We've all had the same dreaded conversation with our significant other or roommate — "What's for dinner tonight?" Often followed by "We have nothing in the fridge."
Everyone leads busy lives and planning for dinner often falls by the wayside. Although it's not a big deal every once in a while, take-out can get expensive. Eating cereal or crackers for dinner may save money, but it isn't exactly healthy.
So what to do? The best way to take the stress out of dinner is to plan out your month in advance. We know what you're thinking: How can I plan out a month in advance if I can't even figure out what to have for dinner that night? Well, it's easier than you think.
Although getting used to a monthly dinner plan isn't always easy at first, we've pulled together the best tips and tricks to get you through your first month of planning and after that you'll be a pro. We also made sure to emphasize easy for this plan. If you love to cook (or maybe for date night, perhaps), feel free to find a more time-consuming recipe; this is your plan after all.
Ready to get started?
Get out the calendar and a pen
The key first step is getting out a calendar and writing things down. If you already utilize a dry-erase calendar, great. If not, there are plenty of blank calendar templates that will help you. (These calendars will come in handy in later months to refer back to things you made).
First mark off the days you know that you won't be home at dinner time. Think work meetings, girls nights, date night out, etc. You'll generally have a few of these a month and it'll be helpful to see where they are.
Next, pick one day of the week where you develop a theme. Taco Tuesdays? Meatless Monday? Friday Night Pizza? Stick with that theme each week to make it easier on yourself. Pick more than one if you wish. Once you do that you'll have a less daunting task in front of you for planning.
It's also helpful to plan to have one night a week be a super simple dinner like tossing together a salad, making a sandwich, or even an omelet. Sometimes work meetings come up or a favorite class at the gym is at 5:30. For those nights, it'll be helpful to do something quick.
But how do I figure out what to make?
Once you write out the calendar it's time to figure out what you want to make.
First, start by making a master list of the things you like to eat or want to try and make. This list will serve as a reference for future months and will also help you with your recipe search. There are so many great recipes online that range from super simple to complicated, so pick what you think you can handle—that'll help ease the stress.
Also include those lower stress, no recipe items. If you're still lost or need inspiration, there are plenty of recipe ideas here.
Once you've established your monthly meal plan, now is the time to make a shopping list of ingredients for each week. Shopping for the whole month isn't practical and will waste a lot of food.
You'll (hopefully) notice some ingredient crossover between meals, so mark that down when you're making the list. As a bonus, this will help you save money, too. Once you've made the list it's time to go shopping!
The first stop: your own cabinets, fridge,and freezer. We bet you have more than you think. Things easily get lost and we often end up buying duplicates because we aren't organized. Once you do this the first time you shouldn't have to keep reorganizing every time—just take inventory.
Once you do that, see what's left on your list that you need to get at the grocery store. This will likely be any meat or produce you need (amongst the missing pantry items).
If this is your first time doing something like this, you may want to stock up on some staples like olive oil, kosher salt, and any spices missing from your spice rack.
Semi-Homemade is A-Okay
Cooking can be daunting, especially when you're committing to doing it almost every day. It shouldn't be a punishment. It's okay to use a few shortcuts if you need to.
Rotisserie chicken is a great one and can be used in everything from enchiladas to chicken salad, pot pies to pasta. Pre-cut fruit, vegetables and veggie "noodles" can be time savers as well for super busy weeks.
You don't have to make the pizza crust from scratch for pizza night and if you don't want to prep your own meatballs, you can likely get them behind the butcher counter (or frozen) ready to cook.
Prep In Advance (aka Sunday "Fun"day)
Once the week starts, it's generally full steam ahead. So use Sunday as a day to prepare as much as you can in advance.
Check your recipes —you may be able to prepare sauces a few days in advance, marinate proteins, or chop up vegetables. Grains can often be made in advance as well.
Sunday is also a great day to tackle your most labor intensive meal. Make chili in a slow-cooker while you work on another recipe, for example.
The freezer can be your friend, as long as it's organized. Sometimes cooking for two can be harder than cooking for four because many recipes are designed to feed more people.
This is where your freezer comes in! Lasagna is a great thing to freeze. Whip up a whole lasagna and it should be able to fill at least two spots in your meal plan. Soups are another great option as they generally yield enough for eight to 10 people.
After a few months, you'll be able to pick a day where you just pull something out of your freezer and reheat.
Don't be overwhelmed by meal planning. Sure, it can be overwhelming at first but once you lock in a routine you'll find it's easier to eat healthy and less expensive. You'll be able to save the extra money (and calories!) for a fun date night out on the town.