4 Brilliant Ways to Plan Your Meals All Week Long

02/20/2015 11:20 am ET | Updated Feb 20, 2015

Here's how one woman with three kids, a husband and a start-up helps get dinner on the table.

By Lynn Andriani

  • 1 Strategy #1: Think Of Cooking As A Non-Negotiable
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    When it comes to actually making dinner, the odds are stacked against most of us. "Cooking [itself] has become optional; there are so many other ways to get food onto your plate," says Mary Egan, founder and CEO of Gathered Table, an online service that provides weekly, customized menus. And if you're too busy to go with the "cooking" option, then you're definitely going to choose another method, whether it's picking up a prepared meal, ordering something in or microwaving a frozen, store-bought entree. The trick, Egan says, is to change the way you think about preparing a meal. It doesn't have to be a big, impressive spread, as some cooking shows would have you believe. The first step: Quit thinking of it in those terms, and you'll approach meal-planning from a fresh, can-do angle.
  • 2 Strategy #2: Figure Out Your Old Reliables
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    Whether you want to plan your meals the old-fashioned way (i.e., pen and paper) or the 2.0 way (with an app or website), take a few minutes to think of some of the dishes you can cook without a recipe. Your "repertoire" doesn't have to consist of elaborate dinners; in fact, the simpler, the better. For instance, Egan's go-tos include roast chicken, baked or grilled salmon, black beans and rice, and "breakfast-y supper" (aka eggs, bacon and French toast). The idea is to create a catalog of your basics, which you can rotate through every seven to 14 days, so you aren't scrambling to come up with brand-new menus every week. (Here are 20 more recipes to get you going; they're the kind you can memorize and make your own.)
  • 3 Strategy #3: Play Around On Weekends
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    Saturdays and Sundays are generally more relaxed, so Egan suggests hesitant cooks try one or two new dishes those days, when they have a more flexible schedule. On the first go-round, a 30-minute recipe might take you 35 or 40 minutes; but the next time, you'll probably have it down to 25. Then, you can start adding recipes you've tried and liked to your weeknight routine.
  • 4 Strategy #4: Check The Fridge
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    Many of us buy groceries with the best intentions, but then don't wind up cooking, and a good amount of those expensive, healthy ingredients wither. One thing Egan started doing a few years ago that has helped is to clean out her fridge before she goes shopping each week. It not only reminds you of what can be salvaged (e.g., incorporating that half-head of bok choy into a stir-fry), but also prevents you from making the same mistakes (e.g., if it seems like there's tons of mushy parsley every week... maybe you can skip buying parsley so frequently). That said, Egan points out that no one should feel too guilty about a small amount of unused food since cooking any kind of food, rather than achieving perfection, should be the goal.

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