Warning: this is a wordy post with no pretty pictures, sorry!
I get a lot of questions on how I know what to cook every night. So I thought it might be helpful to share a couple of tips that work for me, in terms of meal planning and the importance having certain pantry essentials to make it an easier process.
First off, let’s be clear: I do not make a fancy meal every night of the week. Who has time for that? When I get home from work I don’t want to have to think about what I’m going to make, much less figure out if I have all the ingredients and/or have to defrost something that’s in the freezer. That scenario will drive me to buy take out every. single. time. And although there’s nothing wrong with getting something from a restaurant, that gets pricey if you do it often. My solution is to spend 5-10 minutes planning on a Sunday afternoon to get ready for the week.
Before you start your planning session, I find it helpful to have 3 things:
- A stocked pantry
- A list of your favorite meals that are fast and easy to make
- A little organization (I love making lists! OCD runs deep in my blood, and proud of it)
There are certain things I always have, no matter what I’m cooking. These are the things that I buy backups of to have on hand so that I’m never without. All of my go-to weeknight dinners are almost completely covered by everything listed below.
- Eggs & Dairy: eggs, milk, block of parmesan, shredded mozzarella, sour cream, plain Greek yogurt, butter
- Fresh Produce: garlic, onions, baby spinach, lemons, Italian parsley
- A tip for the parsley: chop off most of the stem’s length and keep them in a cup of water in the fridge – change the water every few days and it will last 4-6 weeks
- Freezer: peeled ginger, chopped green onions, chopped cilantro, frozen vegetables (I keep a variety on hand – peas, corn, green beans, Brussels sprouts, broccoli – for the easiest side dish for any dinner), organic skinless/boneless chicken breast
- Note: Other than organic chicken breast, I don’t “stock up” on any other meats or seafood unless I’m specifically planning on making a particular recipe in any given week. That way I can buy whatever it is (salmon, beef, shrimp, ground turkey) and cook it either the same night I buy it or the next day, without the need to freeze and defrost it.
- Grains, Pasta, Nuts: white or brown rice, quinoa, egg noodles, spaghetti, one type of bread (baguette, Hawaiian rolls, or Ezekiel bread…I usually keep bread in the fridge or freezer to make it last longer), Italian breadcrumbs, panko (Japanese style breadcrumbs), rolled oats, unsalted/raw whole almonds
- Fats & vinegar: nonstick cooking spray, extra virgin olive oil, sesame oil, apple cider vinegar, champagne vinegar, red wine vinegar, rice vinegar, balsamic vinegar
- Baking/Sweets: honey, agave, baking powder, baking soda, all-purpose flour, cornstarch, granulated sugar, brown sugar, vanilla extract, peanut butter
- Canned/Condiments: jarred pasta sauce, pesto sauce, boxed chicken or vegetable stock/broth, canned tomatoes, tomato paste, canned beans, Worcester, A1, ketchup, sriracha sauce, BBQ sauce, soy sauce, dijon mustard, red wine, white wine
- Seasonings: kosher salt, black peppercorns (I use a coffee grinder to grind them up in big batches), garlic powder, onion powder, chili powder, cayenne pepper, cumin, dried Italian seasoning, dried rosemary, dried oregano, dried thyme, dried basil, dried dill, paprika, cinnamon, nutmeg, poppy seeds, dried minced onion, crushed red pepper, poultry seasoning, curry powder, herbes de Provence
This might seem like a pretty big list. But with the exception of the first 2 bullets, you’ll be able to keep the bulk of this list on hand for a long while before you have to worry about it going bad or replacing it.
List of your go-to meals
I’ve posted a few of my favorite quick dinners on the blog, like Korean Beef Lettuce wraps, Spinach Ricotta Bucatini, and Lemon Garlic Chicken. Stay tuned for more delicious quick dinners in the near future (including Asian Salmon, Chicken Quesadillas, Turkey Quinoa Stuffed Bell Peppers, & Spanish Chicken). In the meantime I thought I’d share a few quick go-to meals that I rely on when all else fails:
- Grilled Cheese & Tomato Soup
- Breakfast for dinner is unbelievably fast, yet always delicious! All you need is scrambled eggs, frozen hash browns, and bacon or chicken breakfast sausage with sauteed onions and you’re good to go. If your’e extra hungry, throw in some pancakes or waffles, too.
- Chicken breast marinated in your favorite store bought sauce (our favorites include Wegman’s Lemon Garlic marinade, Sweet Baby Ray’s Honey BBQ, or Italian dressing….just cover the chicken in it, bake, and serve with your favorite frozen veggies)
- BLT sandwich
- Green Salad with Tomato, Mozzarella, & Basil drizzled with balsamic vinegar
- Spaghetti olio e aglio (Spaghetti with Olive Oil & Garlic): saute garlic in extra virgin olive oil with kosher salt & crushed red pepper flakes, toss cooked spaghetti in the olive oil, top with chopped fresh parsley and grated parmesan
Develop your own list of your favorite meals that you can throw together in 30 minutes or less.
Organize: Weekly Meal Planning
- Every Sunday I go through my pantry and fridge to take inventory of what I have. From there I come up with 5 meals (for Monday through Friday) that I can make using what I already have.
- Then I fill in the blanks and make a list for a grocery trip to pick up whatever ingredients are missing.
- I use a daily planner and even write down the dinner plan for each week night. This makes it easy to remember to defrost that chicken or shrimp that’s in the freezer the night before I plan to cook it.
This way of planning your meals can really benefit both your pantry and finances because you find yourself cutting out the non-essentials that increase your bills quite a bit. I’ve always looked for good ways to reduce my grocery costs from looking into the amex everyday® credit card to buying clearance items – and meal planning is one of the best ways to do it.
That’s all there is to it! I really hope this helps any of you who need help getting a quick and delicious dinner on the table without all the stress :) What do you do to help plan out your meals? Share your tips in the comments below!