SALT LAKE CITY — How many times do you notice your stomach growling, or those of your kids, look at your watch, realize it's 6:30 p.m., then ask yourself what to make for dinner?
You look in the fridge, see a couple random leftovers, a gallon of milk and a bunch of ingredients that you probably could throw together, but you don't want to have to take the time to prepare them.
This happens to me all the time.
When I don't have an idea for dinner, I will do one of three things: have cereal and let my produce spoil, make dinner and not eat until I'm beyond starving, or just run to get something. None of these dinner options are bad — there are days that we just want something easy, something comforting, or something that we don't have to make.
But at least for me, as someone who would rather eat at home (more frequently than not) because I like cooking, because I like to save money, and because I've found that my body usually feels better after eating a well-balanced and delicious meal.
One common misconception that I hear about meal planning is that it takes a lot of time. Sure, planning out meals can be time-consuming, and even cooking those meals can be time-consuming.
But if you first figure out what your goal for planning out your meals is, you can find ways to achieve that goal. For example, if your goal is to plan out meals and leftovers that will make eating and cooking during the week easy and take less time, you've got to look for easy recipes and recipes that will last you a few days.
When starting to plan out meals, I encourage my clients to take a look at their week and note the days that they will have some time to prep/cook and days they won't. This allows them to double a recipe on a day that they do have some time to prep, and have leftovers on a day that they won't have any time. This sets them up for success and makes their lives easier.
There's no need to overcomplicate the process or to have rigid rules for planning out meals. I like to look at it as an experiment, and anything that could help make the process easier and seems like it could work for them is a great idea. That could include signing up for a meal kit, finding a meal service, or joining a membership site that provides recipes each week. Or it could look a bit more traditional where you plan out recipes and meals, shop for them, and prepare them on your own.
I asked some of my favorite registered dietitian friends about their favorite meal planning tricks, and they shared some great ones:
1. Stock your freezer
The freezer is one of the best-kept secrets for meal planning in the house. You can prep meals that can go from the freezer to the oven/Crock-Pot/Instant Pot for super easy meals. Or if you don't have time to prep anything, keep stocked on frozen meat, grains and veggies so, if worst comes to worst, you can piece things together from the freezer. Just pull out the ingredients the night before.— Kelli Shallal, MPH RD, private practice RD, and author behind healthy living blog Hungry Hobby.
2. Make formula meals
Rather than making one or two complete meals, I prep several components of meals that can be mixed and matched in a number of ways. They always include a whole grain, an extra protein source, raw or sauteed veggie and/or cut up fruit, and a dressing or sauce. Each component is stored in clear glass containers in the fridge so I can quickly grab what I need. Whole grains are left unseasoned so they can easily be used for breakfast, lunch or dinner. The one pictured below is bulgur wheat with cherries, almonds and green beans.
— Catherine Brown, plant-based chef & culinary nutritionist at A Seat at My Table.
3. Don't try to do it all
Pick the time of day or meal that’s your biggest struggle and focus on that. For me, that means having a few quick snacks and breakfast options on hand for my kids and carb and options that my type 1 diabetic husband can easily measure.
— Lindsay Livingston of The Lean Green Bean blog.
4. Plan 5 to 6 dinners
I always plan 5 to 6 dinners for the week, which leaves us the flexibility to eat out or have leftovers one night if we feel really tired or something comes up. My plans are pretty fluid. Sometimes we switch around nights or make something else that uses similar ingredients to what I had planned. That way, we can still use up the food I had planned to use, but we also don't feel like we're stuck eating exactly what's on the plan if that's not what we feel like having!
— Kaleigh McMordie, MCN, RDN of Lively Table.
5. Print out recipes
When you find a recipe you like, print it out and save it in a binder next to your cookbooks. Then, when it comes time to meal plan, you have a collection of recipes ready to go that you already know your family loves! It makes meal planning a breeze.
— Megan Byrd at TheOregonDietitian.com.
6. Plan meals around your schedule
Take time out once a week to create a meal plan based on what activities and plans your family has scheduled for the week. Plan to have leftovers or meals that require limited preparation on busier nights. Before you select meals for the week, consider what foods you already have in the pantry and fridge. Once you have a plan completed, create a list of all of the ingredients needed to create each meal. Survey the foods you have on hand to determine which of these foods needs to go on your grocery list.
— Kristen Smith of 360 Family Nutrition.
7. Prep overnight oats ahead of time
Don't stress the morning of about a healthy breakfast. Instead, put together a quick overnight oats recipe so you can grab breakfast when you're in a hurry. I like to keep a supply of basics for this quick breakfast on hand, including oats, frozen fruit, nuts, milk and yogurt. You can vary the ingredients based on what you have on hand.
— Amy Gorin, MS, RDN, owner of Amy Gorin Nutrition in the New York City area.
8. Use kitchen gadgets that make life easier
Use kitchen gadgets that mike life easier, like the slow cooker. There are many delicious and simple recipes available that take no time at all, such as this potato soup.
— Jodi Danen of Create Kids Club.
9. Check your fridge, freezer and pantry
Always check your fridge, freezer and pantry before planning meals each week. Have your "go-to" easy meals to pair with new meals for quicker planning and cooking. Simplify packed lunches with bowls that incorporate all of the food groups (easy prepping). Cut down meal prep time by planning meals to be cooked on the stove, in the oven, and in a crockpot/instant pot at the same time.
— Erin Lisemby Judge of Judge Nutrition.
10. Plan for leftovers
Make more at dinner than what you'll serve and pack up the extras in school lunches the next day. For example, instead of roasting one chicken, roast two and turn the second one into chicken salad for sandwiches, salads, or lunch box taquitos.
— Katie Sullivan Morford, MS, RD Mom's Kitchen Handbook.
At the end of the day, what's really important is making your life easier. If your meal plan or methods add stress or complication to your life, take a step back and think about one thing you could change to make it easier. Then try it and go from there. Again, it's an experiment, you try something, it may work out, it may not. But take what you learn and move forward with that knowledge.