“Delicious, inexpensive, quick: pick two.” That’s the maxim most people (implicitly) think of when it comes to weeknight meal planning. You can make a quick and inexpensive meal, but it won’t be delicious. You can find a quick and delicious meal – but you’ll pay a premium.
Thankfully, it’s faulty logic. Armed with a few meal-planning tips, you can bust out your inner foodie any day of the week. And you can save time and money in the process.
If you’re an on-the-go gourmand looking to elevate your weeknight meals, consider these four meal-planning hacks.
Stock Your Pantry with the Essentials
The first thing you’ll need is a well-stocked pantry. Non-perishable pantry staples form the backbone of your weeknight meal prep; they’re the workhorses that facilitate and embellish every meal to cross your table. Here are a few critical pantry staples to keep on hand:
- Oils, including “dressing” oils like extra virgin olive oil and cooking oils with a higher smoke point (like grapeseed or refined avocado oil).
- Kosher salt (or an equivalent medium-coarse salt that allows you to control your seasoning).
- A range of vinegars, including red wine, balsamic, apple cider and sherry.
- Pastas, rice, rice noodles and other grains (like oats, quinoa, faro, etc.).
- Canned beans (a quick alternative to dried beans).
- And spices galore!
From there, you can customize your pantry to fit your personal tastes. If it helps, create a checklist before you shop.
Break out a Culinary Encyclopedia to Brainstorm
Ideation is half the battle in meal planning. After a hard day at work, switching your brain into planning mode is challenging.
Turn the brainstorming task over to an online culinary encyclopedia. Canadian meal delivery company SkipTheDishes has a fantastic culinary FoodWiki, complete with meals from a range of cultures and countries. It’s the perfect launchpad for thinking about a week’s worth of dinners. You can start your week in China, save your Tuesdays for Italian pastas, make Mexican on Wednesday, and round out the week in the south of India.
As you peruse the various FoodWiki pages, copy dishes that pique your interest and paste them into a notes document on your phone. Once you have a week’s worth of meals, create an accompanying shopping list in the notes document that you can take to the grocery store.
Look for Patterns
Here’s where your logistical left-brain side comes in handy. Once you’ve brainstormed several meals, you want to search for patterns. Which dishes use similar fresh ingredients? In other words, how can you use that entire box of arugula across multiple days before it suffers a withered fate in your refrigerator crisper?
The solution is simple: create a spreadsheet. List your meals alongside the main ingredients they require. (For extra credits, you can list the date of purchase for each ingredient). Then, group together dishes that require similar ingredients. For instance, you might make chorizo and potato tacos on Monday; use the rest of the potatoes in a shepherd’s pie on Tuesday; use the rest of the peas from Tuesday in a pea pasta for Wednesday; et cetera. This way, you significantly reduce food waste and save money on groceries.
Keep a Digital Record of the Hits
Lastly, keep a digital record of winning dishes. Remember that notes document and spreadsheet from earlier? At the end of a week, add a rating system to the dishes. Write a short note in the margin of each describing a) how easy the meal was to prepare, b) how tasty it was, and c) what you might change next time. After a while, you’ll have an extensive repository of successful meal ideas you can refer to in a pinch.
Sometimes, dinner is the last thing you want to think about. But even busy individuals deserve to eat well. To ensure that there’s always a quick, tasty and inexpensive meal in your future, follow the straightforward tips above.