Meal Planning Tips and Tricks

I never dreamed I would one day become a meal planner.

For years and years, planning meals sounded achingly dull to me, and also pointless: I just kept a well-stocked pantry and fridge, and spontaneity was my middle name. In truth, I did formulate a plan for the fresh stuff I bought, but it was a fluid, unwritten one that was often altered or nixed when something came up, or I changed my mind, or I was short on time, or we felt like eating out.

And then, I had a kid.

I stuck to the same non-system for months, until I eventually realized it was no longer working for me. Rather than enjoying the delicious freedom of improvised cooking, as I had since my early twenties, I was feeling stressed trying to find time for meal preparation between work and child, and worst of all frustrated that I always seemed to be in a rush, cooking basic things that required no forethought and gave me no sense of accomplishment.

My cook’s soul was shriveling up, and meal planning was the obvious solution. A few months later, I am a much happier and more serene cook. I don’t plan our meals in writing every week — sometimes the mental plan is enough for me to wing it — but doing so regularly enough has helped me regain a sense of peace and control in the kitchen.

How I Do It

First of all, I only plan for meals I take with Maxence — my lunches are either simply assembled at home or eaten out — and in my household, breakfasts, desserts, and snacks can be trusted to happen satisfyingly without the need for planning.

I draw up my meal plan on Mondays, after I uncover the contents of my weekly vegetable delivery, and I also take into account:

  • A quick inventory of pantry or freezer items that I feel like (or need) using, plus leftover ingredients or dishes from the previous week (say, a container of homemade stock, some pesto, a few scraps of dough…),
  • The current list of things I’m inspired to cook,
  • A rough schedule for the upcoming week, to know when we’ll be eating in or out or having guests over, on which nights I’ll have time to cook, etc.

I give it a think, look through my recipe collections online and offline, do some research as needed for extra information or inspiration, and come up with:

  • A list of dishes and the days on which I plan to cook them, factoring in leftovers nights and wildcard meals (see below), and outlining what part(s) of those menus should work for our two-year-old,
  • A list of advance prep steps that can or should be done the day before (cleaning vegetables, soaking chickpeas, mixing the dough for a pizza or quiche crust, taking an item out of the freezer to thaw…),
  • A shopping list of missing ingredients, with the days I’ll be needing them so I know when to go to which shop.

This gives me a clear picture of what I need to do and when, so I can squeeze prep steps wherever they most readily fit in my schedule.

Read on for more on the 9 benefits and 7 “Yes, buts” of meal planning.

The 9 Benefits of Meal Planning

  • It makes life a lot simpler.

Once you get used to the process the meal plan can be drawn up in half an hour — unless of course you feel like daydreaming or get the urge to reorganize your clipped recipes by season, which I did a couple of weeks ago — and then it’s all about execution, saving time and brain juice for other pursuits.

  • It’s the best way to actually cook from your cookbooks, bookmarked recipes, and magazine clippings.

I’ve written before about making the most of your cookbook collection, and now when you sit down to imagine your meals for the week, here’s your chance to call upon the most inspiring dishes and ideas.

  • You make a more efficient use of your pantry reserves.

By regularly taking stock of what you have on hand and what needs using soon, and choosing recipes that call for those items.

  • Picky eaters in your household?

I am told getting them involved in the meal planning — and implicitly signing off on that plan — is often helpful.

  • It’s a sure path to a healthier diet.

Surprise, surprise, you’re much more likely to prepare and eat balanced, varied meals if you’ve planned for them.

  • You’ll reduce food waste.

By purchasing only the foods you really need, actually cooking what you’ve purchased, and making the most of leftovers by working them into your plan.

  • It saves money.

Not just by reducing waste, but also by limiting the number of occasions when you resort to take-out or expensive ready-made foods just because it’s late and you’re hungry and you don’t have fresh food in the house or the energy to figure out what to make with it.

  • It serves as a cooking log.

If you keep all your weekly meal plans in the same notebook or file, which I recommend you do, you can refer to it later, reminding yourself of successful meals you’ve prepared and quickly generating ideas for future meal plans.

  • The process helps you grow as a cook.

Instead of relying on the same safe recipes in your repertoire, you can decide to nudge yourself out of your comfort zone every once in a while, by scheduling a new type of dish or a new technique for a day when you’ll be in an adventurous mindset.

The 7 “Yes, Buts” of Meal Planning (with Matching Solutions)

  • “Yes, but I find it daunting to come up with a whole new plan every week.”

If that’s the case, you can create a framework based on the types of foods you like to eat (say Monday is a big salad, Tuesday is fish, Wednesday is a quiche or pizza, Thursday is a stew of some kind, etc.) and you’ll simply fill in the blanks with seasonal specifics.

  • “Yes, but I worry this will all be too much cooking for me.”

No one says you have to cook something every day; you can size the recipes you do make so they’ll feed you for several meals. I recently cooked the meatloaf from my friend Molly’s new memoir Delancey, and we got five (five!) meals out of it, incorporating it in a different way every time.

  • “Yes, but I find myself with too many leftovers.”

Remember to account for them in your meal plan; I schedule a leftovers night on which we each compose a plate with various little scraps from previous meals, with the possible addition of a green salad, or a bit of bread and cheese. You can also pack your leftovers for lunch the next day or, if you hate eating the same thing two days in a row, freeze them and make them reappear (tadaaa!) a few weeks later.

  • “Yes, but my schedule changes often and there’s no telling when I might be working late or meeting up with friends.”

You can underplan a little, to account for those meals you won’t be taking at home after all. And for those late nights, make sure you have a few shortcut recipes up your sleeve — dishes you can quickly whip up with ingredients from the freezer and pantry. I love making these spaghetti with crushed sardines, this pasta with peas and toasted almonds, or calamari and zucchini in peanut sauce.

  • “Yes, but I have trouble sticking to the plan.”

Could it be that your plan is too ambitious? If so, you may need to plan for simpler, easier things — there is certainly no shame in that — and you can start by dipping into those five-ingredient recipes.

Or is it that you end up not in the mood for the food you’ve planned to cook? You can then keep your plan flexible, with meals that are easy to switch around: if you don’t feel like lentil soup on lentil soup night, maybe the grilled spatchcocked chicken will sound better?

  • “Yes, but I prefer to go to the store or greenmarket with no shopping list so I can buy what looks best and most seasonal.”

I’m with you! You simply need to do your menu planning post-market run, and incorporate whatever lush greens you’ve scored. You might then find out that you’re missing a few ingredients to complete the plan, but you can always pick those up later.

  • “Yes, but I can’t let go of the idea of spontaneous cooking.”

It is a good idea to plan one or several wildcard meals, for which you actually plan nothing at all, and which will be your opportunity to just open the fridge and whip something up that surprises even you. And if you’re that kind of a cook, my guess is this will happen whether or not you plan wildcard nights at all. But if you do schedule them, they are best wedged in toward the end of the week, so you won’t wreak havoc in your plan by accidentally using supplies earmarked for another recipe, and so you can use up leftovers to end your week neatly.

Join the conversation!

Do you plan your meals? If not, why not? If so, what works for you and what doesn’t?

  • http://www.playingwithflour.com/ Monica Ma

    I just started a very casual system of meal-planning a few months ago and I really love it. I simply jot down my dinner plans for the week – the list changes but it’s helped me in terms of grocery shopping (not buying too much/too little) and I find I’m finally getting a chance to try all those recipes I tag and typically never make. I also keep lists of dishes/desserts I want to make and it’s like a priority list that I check of. It helps to have things written down and be a bit organized.

    • http://chocolateandzucchini.com/ Clotilde Dusoulier

      Thanks for sharing your approach, and I completely agree: no need to make it complicated, just writing things down is super helpful.

  • http://tetellita.blogspot.com Estelle

    I am trying and trying to plan meals AND stick to them but, ultimately, I have found that we do better as a family by sticking to formulas rather than actual plans. For example, I cook 1 lb of legumes every Sunday (chickpeas being a favorite) to use throughout the week (hummus is great for lunch boxes), pick one meat (roast chicken, I love you), then cook 2 cups of rice on Sundays or Mondays. I keep my freezer packed with frozen veggies (Whole Foods organic veggies are GREAT) and we can take it from there comes Monday, considering we know have a very nice repertoire of dishes we can cook from.

    • http://chocolateandzucchini.com/ Clotilde Dusoulier

      I like that technique, Estelle — prep now, decide later. :)

    • Mary Chef

      Agree, keeping track of all my meals on paper is quite complicated. Have you ever tried some apps? Personally, I’m using Chef Plan http://chefplanapp.com/, which is quite simple and stress free. Any other suggestion?

      • Letitia – The Fashion Editor

        Love apps! Never heard of Chef Plan, I just tend to use a to-do list and then a recipe app combined. Or use websites or a good ol fashion meal planning service like http://pickmemealplan.com or ones from bloggers are popping up everywhere too. Clotilde should do one :)

        • http://chocolateandzucchini.com/ Clotilde Dusoulier

          Thanks for the suggestion, Letitia! ^^

  • http://www.foodpleasureandhealth.com/ Dixya Bhattarai RD

    i have been planning 3-4 meals a week for a while now and it works so well..i sit down on Sunday morning after scanning my pantry and freezer to see what i have and what im craving or want for the week. I write down recipes roughly and go to the store to purchase ingredients. If i have time, i try to prep as much as possible on Sunday as well. I try to stick with easy recipes for the most part…it has saved me so much time and money.

    • http://chocolateandzucchini.com/ Clotilde Dusoulier

      I feel partial planning is a great way to go, Dixya, as you get the best of both worlds.

  • Joanne

    We have been “meal planning” in a fairy relaxed day for several years
    now: each week, we have 3 fish meals, 3 vegetarian meals, and 1 meat
    meal. If it is a substantial meat (a roast or chicken) we have that on
    Sunday and use the leftovers for casseroles for the freezer, or salads
    for lunch. Like others, I will do prep when the veggies are fresh – in
    general, they keep better cooked – and will buy what is terrific in the
    market rather than what is in a particular recipe. I do find that I
    make better use of my cookbook collection this way, and the really great
    benefit has been much better management of my pantry, freezer and
    fridge. I sometimes plan one day to be a “cook what you have” day and
    have found that I now do not throw things away. Of course, in the
    summer, we have a vegetable garden that makes preparation much more
    relaxed.

    • http://chocolateandzucchini.com/ Clotilde Dusoulier

      Thanks for sharing, Joanne — I, too, hardly ever throw anything out anymore and I feel really good about that.

      I envy your vegetable garden, but I assume this comes with its own set of challenges, like making the most of this or that vegetable when it becomes super plentiful all of a sudden?

      • Joanne

        Well – it is a small garden and short growing season – but, yes, I often have a bumper crop of beets and have devised a number of methods and recipes that allow me to freeze them cooked (though we do not ever tire of beet salads and soups.) My biggest challenge is having eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes and peppers all ripening at the same time for ratatouille. I usually need to visit the farmers’ market for one of them!

        • http://chocolateandzucchini.com/ Clotilde Dusoulier

          Ha! I love the detail about the ratatouille. A good problem to have, I’m sure!

  • Annabel Smyth

    I, too, plan 3-4 meals a week. This week, for instance, I knew I was busy yesterday and today and by tonight would be too tired to cook, so I planned and made an aubergine pasta on Monday, then yesterday put a chicken casserole in the slow cooker, and planned that tonight we would have a ready-meal or a take-away, and tomorrow we will have the end of the casserole, and then I shall see what, if anything, I am inspired to cook on Friday. I knew it would be a casserole, but didn’t know what kind until I bought the chicken pieces!

    • http://chocolateandzucchini.com/ Clotilde Dusoulier

      I don’t have a slow cooker — they’re fairly uncommon in France, for some reason — but I can see how handy that would be.

  • Franglais Kitchen

    a very timely post – we meal plan on and off but seriously need to get back on track. First things first I think this warrants a nice new mealplan notebook. Loving the idea of the 5 ingredient recipes.

    • http://chocolateandzucchini.com/ Clotilde Dusoulier

      Oh, absolutely, the proper stationery is half the battle. :)

  • Vicky

    I could have written this post: I have been planning meals (just dinner!) since I was in my early 20s, and found myself with a fridge that was tiny, and unless I had A Plan, I was going to spend my life shopping, and throwing out tons and tons of food because I Had No Space. And I agree with Reasons 1 – 9 for planning (not that I am unable to ditch my plan when circumstances dictate), and it is just SUCH a relief to know that when I come home at the end of the day I have all of the ingredients required to make a nutritious, and interesting, meal for my family.

    • http://chocolateandzucchini.com/ Clotilde Dusoulier

      You’re right about the small fridge, but I also think having a large fridge is in fact a bit of a trap, because you’re likely to overstock, lose sight (literally) of what’s in it, and forget about leftovers. Yay for tiny fridges!

  • Kendra Starlia Denning

    My parents always cooked meals at home, and my mom usually planned it out. I didn’t really take notice until high school when I was usually part of the cooking process, and then planning. Now (10 years out of high school), my family is up to 4 adults and a toddler. We plan meals about a month + out, but have no issue rearranging to suit what looked good at the store. It’s nice to see where I can fit in several cuts of roast or steak, so I can buy in bulk and butcher my own down to meal sizes. We recently started freezing leftovers (soups, chili, stews, precooked meats), mostly because a whole batch of chili can take a LONG time to finish here. Our worst meal is weekend lunches when everyone is home and we’ve busy in the garden or playing outside, so we end up easy freezer meals (chicken nuggets and fries, frozen burgers, etc)

    • http://chocolateandzucchini.com/ Clotilde Dusoulier

      I also find that weekend lunches need advance planning, because we’re likely to be busy or out and about, so I try to make sure there’s something ready from the day before, or I have prepped as much as I can. Also, we often get roast chicken from the rôtisserie, which feels like a treat.

  • Sasha Martin

    I have such a hard time meal planning… but I find an immense satisfaction of using things up in my fridge. Right now I have a ball of dough cold-rising in my fridge. In this dough I managed to use up some leftover goat cheese, a couple green onions (chopped), some herbs, and wheat germ I’d all but forgotten about. Tomorrow it might become pizza dough, rolls, or a loaf – perhaps with a couple other cheeses tucked in here and there… who knows, but I’m happy to have given old items new life!

    • http://chocolateandzucchini.com/ Clotilde Dusoulier

      The best things can result from those save-the-scraps interventions, and yours sounds particularly tasty! The only challenge is that they’re very hard to reproduce if successful. :)

      • Sasha Martin

        So true! Ha..

  • Bellamouse

    I plan 6 meals for 10 days. I don’t bother planning which night we eat them, I just put them on a list and buy the ingredients for those 6 meals (taking into account what I have when planning the meals). I try to vary the meals both in terms of different proteins and level of difficulty or time involved. Then on any given night, I choose something from the list based on how much time I have and what I feel like having. As there are only two of us, there are always leftovers, and we invariably get invited somewhere or go out one night, so I find that 6 meals takes us through 10 days. I also keep “stand by” stuff in the house, for those days in between (canned salmon, frozen fish, etc.) so I can pull together something if I should go through all 6 of my meals before the 10 days is up (doesn’t happen often though).

    • http://chocolateandzucchini.com/ Clotilde Dusoulier

      You’re definitely right about the stand-by stuff! We love canned sardines and jarred ratatouille for that.

  • Vincci

    When I was in university, I didn’t plan my meals, but would have a rough idea of what I wanted to buy each week (lots of veggies, fish at least once a week, etc.) Since moving in with my boyfriend, we have to plan meals, or else he is paralyzed when it comes to shopping and cooking. I do wish I cooked from my cookbooks more, but I think the problem is more lack of time/lack of making time to try something new! Thanks for the reminder!

    • http://chocolateandzucchini.com/ Clotilde Dusoulier

      Not sure if you’ve seen my tips to make the most of your cookbook collection, but it sounds like you could perhaps plan a leisurely afternoon leafing through a few underused cookbooks and pick out, say, three or four seasonal recipes to choose from in your planning over the next couple of months?

  • http://www.lapagefrancaise.wordpress.com Serena

    I am so with you Clotilde. I was never a meal planner until several months into having my first child, and then I realized it was indispensable. It’s so true that it greatly reduces the stress of coming on 6pm and having no idea what’s for dinner.

    It’s helpful for me to do a framework: Vegetarian Monday, Soup Tuesday, Pasta Wednesday, Pizza or Quiche Thursday, Fish Friday. I find that meal planning is really quick now that I’m used to it, I do it under 15 minutes on Friday evening before going food shopping on Saturday (I’m not someone who can walk into the market completely unprepared, although I do remain flexible with regards to what vegetables look good and in season when I get there).

    It’s also since having children that I’ve discovered the convenience of freezing for later. I always make a double batch of soup and freeze half of it to have in a couple of weeks. I also use my crock pot once or twice a week: sometimes there is nothing better than coming home after a busy day to find dinner already ready.

    And yes sometimes I don’t end up following the plan exactly, but it’s so helpful to at least have a general plan, and to go from there.

    Thanks for all these great tips!

    • http://chocolateandzucchini.com/ Clotilde Dusoulier

      Yes on all counts! Amazing how just a touch of organization can make life easier.

  • Lisa

    Hi Clotilde. Thanks for writing such a good post. Such a great balance between planning, being organized and yet able to keep some level of spontaneity and whimsy so things don’t become mundane. Great tips. Thanks for sharing! It’s great to hear that foodies can also still feed their creativity while juggling so many things in life! Btw, I hope to visit Paris again soon. I’ve been passing along your Edible Adventures book to several of my friends who visited. It comes in super handy!

    • http://chocolateandzucchini.com/ Clotilde Dusoulier

      I guess the biggest surprise for me was that meal planning actually fuels my creativity and culinary ambition, where I thought it would stifle it.

  • http://arhubarbrhapsody.blogspot.com.au/ Lily (A Rhubarb Rhapsody)

    You have a lot of great tips! I too do meal planning, every week, and have for years. It all started when I had my son and now I can’t imagine not having a meal plan! It’s so much less stressful and it saves me a huge amount of money.

    • http://chocolateandzucchini.com/ Clotilde Dusoulier

      Funny what that first child does to you and your life, isn’t it? :)

  • paul_cs

    I have never tried this, but am looking forward to giving it a go, as my cooking has been in a bit of a rut lately, due to being super busy at work and with a volunteer thing I’m doing. this seems like just the thing.

    • http://chocolateandzucchini.com/ Clotilde Dusoulier

      It’s definitely a good way to get yourself out of a cooking rut! I hope it works for you. What’s the volunteer thing you’re involved with?

      • paul_cs

        it’s teaching a high school computer science class in the US, as part of the teals program:
        http://www.tealsk12.org/

        really rewarding but a lot of work in addition to our regular jobs. looking forward to planning some good weekly meals, thanks again for this article.

        • http://chocolateandzucchini.com/ Clotilde Dusoulier

          That’s great Paul, kudos to you on donating your time and knowledge to those kids!

  • SallyBR

    I am what I call a very flexible planner – in other words, I do plan, pick 2, maybe 3 recipes to try during the week, but I don’t let the plan become a source of stress for me. One huge help is that me and my husband alternate cooking days – at any given day one of us can decide “we are going out” or “we are ordering sushi”, to make life easier. We eat lunch at home and love leftovers, most of our dinners serve as lunch 2 days later, so we are not having the exact same meal 12 hours apart ;-) I like your post and all your advice, straightforward and doable. ;0)

    • http://chocolateandzucchini.com/ Clotilde Dusoulier

      Thank you for sharing, Sally. It sounds like you’ve created a very flexible system that works really well for you, that’s great!

  • Beth

    I’m finding it really helpful to use spoonacular. I have recipe boxes there that I can sort by weekday meals, weekend meals, breakfast, lunch, desserts, whatever. This keeps me from having those “what should I make for dinner?” moments where my mind goes blank. Then they have a meal planner where I can put the recipes in the right spots for the week and see the nutritional information for that day and generate a shopping list. Pretty good for a free service: http://spoonacular.com/weekly-meal-planner

    Otherwise freezing food has been key for me! My biggest problem was always moldy bread because we eat it so rarely, never knew how well it froze :)

    • http://chocolateandzucchini.com/ Clotilde Dusoulier

      Thanks for letting us know about this service, Beth, I wasn’t familiar with it but it sounds great.

      And yes, definitely, freezing bread is a life-changing habit! I love that it can be used as an emergency stash when we’re out of fresh, too.

  • Voahangy Steen

    Thanks for such a great post Clotilde.
    I have been a meal planner for years, out of interest when I was younger then out of necessity when my children were born (as you found out yourself).
    People used to think i was weird reading so many cookbooks and magazines, writing out menus and planning meals (bordering on the compulsive I was once told!), but it is interesting how it is so common now.
    Personnally, living on a boat and having cruised around for 25 years, planning is the only I know to makes sure:
    - we never run out of our favourite food on board.
    - we don’t stock up on unnecessary items.
    - we don’t blow up our provisioning budget

    • http://chocolateandzucchini.com/ Clotilde Dusoulier

      That’s a great point, Voahangy, thanks for sharing. It’s the same when you rent a vacation house that’s a bit isolated — you’d better do at least minimal planning if you don’t want to drive back and forth all the time, or end up with lots of leftover groceries at the end of your stay.

  • Sarah Murchison

    Great insight! There’s a science to planning meals. I used to try and store my fast food meals in the refrigerator…you can imagine how that went. You’ve pretty much got to stay on top of it and keep working it. I used NoMoreToGo to find my nutrition rhythm and get great recipe ideas. They really do great work over there. https://www.nomoretogo.com/

    • http://chocolateandzucchini.com/ Clotilde Dusoulier

      I agree, it’s an ongoing project. And I didn’t know about this service, thanks for the recommendation.

  • Cynthia

    Thank you for this post! I find myself eating out a lot because I have nothing planned and wen I get home, I don’t want to think about what to cook – I just want to cook and eat (or avoid cooking altogether, since I’m usually drained by the time I get home in the evening). I’ve been trying to figure out how to go about creating a meal plan and what to do with it, and this really helps.

    • http://chocolateandzucchini.com/ Clotilde Dusoulier

      I’m glad to hear that, Cynthia, I hope you soon find the strategy that works for you. It usually takes a bit of trial and error, but you’ll get there!

  • Sian Breslin

    Excellent post Clotilde! I think that meal planning is great too! I believe it should be used in every home. It allows you to eat healthily, eliminate meal-time stress, reduce food waste and save money. #winwinwin

    Happy Cooking Everyone!

    Sian (Founder of Sian’s Plan)

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