The commute home is so exhausting, you should never leave the creativity of “what should we have for dinner” for when you are home…because that leads to a combination of Chipotle, Papa Johns, and Chinese takeout that will only hurt your wallet and your waistline. Meal planning is a great way to stay on top of your week, and I’ve developed a few tricks that you might find useful:

1. Collect recipes
The first rule of meal planning, is having a collection of recipes ready to use. Be honest with your abilities, and the amount of time you want to spend cooking after a long day at work. Save the tricky or new techniques for a slow weekend, and aim for recipes that are short and easy.

  • Keep a trusty box of magazine cut outs. I divide mine by technique (quick skillet, oven roasts, slow braises, and sides are my go-to options), but sorting by time or ingredient can always work.
  • Follow food blogs or magazines online, and collect recipes through Pinterest or Pocket. I’ve created two boards on Pinterest: “Future Food Ideas” (ones I want to make) and “Tried and True Recipes” (ones I’ve made before).
  • Have an emergency stash of go-to recipes at work for when you forget to plan ahead. I keep 10 recipes in my purse because this happens to me A LOT. Leave a current issue of a food magazine at your desk. We all want to be Martha Stewart, but it can be hard to keep it up 24-7.

2. Plan out your week
On Sunday, I go through my recipes and pick out 5-10 that sound delicious, use a variety of proteins, and won’t take too much time.

  • Fish recipes are usually fast (under 20 minutes) and can be healthier for you. Aim for one a week.
  • Buy a whole chicken, and find recipes to use up the different parts: chicken breasts make a great stir fry, and the legs/back can always be roasted and pulled apart for shredded casserole or taco meat.
  • Make sure you are planning out sides along with the dinner, if they aren’t included in the recipe. If you do need to make a separate side dish, go for easy veggie dishes (cook…add seasoning…done).
  • Plan for leftovers. Make sure at least one meal produces enough for a second full meal. Trust me, on Thursday or Friday, you will be happy not to have to cook.

I have created a separate Google Calendar just for my menus, that I can view in relation to everything else going on that week. I can set alerts if something needs to marinate overnight, or move meals to a different day if something else comes up. I can also link to the online recipe, so they are easy to find once you start cooking.

3. Shopping List
Find an app you like for your smartphone (I paid $3 for this one on iPhone) that will let you make a shopping list. There are free ones out there, but make sure you can sort by category, or even better, create your own and organize them by location in the supermarket (produce first..frozen last…it saves SO much time!)

  • Check the sell-by dates. Chicken and steak are usually good for a few days and can be bought ahead of time, but make sure there is wiggle room there for when you need to move a meal back a night. Always buy fish the day you plan to use it.
  • Never buy more than two proteins ahead of time. Trust me–you never know how your week will go, and you don’t want to be stuck with expensive, about-to-expire meat. Grab everything else you need for the meal, but keep any perishables off the list and make a quick stop the day of.
  • I usually do my big shopping trip on Monday after work, and plan to serve an easy meal that night since I’ll be home later.

And that’s it! Write in any additional tricks, or questions in the comments section. Good luck!