First Five Secrets to Meal Planning

I have a friend and I will call her Kim. Kim grew up with a mom who prepared meals lovingly for her family, but failed to impart the technique to her daughter. Kim now an adult with a child and a high stress and long hours  job comes home to…15 minutes to prepare dinner before her and her family implodes. Ok, I exaggerate the implosion part. Kim and I have discussed this dinner problem at length.

We all face it to one degree or another. How do I plan, shop, and get dinner on the table when I have so many other things to do?

1. Know what you need (and your family needs) to eat.  If you have no special dietary needs or concerns, try There you can get an idea of how many calories per day each person in your family needs, how many cups of each color of vegetable are needed each week, the number of servings of whole grains, etc. No, it isn’t the perfect tool but very basic. Or you can get some ideas from The Modern Family Cookbook Year of Meal Plans. Yes, the menus are retro, but you get an idea of the structure.

2. Think about meals you like to eat. What do you order when you go out to eat? What do you buy carryout or pre-made?  What foods do your children enjoy? Make a list.

3.  Grab a cookbook or go surfing for “quick and easy recipes” or “15 minute dinners.” Don’t neglect the major manufacturer’s websites. Kraft, Betty Crocker, Morningstar, etc all know that you are crunched for time. Many have meal plans for a week and all have quick and easy recipes.

Your grandma’s secret slaw/fudge/potato salad/apple pie recipe started as a recipe on a label. Don’t confront her about it. Just know that 2 million other grandmothers have nearly the same secret recipe.

The reason that Brand Name Cookbooks sell so well  is that companies spend big bucks creating recipes that turn out well for everyone. If the recipe doesn’t work, the company gets a complaint, so those recipes are created for non-cooks. Sure, substitute generic/organic/non-corporate food. I do it all the time. Even if it says Calumet or Wesson oil doesn’t mean another brand won’t work.

4. Read the ads. Find out what is in season and what is on sale. A meal plan making use of a couple of chickens won’t do much good if it seems to be “Beef Bonanza Week” at the grocery. Avoid out of season produce. Just do it. I know it limits the options, but unless you really MUST have cherries in February–you should know that if the farmer’s market doesn’t have it yet–you don’t want to eat it.

5.  Make cards. Pick seven entrees, seven sides, seven grains if you tend to be an entree + veggie + grain type of dinner person. Write them on cards. Write the ingredients on the card too. Mix and match. Keep those cards handy for making your shopping list and preparing dinner. Or write the menu for the week on the whiteboard in the kitchen or a piece of paper on the fridge. Sure, swap days and be flexible.


  1. Speaking of cards, I keep picking them up off of the floor. Are those the ones you’re trying to throw away because we won’t eat those dishes after all? Or are those the ones you’re sick of and want to disappear? Or something else entirely?

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