Most of the stress of cooking comes from arriving home late, with no clear idea of exactly what ingredients you have that you can use to cook. By creating a dinner plan for the week, you eliminate all that stress. You know what you’re planning to cook, and you know you’ll have all the ingredients on hand.

Whether you’re cooking for one or feeding a family of five, everyone needs to eat. Generally speaking, meals prepared at home are going to be more healthful and less expensive than meals purchased outside the home.

Planning gets a bad rap as being boring and time-consuming. But when develop the habit of investing some up-front time to make a meal plan for the week, you’ll find that it quickly become routine and ends up saving you both time and money, because you avoid last minute dashes to the supermarket and also avoid buying ingredients you forgot you already had in your pantry.

Before You Get Started

Decide what day(s) work best for grocery shopping, and then back up from there to decide when to do your meal planning. For example, if you do your primary shopping on, say, Saturday morning, you may want to do your planning on Thursday or Friday. If you like to choose new recipes to try, this gives you the earlier part of the week to browse your favorite recipe sources.

The Plan

Print out one of these meal planner PDFs (or simply write the days of the week on a piece of paper):

Look at your schedule. Do you have planned meals out? Are guests coming over for dinner? Note this on your plan.

Next, ask yourself (and answer) these two questions:

  1. How often am I willing to cook?
  2. How high is my (or my family’s) tolerance for leftovers?

If you don’t want to cook very often during the week, but love (or don’t mind) leftovers, then you can plan to cook or prepare larger portions of food less often (i.e. batch cooking). If you don’t like leftovers but want to prepare more meals at home, then choose recipes that fit within your time and energy parameters. Most nights of the week, simple is best.

New To You, Or Tried-and-True?

If you love picking out new recipes to try each week, then carve out some time to browse cookbooks, magazines, food blogs or recipe sites, and plug what excites you into your plan. Otherwise, consider developing a sort of “meal template.” To do this, start by identifying which types of meals you eat most often? For example:

  • Big salads
  • Meat/Poultry + veggies
  • Fish + veggies
  • Pasta/grain dishes
  • Beans/lentils
  • Soups
  • Quick meals (scrambled eggs, quesadillas, tacos, etc.)

Based on how often you want to cook each week, divvy up your main meal categories. If you have more categories than “cooking nights,” you may want to combine some categories. (i.e., Wednesday is either a big salad night or a soup night). Two tips for making the most of this sort of “template” plan:

  1. There’s nothing wrong with using that same plan every week (Tuesday may be “Taco Tuesday” but you can have fish tacos one week, chicken tacos the next, and so on). Or make two plans and just alternate them, week by week. You’re the cook. If someone else wants more variety, let them volunteer to cook!
  2. Collect some fail safe recipes for each category. Keep copies in a folder or slim binder that you use for your regular weeknight meals.

Next, decide how many servings you need to prepare on each cooking night, based on how many servings of leftovers you need for additional dinners and lunches, or whether you want to freeze some leftovers for future meals. Add any ingredients you need to buy to your shopping list.

Once you know what you’ll be eating for dinner each day, think about lunch and breakfast (factoring in any planned meals out or available leftovers). Often, this is as simple as “I’m going to alternate between scrambled eggs with veggies + toast and Greek yogurt with berries + walnuts for breakfast this week,” and “On days I don’t have leftovers, I’ll have a sandwich or salad for lunch” and add any routine ingredients for those meals.

If you enjoy browsing online for recipes, decide what works best for you in terms of organizing/saving them. For example, you might print out recipes you want to make in the next week or two, but keep other interesting recipes organized by bookmarking them into folders in your browser. You might sort by meal (breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack, dessert) or by other categories (quick dinners, special dinners, make-ahead, batch cooking, slow cooker) or even by seasons, if you grow your own produce or prefer to shop at farmers’ markets.

More Planning Tips

Keep a sheet of paper on the side of your fridge, or keep a list in your mobile device, and try to add things to your grocery list throughout the week, as you think of them. This includes pantry staples like rice and spices, as well as perishable items that you use regularly, but not necessarily for specific recipes, like eggs or Greek yogurt.

Do a quick inventory of your pantry and fridge before you go to the store—you may find last minute omissions, or get ideas of what to buy to pair with other foods on hand.

Even if you enjoy experimenting with new recipes, it’s helpful to type up a list (on your phone or elsewhere) of quick meals as reminders of what to make when you are extra busy or just don’t feel like cooking. Quick meals could include picking up a rotisserie chicken and tossing a green salad for the side, or, in the immortal words of the legendary food writer and cookbook author Elizabeth David, an omelette and a glass of wine (preferably with a salad on the side).

If you like to keep a pantry (not everyone does, but I really do recommend it), stocking it with YOUR staples items is another great way to save yourself time and money. Here are a few tips:

  • A “staple” is whatever you need to make the kind of food you like to cook.
  • For many people, pasta is a staple, or canned tuna. For others, soy sauce or anchovy paste might be must-have foods.
  • With a well-stocked pantry, you can make many of your favorite dishes any day of the week without stopping again at the market. You will also have the luxury of purchasing pantry staples when they are on sale, instead of the moment you need them for a specific dish.
  • Buy and store extras of each staple if you have space, and then add it to your shopping list when you start to run a bit low.
Preventing Food Waste

No one likes food waste. When you find yourself throwing away food that you spent good money on (even if you have a robust food budget), guilt often comes along for the ride. Making a weekly meal plan can help you avoid food waste by helping you make use of leftovers, but proper storage and advance prep also play a role. A few tips:

Store food thoughtfully. Before you put away your food, clean out anything in the fridge that’s gone bad, collect any tired veggies you can turn into a tasty stir-fry or add to a pot of soup or chili tonight. Rearrange what’s left, and only then put away your new purchases.

Prep food ahead of time. There’s one more step after you return home and unpack your food: prepping fruits and veggies, especially greens, and putting them away in appropriate containers. This extends extend the shelf life of your purchases, and make it easy to grab healthy foods quickly.

  • Wash and spin-dry lettuce or other leafy greens.
  • Cut up carrot and celery sticks.
  • Chop ingredient for a few days of salads, such as cucumbers and bell peppers.
Final Thoughts

Getting into the habit of meal planning is, like any other habit, something you have to cultivate. It may feel like it takes too much time at first, but it becomes faster and more routine as you go along. Remember that there’s no one right way to do it, but doing it makes it easier to achieve any nutrition and health goals you have for yourself, plus it can put an end to that tedious end-of-the-day question, “What’s for Dinner?”