How To Meal Plan: Our Food Editor’s Secrets For Conquering Weeknight Dinners

Follow these five steps to start meal planning like a pro.

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How to meal plan: Chop your ingredients on the weekend.

Chopping ingredients on the weekend speeds up weeknight dinner prep. Photo, iStock.

Meal planning makes so much sense … in theory. Shopping for a week’s worth of dinners on the weekend can be easier said than done (you’re not the only one who’s thought about eating ketchup chips for dinner), especially if you’ve never tried it before. But Chatelaine‘s food editor, Irene Ngo, swears that meal planning can be as simple as tweaking your existing kitchen routine.

Let’s be clear about what meal planning is, because it’s different than meal prepping. The latter usually involves batch cooking a few recipes for an entire week. Designing a meal plan means you’ll still cook dinner each night, but with ingredients you’ve purchased and prepped on the weekend.

Here are Irene’s top five meal planning tips to get you started.

1. Make flyers your best friend

Weekly grocery flyers are amazing budgeting tools. Make sure you actually look through the ones that arrive in your mailbox, or use an app like Flipp. For those who collect PC Optimum points, try shopping based on your weekly offers and plan your dinners around the tastiest deals available. If your grocery store is offering cabbage at a steep discount, for instance, choose two cabbage recipes (such as fish tacos and vegetarian cabbage rolls) to use up a whole head (one cabbage goes a long way). You’ll save money and avoid wasting food.

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2. Choose recipes that make dinners stress-free

Ngo recommends picking at least two recipes you’re familiar with per week if you’re a meal-planning newbie. You’ll want to ease into the process without adding too many new elements to your routine. Basics like a simple lemon pasta or an easy-to-assemble sheet-pan dinner are great if you’re in a pinch. As you get more comfortable, you start searching for more recipes (via a meal planning app) to add to your repertoire. And if you want leftovers for lunch, choose recipes that are easy to double.

Remember to factor in your schedule and how hectic your week might be. Pick recipes you can easily swap around or delay making if you have to stay late at work one evening, for example. Try to find a balance between recipes with perishable ingredients, such as fresh trout, and quick meals built around fridge and pantry staples, like eggs (a frittata) and beans (lentil soup).

3. Organize your grocery list in the most efficient way possible

Once you know what you want to cook for the week, write out a grocery list that’s organized by how your local supermarket is laid out. For example, if you hit up the produce section first and dairy last, fruit and veg should be at the top of your list and coffee cream at the bottom. Not only will you get your shopping done faster, you’ll also be less likely to forget essential ingredients (like that head of cabbage) or get sucked into buying non-essential items while meandering around the store.

How to meal plan: This Kung Pao chicken stir fry is a great weeknight meal.

This Kung Pao chicken stir-fry is a great weeknight meal. Photo, Erik Putz.

4. Carve out some chopping time on the weekend

Instead of tossing your groceries in the fridge and pantry and then moving on to the next chore, spend an hour on Sunday prepping ingredients for weeknight dinners. For example, if you’re making a stir fry one evening, chop up your veggies. You can even make your sauce in advance — measure out your ingredients, such as soy sauce and sriracha, and pour them in a container or resealable bag. When dinnertime comes, all you need to do is pour your prepared and pre-portioned ingredients into a pan. Think of this as the ultimate DIY meal kit hack.

5. Don’t sweat the small stuff

Be realistic with your meal planning. If you always dine out one night a week, plan to make four dinners at home. If you get a spontaneous dinner invitation one night, don’t feel bad about neglecting the food sitting in your fridge. Just shift your plan and cook the meal you missed the next day (or on the weekend). Meal planning is supposed to make your life easier, not more stressful.

Watch: Add this provencal pan salmon to your meal plan recipe roster