A bunch of people have asked me whether I stick to a meal plan after I plan for one. The short answer is “yes,” but we occasionally veer off course if we’re not in the mood to cook or eat something we planned or if different dinner plans pop up.
Meal planning is great because it helps us save money and prevents food from going to waste, but we’re not super strict with it either. Our weekly meal is a good framework for the week, but it’s not the end all be all either. With that said, here are some things that help us stick to our meal plan.
When I plan my weekly menu on the weekends, I take note of the ingredients I already have on hand (leftover food from the previous week) and start with those recipes. Often times, these foods are perishable, so I want to make sure I use them up first, so they don’t spoil and go to waste. I guess you could say these meals are “non-negotiable,” which makes us stick to our meal plan.
Cook the “Hardest” Meals First
When I’m preparing for my meal plan, I almost always schedule the recipes that require the most time and effort at the beginning of the week (i.e. roast chicken). I know as the week progresses, I’m less motivated to cook a meal that requires a lot of work, so I front-load the week and finish with the easy stuff (i.e. tacos) or leftovers.
Typically, these meals produce leftovers, so I incorporate them into the following night’s meal. For example, the roast chicken leftover then I’ll use it for Chicken Bacon Alfredo later in the week.
Cook (Easy) Meals with Leftovers Later in the Week
I also like to cook meals that cover more than one meal, such as crock pot meals or meat fillings. By Thursday night, I don’t want to spend a lot of time in the kitchen, so we often eat leftovers (or super easy meals) on these nights.
Take Full Advantage of a “Saturday Cook-Up”
On Saturday afternoons, I typically spend about an hour preparing food for the upcoming week. I typically make more involved (aka “the hardest”) meals on Sunday nights, so while I am preparing, I cook other foods for the week, including Sweet Potato Wedges, baked squash, roasted veggies, hard-boiled eggs, rice, and chicken, and then store them in Tupperware containers to be reheated. A Saturday Cook-Up might seem like a lot of work, but it’s so worth it when you are starving and just not in the mood to cook. Plus, once you start prepping everything, it actually comes together quite easily.
Prep and Cook for Future Meals
Similarly to the “Saturday Cook-up,” I prep and cook food throughout the week for meal swap. When I’m cooking dinner, I’m always thinking about how I can multitask to make the next night’s dinner easier. For example, I’ll cut up extra veggies and roast them for the next night while I already have the oven on cooking something else. Pretty much any time I turn on my oven, I think about what else I can throw in there to cook for a later. I love rice, roasted veggies, and various potatoes, sweet potatoes, and squashes, which typically take some time to cook, so I often make them ahead of time, so all I have to do is reheat them later. Having these healthy options on-hand also encourages me to eat better (i.e. I will snack on some Sweet Potato Wedges instead of chips or cookies).
Defrost Meat in the Refrigerator
On Sundays before the start of the week, I take the various meats and fish planned for the week’s meals out of the freezer and put them on one of the shelves in my refrigerator to let them defrost. That way, the meat/fish is ready to go when I want to cook it, and I don’t have to wait for it to defrost.
Sometimes, I plan out a whole week of meals, but then If I don’t feel like cooking or eating what we have planned. No big deal. We switch it up! If there’s a piece of meat or fish that needs to be cooked before it spoils, we’ll cook it and toss it in the freezer for later or “ re-purpose” it into a new meal that we want to cook and eat (usually, it’s something simple). For example, if we have a chicken dish on the menu, but we’re not in the mood for it, we’ll cook the chicken and then turn it into chicken salad sandwiches or another dish that we feel like eating on that night. We don’t stick to the meal plan exactly, but we also don’t let food go to waste either.
Plan Some “Back-Up” Meals
Along the same lines as “ re-purposing” meals, I also make sure we always have a couple of “back-up” meals on deck if we’re not in the mood for cooking or eating something specific on our meal plan. These meals are ones that we really like, and they’re quick and usually mostly non-perishable, so they’re always ready to go when we’re in need of a meal. Some of our favorites: bacon wrapped burgers, stir fry (from the freezer), hot ham and cheese sandwiches, pizza, and quesadillas. Basically, we keep go-to meals on-hand so we always have a decent dinner option, so we don’t end up ordering take-out.
Bump Meals to the Next Week
On the weeks that we get off schedule with our meal plan, I make sure to “bump” the meals we didn’t eat to the following week’s menu. I make sure to prioritize and cook them first, so the foods we purchased don’t go to waste. This actually makes meal planning a little bit easier because I don’t have to think about what to cook or buy for the beginning of the week.
What are your tips for sticking to your meal plan and making dinnertime easy?