I was never about structured meal planning until I started thinking about feeding my family. Even when working full time, I cooked frequently, and would try to make sure I had everything for my recipes when I did my weekly grocery shopping, but rarely planned ahead of time what I was eating.
As a family, things are more complex. My husband and I feed my daughter the same foods my we eat, so it is important to make sure our meals contain variety, are nutritious and something that my daughter is likely to eat. Additionally, I want our weekday meals be easy to prepare and ready soon after I get home from work. Meal planning has become a life saver- and here are some things I have found that make it a success:
Plan it out - pick a day to do meal planning: Wouldn't it be nice if meal planning could just happen without spending any time on it? Unfortunately, there is no quick fix, but I guarantee if you spend some time up front planning, organizing and even prepping, you will save lots of time during the week. My favorite meal planning site is plantoeat.com. It's not free but at less than $20 per year I save countless hours cpnsolidating recipes into shopping lists. As I browse for ideas on Pinterest, blogs, etc., it's easy to import recipes and come up with a grocery list to take to the store.
Be flexible: I typically plan 4-5 nights of meals a week. I know that usually, something comes up one or two nights. Weather that be a spontaneous dinner out, or we're too tired to cook, we also keep some easy backups on hand, like sandwiches or boxed macaroni and cheese (we buy the Annie's Organic mac n cheese boxes at Costco).
Be realistic: There are times when I become super ambitious - planning a meal that requires a significant amount of prep time, uses lots of dishes and is pretty intricate. We'll usually try them once, but they might not make it back on the meal plan because of the work. I try to find recipes that are quick and don't require too many dishes. Some of my favorites include one pot meals and sheet pan meals, like Sheet pan chicken and broccoli with bell peppers.
Slow cookers, Instant pot and other gadgets are your BFF: I jumped on the instantpot bandwagon and haven't looked back. It is by far my favorite kitchen tool. But some perfer a slowcooker or rice cooker. Find what works for you.
Freeze leftovers: Many of my meals make a batch with 6-8 servings. While all of my family usually takes leftovers for lunch the following day, we now freeze a portion too. This is another trick for those nights when heating in the microwave is all I can muster. I typically freeze in an ice cube tray and once frozen, transfer the cubes to the ziploc bag, labeled with the name of the dish and the date.
Remember your meal plan: Whatever you choose to use for meal planning, have a way to remember your and your families favorite, easy meals.