shopping trip super quick and easy too!
Love Your Leftovers
If you’re cooking for just one or two people, you’re likely going to have leftovers with any standard recipe. The fact is, it’s just much more efficient (time and money-wise) to cook a bigger meal. So, learn to love leftovers, and plan on eating any leftover dinner portions for lunch the next day. Or, if your meal is freezer-friendly (soups, stews, casseroles, etc), you can save it for lunch a couple weeks down the line.
You can do it alone, but there are also a number of resources that take the guesswork out of meal planning. I love The Fresh 20, which gives you 5 recipes a week based on the 20-ingredient challenge (they offer vegetarian, gluten-free, dairy-free, Paleo, and classic menus). There’s also Gatheredtable, which lets you pull recipes from all over the web and input them into your own custom meal planning calendar and shopping list. Even just starting with a good Pinterest board full of weeknight dinner recipes really helps! Also, if you used to order a lot of takeout and you’re saving money by cooking, you might have some money in your budget to take advantage of conveniences like Instacart or Amazon Fresh.
Get the Prep Out of the Way
One of the great things about meal planning is that when you have your menu for the week set ahead of time, you can do all of your prep ahead of time too. Taking an hour or two on Sunday to chop all of your veggies, precook your grains, and measure out ingredients will save you so much time on weeknights when you’re in more of a pinch.
There you have it!
Are you good about cooking dinners at home during the week?
I’m hoping I can keep my cooking streak up!