a meal planning solution
to answer the "what's for dinner" dilemma
I’m really excited to share something that I think might help all of us solve the “what’s for dinner?!” dilemma once and for all.
But first, the backstory.
The lovely ladies of the Pressure Cooker podcast invited me on to attempt to demystify “easy weeknight cooking”. You can listen to the full episode here.
My favorite part is at the end, when Liz and Jane dig into why “an easy weeknight meal plan” is simply not a one size fits all solution.
What might be a great weeknight meal to my family of 5 might be a disaster in yours. Your family might love spicy food, whereas my boys behave as though I’m performing a torture method worthy of a cameo on Game of Thrones if I season their food with one speck of black pepper. A recipe with a lot of chopping but very little cooking might be a great weeknight meal to someone confident in their knife skills, but an absolute horror show to someone who isn’t.
Simply picking the recipes to cook is also a tremendous amount of work. There are so many recipes out there, you want to use what you already have in the pantry/fridge, etc.
And don’t get me started on writing the grocery list, and then doing the shopping.
You get the point, it’s actually very difficult to nail down what truly makes a recipe “easy” when all of our cooking skills, not to mention what we value in a recipe, vary so much.
All of this gave me an idea for a meal planning playbook that I’m calling THE MENU.
The core of THE MENU is this: don’t reinvent the wheel. If your family loves a meal, go to the well until the well is dry. AKA cook it every single week until they’re tired of it. You’ll save money (because you’re using the same spices/sauces/cheeses), time, and energy, and you won’t have to fight your kids to get them to try a new recipe.
A note: there’s a time and place for using The Menu. Right now, in the crazy postpartum-with-two-toddlers-and-a-job period that I find myself in, The Menu feels absolutely genius. But if you don’t have kids, or are perhaps in a jobless period, finding new recipes to cook every week might sound really fun to you! A month from now, you might find yourself in a stressful period and come back to The Menu. Keep it as a note on your phone and use it on the weeks when you need it.
Create Your Personalized Menu
Follow these steps and never stress over the “what’s for dinner” dilemma again. Creating The Menu takes a bit of work upfront (an hour or two), but will make every week SO MUCH EASIER, quicker, less expensive, and less stressful.
1) Choose and print out (or digitally catalogue in a very easy to find place) SEVEN recipes that your family loves.
This is obviously harder for those of us with small children, but think hard and come up SEVEN meals that will please the whole family.
If you know you only ever cook 3 nights a week, your menu could be a lot smaller — like only 5 menu items.
If one of your menu items is something you don’t actually “cook”, such as boxed Mac and cheese with broccoli, that’s great! Add it to your menu even though it seems obvious, so that when you’re stressed on a Tuesday night after baseball practice, you don’t have to think, it’s right there. Just write out a list (on your phone notes!) and print out the recipes (or include the links to the recipes on your list so that you can easily pull them up or text them to whoever is cooking that night).
Here’s my family’s menu:
Chicken Flautas (serve with leftover rice and beans from burrito bowl night and the Southwestern salad kit)
2) Write out grocery lists for all seven menu items on a phone note.
Write only what you need at the store, not ingredients that are already in your pantry. For instance, notice that for pot stickers and broccoli I do not need to buy any peanut sauce ingredients because I always have them in the pantry.
As you run out of pantry items (such as spices or pasta), add them to your list.
3) Plan each week, one week at a time.
Every Saturday or Sunday, sit down for a few minutes to plan out the week.
Look at the week ahead, how many meals do you need to cook? Are you going out to eat this week? Is there a crazy night where you’d do better just ordering pizza?
Once you determine how many meals you actually need to cook this week, pick them! Some weeks it’ll be 7, some weeks it’ll be 2, but they’re all there waiting for you.
Copy and paste the grocery list for each recipe you’re shopping for onto a master list.
What can you prep ahead of time? As you cook these recipes over and over again, you’ll become familiar with how you can prep in advance to make dinnertime a cinch.
This is an optional step, but one that becomes MUCH easier using The Menu.
If you are the only one who ever cooks in your house, and you’d like to not be, use The Menu as an opportunity to delegate.
Perhaps you cook all the meals because you are the only one in your home who knows how to cook? Welp, start by teaching your spouse or child or nanny to cook just ONE menu item. This can become their responsibility every single week. They’ll be masters of it by week 3, and won’t be asking you where the vegetable peelers live and how to chop a carrot and the millions of other questions that have always made you resign to just cook all the dang meals.
5) Identify efficiencies!
Cooking the same recipes each week will allow you to be really efficient with your time.
My peanut sauce is good in the fridge for up to a month or so. So every time I make it, I 4x the batch. This way, on dumpling night, all I have to do is defrost the dumplings and steam some broccoli.
My “healthy-ish turkey bolognese” recipe makes a double batch. It was written this way on purpose — to make life easier on a busy night down the road! Freeze half of the sauce for next week.
We always have leftover rice from the one-skillet crispy chicken burrito bowls. I’ll serve it as a side dish for chicken flautas a day or two later.
Maybe two of the meals on your list are served with chopped parsley. Go ahead and chop the whole head of parsley and keep it in an airtight container. It’ll be good for two weeks!
6) Swap new recipes in.
As your family gets tired of a meal, delete it from your menu and swap in a new one. My hope is that each weekly WTC recipe will be a great new menu item for your families. Or, think of WTC recipes as “specials” that have the potential to become regular menu items if all of the patrons love it!
In really busy periods, keep it simple. Don’t swap. Stick to what you know.
In times when you’re less busy and have more time to spend on cooking fun meals, try to cook the newest WTC meal every week! You’ll notice that I repeat a lot of spices and pantry ingredients — this is in hopes that grocery shopping will be easier and less expensive in the long run.
7) What about lunch?
For a family my size (two adults + one picky child + one hoover of a child), one What To Cook recipe typically feeds all of us dinner + provides enough leftover for lunch the next day. We eat leftovers for lunch almost every day!
Ok, that’s The Menu.
What do you think? Will you give it a try? Do you have a better method than The Menu? Share your best weeknight meal planning tips with all of us!