Meal Planning Basics

Planning your family's meals is an effective way to eat healthy and save time and money. Simple meal planning lets you avoid those last-minute trips to the store for missing ingredients. It can also help you break the drive-through habit at day's end, and you know how that affects your waistline and your wallet.

Getting started

If you're new to all this, the easiest way to start is by planning a week's worth of dinners or lunches. Once you develop a routine, it becomes second nature. Here are some suggestions on how to get started.

  • Consult a cookbook for tips on using leftovers. For example, use Sunday's pot roast for Tuesday's roast beef hash or vegetable beef soup.
  • Plan around the basic food groups: whole grains, meat and poultry, dairy and eggs, veggies and fruits. Keep your pantry and fridge stocked with staples like brown rice and whole-wheat pasta, and common vegetables that will keep fresh for a while, like potatoes, carrots, onions and garlic.
  • Cook double or triple portions to prepare extra food for the next day or so.
  • Try to plan around your family's activities. Save the easiest meals, like soup and sandwiches, for the busiest days.
  • Once you have a few recipes in mind, print out a blank calendar for the week, and write down meals for each day.
  • Before you shop, jot down all of your recipe ingredients, and inventory your pantry and fridge to avoid buying duplicate items.
  • Keep a notepad attached to the fridge, and write down ingredients as they're used up. If you're like most cooks, you tend to use the same things repeatedly.

While some people can successfully plan a full month of meals in advance, a week's worth is sufficient (and less daunting).

Be flexible

Don't worry about deviating from your meal plan. If you come across a good deal at the grocery store, take advantage of it. For example, if rotisserie chicken is on sale and cheaper than a whole fryer, pick up one or more and freeze the extra.

Get inspired

Use sites like for inspiration. Many offer robust search features and a wealth of recipes for just about any meal you can think of, along with meal planners that let you archive favorite recipes.

After a few weeks of regular planning, you'll develop a rhythm. And do keep a couple of emergency meals in the freezer-either ones you have prepared in advance or the occasional frozen pizza. Life happens, and not always according to a meal plan.

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