Meal planning skill is very important for home cooking

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Are you tired of eating out? Would you like to wean yourself off takeouts? Many of my clients tell me they would like to eat more homemade meals but don’t know how to incorporate it into their lives. The process seems overwhelming because they lack meal planning skills. I think we tend to under-appreciated the importance and the complexity of the process. It has become somewhat of a lost skill and even a real barrier to home cooking all together.

So here is my step-by-step process for meal planning, grocery shopping and home cooking. This is for people who are just starting out, who have little to no experience at this. I offer you my meal planning ideas that I have been using for my family over the last 20+ years. I also include a meal planning template for your convenience. Start small and gradually grow your repertoire of recipes and skills.

My 6 step meal planning process overview

  1. Make a plan of what you are going to cook and when
  2. Choose your recipes and Make an ingredient list 
  3. Go grocery shopping 
  4. Time your recipes and cook 
  5. What to do with the leftovers 
  6. Ways to get better at this

Make a plan of what you are going to cook

We know very well how to use calendars and all kinds of other planning tools for work. Why not apply it to your meal planning? At least at the beginning when you are building the habit. I really encourage you to start small. You can begin with one meal. For example, breakfast is a great meal to start with because of its simplicity. Alternatively, you can start with just one day a week. 

If you are a pretty organized person and already have some cooking skills down plan based on how often you can grocery shop. You need to make a plan to buy enough food until you have a chance to go back to the store. If you grocery shop only once a week you need to make a 7-day meal plan. Here is my 1-week meal planning template for your convenience. 

Choose your recipe(s). You already know the foods you enjoy, Google the recipes and choose the ones with fewer ingredients and prepping steps. I find one-pot dishes like chili, stews or soups to be very practical. Another handy option is to come up with a couple of recipes that you can cook at the same time. For example, while your chicken is in the oven, your hands are free to make a side dish to go with it. 

Some people prefer batch cooking on the weekends. If you don’t plan on cooking all your recipes in one day but rather prefer quick recipes to make daily, consider the freshness of the ingredients. For example, if you are buying a piece of fresh fish and a chicken sealed in a vacuum package you want to cook your fish first and leave the chicken for later. 

meal planning ingredients

Make an ingredient list for the recipes on your meal plan

Now that you’ve decided on your recipes make a list of ingredient that you’ll need to buy. While doing this consider the quantities as well. Are you making the recipe as-is, doubling it or cutting it in half? Always check your fridge and your pantry for ingredients before adding them to the list. You don’t want to overstock, especially on perishables like lettuce or fresh herbs! I think it’s a good idea to have a variety of long lasting ingredients in your pantry. Grow your pantry collection as you learn new recipes. 

Go grocery shopping for your meal plan

Okay, that’s easy, right? I recommend that you shop a day before or the same day that you are planning on cooking. Ideally, you’ll find your ingredients along the perimeter of the store in the chilled and fresh produce sections. Real food spoils quickly so it needs to be refrigerated. Think outside of the box, literally! Foods in boxes or packages are mostly processed foods. 

Some foods like seeds, nuts, vinegars, spices and beans are designed by nature to last for a long time. They don’t need refrigeration and are usually found in the center of the store. Here are some ideas on how to stock up your pantry.

Time your recipes and cook

Optimizing your home cooking time is alway helpful. Usually, I think ahead of time and plan backwards starting with the time I want to eat. Then I look at the recipes to see how long each one will take and start with the recipe that takes longest. 

To give you an example, I often bake a whole chicken with hardy vegetables like potatoes around it. I know it takes about 1 ½ hours to bake a chicken. If I want to have dinner at 7pm, I need to put it in the oven at 5:30pm, so I start around 5:15pm to give myself 15 minutes for prepping. I put my favorite spice blend on the chicken and place it breast up on a baking tray. Then I cut potatoes into small pieces, about 1 inch, add olive oil and salt, and arrange them around the chicken and put it in the oven at 350F. Done! 

And I have one and a half hours to make another recipe or two! I usually make a salad and some other vegetables to go with the chicken. Or your can start making your chili if you are batch cooking. By the time the chicken is ready the chili is all prepped and just simmering away to be enjoyed the next day. You get the idea.

If you are cooking a new recipe, I recommend you just follow the recipe. You can adjust it to your taste next time you make it.

What to do with the leftovers

After you’ve enjoyed your delicious dinner you may have a whole bunch of leftovers to deal with, especially if you batch cooked. You might decide to divide the leftovers into single serving portions and package those into plastic or glass containers. This way you can just grab one in the morning and take it with you to work for lunch. You can also freeze all or some of the containers for future use. After a couple of weeks of doing this you’ll have a variety of cooked dishes in your freezer to choose from. This way you don’t have to eat the same dish 3 days in a row. Label the container because after freezing it’s hard to tell what’s inside. 

I rarely freeze my leftovers because I’m feeding a whole family and food goes fast. I often aim for the meat/fish dishes to last a couple of dinners. Then I cook a new side dish the following day. And that makes each dinner seem freshly cooked or at least different from the day before. 

Most leftovers are totally safe to eat after 3-5 days in the fridge. If in doubt, use your nose to detect any sign of spoilage.

meal planning and cooking

Ways to get better at home cooking

Meal planning and cooking skill takes a bit of time to develop. Get really comfortable cooking your favorite dish(es) on a regular bases. Even if you are starting with just one! When you are ready, add another recipe to your repertoire, and build up from there. I encourage you to find a recipe blog or a cookbook that inspires you. You can also ask your mom or dad, or other family member to share a recipe you enjoyed since your childhood. If you already tasted and enjoyed the food, it will make it much more likely that you’ll cook the recipe yourself.

Cook together! Cooking and having fun with it is the best! You can do it with a friend, your partner, or your kids. Talking and chopping, relaxing and tasting – that’s a great way to spend an evening, unplug from work and reconnect with your people. And a great dinner is a reward at the end!

Be a kind critic of your home cooking efforts. Taste the food and be curious about it. Is there a way to improve it? Maybe it should have spent a bit less time cooking, or maybe longer. Or maybe it needed a bit more salt or spices. Make corrections to the recipe for the next time.

And keep on cooking!