“What’s for dinner?” is sometimes the hardest question to answer after a long day.  You find yourself staring blankly into the freezer hoping something, anything, will give you a stroke of inspiration and won’t be too time consuming to prepare.  It’s exhausting, stressful, and sometimes leaves you running out to the store, or to grab take-out, which ends up eating at your wallet.  What you end up buying isn’t always the healthiest choice either.

Fret not, we have the answer—meal planning!

Where Do I Start?

Carving out a half hour during the weekend to put together a weekly menu can end up saving you invaluable minutes during the week when work, school, extracurriculars, and appointments demand your attention. A chalkboard or dry erase board are great places to write out your menu so that everyone in the family can see what’s planned for that night. Don’t have one? No problem! A simple sheet of paper works well too, and is just the right size for posting on the refrigerator.

There are plenty of templates available for free online that may work for your family or you can use the one we created here.

Check your pantry and refrigerator to see if you have items that need to be used up and try to include them. It will help save money and reduce food waste.

If you have kids, ask them to participate. Having them give suggestions for meals they’d like can help make them more excited about dinner time.

” A favorite quick breakfast in our home is overnight oats. You can assemble them in advance, at the start of the week, and customize each jar to everybody’s preference. 

Use wide-mouth mason jars and fill with half a cup of rolled oats. Fill with milk or a milk alternative, like almond milk, to just where the oats are wet (about 4 oz.). Top with chia, flax, or hemp seeds, or anything else you like that adds flavor, including cinnamon or a dash of maple syrup. Fill the remainder of the jar with frozen or fresh fruit – we like a mix of frozen berries that include cherries. Seal the jars and place in the fridge. In the morning, a quick zap in the microwave will warm it up to be ready to eat, although we like to eat ours cold!

Other flavor combinations to consider: peanut butter and banana, or pumpkin pie (add some canned pumpkin and nutmeg). Try a bit of Greek-style yogurt in a flavor you like! The combinations are endless, and kids will love creating them, assembly-line style.” 

Theresa Jackson, RD, CSOWM, CDN

Clinical Nutrition Manager, Kenmore Mercy Hospital

Meal Planning Helps Find Your Inner Foodie

If you still find yourself struggling with ideas, assign a theme to each night of the week. For example, Pasta Night, Taco Night, Chicken Night, and so on. Pick a less-busy night and try something new. Find a recipe online, from your favorite cookbook, or from a friend. You never know, it might end up being a family-favorite! Once you have a type of meal assigned to each day of the week, filling in the rest of the details comes easy.

Another idea is to try the “cook once, eat twice” method. Your slow cooker can help out by doing all of the hard work during the day and leaving you with extra portions for use later. “Eat twice” by having a leftover night or use leftovers to create a new dish. Go ahead, toss that extra protein into a stir fry!

Meal planning doesn’t have to be just for dinner either. Packing your lunch while cleaning up from dinner can check something off of your list during those busy mornings. Plan your breakfast and lunch choices by repurposing leftovers into all new meals. Leftover steak can be a great topping for a delicious and healthy salad or extra chicken breast can be made into a yummy wrap. The possibilities are endless.

Food for Thought

Once you have your meals planned out for the week, it’s time to write-out a grocery list. A weekly shopping trip, with a grocery list in-hand, helps cut your monthly grocery bill and can lower gas expenses since you are making less trips. Sticking to your list will help curb impulse buys and keep you on-track for healthy eating. Be sure to check with your local store to see if they offer family or bulk packs of proteins and veggies for even more savings.

Happy meal planning!