How does a professionally trained cook (personal chef) meal plan at home? You would think it would be a breeze, and that said chef would wouldn’t even think twice about it. Ironically, it took me a little bit of time to set a system that worked for our family.

That's mostly because there are a couple of major differences between cooking at a restaurant and cooking at home. To start with, in a restaurant you would have a dishwasher (person) who would take care of all your dishes, pots, and pans; you would also have at your disposal a great variety of high quality ingredients and some of them would be prepped already for you (already peeled garlic, chopped fresh herbs, already washed produce, and fish already cut into portions); finally, you would have at least three hours to prepare your food before service.

At home you have to think about what meals will use less pots and pans, because inevitably you will be the one washing the big stack of dishes. You also have to juggle children and maybe work. (Cooking with a kid stuck to your leg can get pretty frustrating.) Also, the average person has to plan meals on a limited budget and does not have quality ingredients in abundance.

Here are several tips that will hopefully help you develop your own meal planning system with meals your family will actually enjoy, and that will cut your stress and time in half.

1. Ask your family what they would like to eat in the upcoming week.

This way you will know what they like and they will feel more inclined to eat it if they chose it themselves. This does not mean that you will eat chicken nuggets every day; you can set the rules for choosing according to your meal preferences.

2. Find out what produce is in season, what the specials at the grocery store are, and what coupons you have available.

Produce in season is generally cheaper and of better quality than produce that is not. You can find the weekly ads for the grocery stores online. This will help determine your menu for the week. For example, you find out that there’s a special on boneless chicken breasts at the grocery store, you also have a coupon for yogurt, and it’s August so yellow squash and zucchini are in season. You can make tandoori chicken and squash kebabs served with rice.

3. Check your fridge and pantry for items that can be used.

You had three slices of raw bacon leftover from breakfast, you can’t really cook bacon for breakfast again with three slices, but you can make bacon meatballs. All you will need is one pound of ground beef and a couple more ingredients, and you probably already have spaghetti and tomato sauce in your pantry.

4. Plan only for dinner.

Breakfast for us is usually oatmeal, yogurt, cereal, or smoothies. On the weekend, when there is more time, we make pancakes. For lunch we always have items available to make sandwiches and salads, but most of the time I get creative with the leftovers. For example, if this week I had leftover chicken from making enchiladas I will make chicken salad for lunch the next day.

5. Find a system that works best for your family according to your meal preferences.

Plan for 1 super easy meal, 1 leftover day, 1 day of eating out or ordering in, and 1 day of a new recipe. The rest of the days you can choose whatever works best for you, one chicken day, one beef day, one fish day, etc.

I eat mostly plant-based, but my husband and child are omnivores. Here is a sample of our menu this week.

  • Saturday - Cheese & veggie gorditas, salsa & salad (for me this is the super easy meal)
  • Sunday - Leftover Day
  • Monday - Eat out (my husband is usually off during weekdays so that is when we eat out)
  • Tuesday - Tandoori chicken & yellow squash kebabs w/rice
  • Wednesday - Chipotle Meatballs, brown rice & sautéed zucchini (vegan) New recipe
  • Thursday - Turkey burgers w/roasted potatoes & peach and balsamic salad
  • Friday - Poblano Pepper Veggie Soup and Mexican Quinoa (Vegan)

6. Spend time looking for recipes.

There are great recipe sites out there. We love epicurious. Once I find recipe I like, I pin it to look at later. Once a week I go back and take a look at my “recipes I want to try” board and pick one and move it to Evernote. In Evernote I can save all the recipes I want to try, all the recipes we have tried and liked, all of my own recipes, and even pictures of hand-written ones. You can access Evernote from all of your devices so it keeps it easy. Over time you will acquire a large repertoire of recipes so you never have to wonder what you will be making for dinner.

7. Jot down your grocery list by categories and grocery shop one day a week.

If you are worried about beef and chicken spoiling, then place in freezer and defrost the night before.

8. Cook ahead.

Try to prep your meals ahead of time, or cook while kids are asleep or at school. If you’re a working parent, prepping one or two things the night before can be a great help the next day. Let’s go back to our tandoori chicken kebabs, during nap time I would marinate the chicken, slice cut the squash, and make the rice. This way when dinner time comes around all I have to do is assemble the kebabs, cook them, and reheat the rice. Why not cook the entire meal at nap time? Food is much better when just cooked, except for stews, those are usually better the next day.

9. Clean as you go.

I know this is not easy, but if you clean as you go you can avoid the huge pile of dishes at the end of the say.

10. At the end of the week remove the recipes from your list that were unsuccessful or unpopular with your family.

Please remember you don’t have to eat boring food! The hubby and I love spicy food, but our kid can’t handle super spicy food, so we adapt. I will make slightly less spicy enchiladas and ask him to try it, if I think he won’t like it, then I adapt the food slightly for him. We will have enchiladas and he will have chicken taquitos, same ingredients, no extra preparation. There is no reason why you should be dumbing down your food! If for some reason chicken taquitos is not his favorite, then he has the option of making himself a pb & j. This shouldn’t happen too often if you have been saving the recipes you know your family likes.

11. Don’t stress and be flexible.

I never write down our weekly menu in a nice pinteresty chalk board, (I don’t really have one!), because this allows me to be flexible. If I decide that making vegan meatballs is going to be too time consuming that day, because the baby is sick, then I choose something easier. This way nobody is disappointed. I do usually announce that same day what dinner will be. If we decide to eat out two days then I don’t stress either, I just move one of the meals I had planned for to the first day of the following week.

12. Ask for help.

Even the kiddies can do things like peel carrots and grate cheese. Those of you with teenagers can even get them to make the super easy meal. This might be hard to believe for some of you, but cooking can be fun!

What are some of the things that work for you?

Copyright 2014, Dora Stone