7 Secrets to Easy Meal Planning

Set aside 15 minutes and you've got a week of dinner menus for your family.

Plan Family Meals

Trade the weeknight "what's for dinner" dance for an easy-to-follow meal game plan that's guaranteed to get fresh and delicious dinners on the table for your family every night of the week.

While that task seems daunting, you really only need about 15 minutes at the beginning of the week to set a game plan and make a shopping list.

Taking those few minutes at the first of the week will save your sanity on hungry nights when everyone's ready to eat and there's nothing in the fridge. Get started by following our seven simple tips.

1. Gather Family Favorites
There's no need to try a new recipe every night. Instead, pick the dishes that please everyone and keep the recipes in a special spot, like a note card box on the kitchen counter. Build a collection of about 12-15 recipes and, depending on how many nights you plan to cook that week, pull about five to build your grocery list for the week. Get kids in on it by letting each child pick one night's meal.

2. Keep Sides Simple
On each recipe in your file box, make a note about preferred side dishes. You don't always have to serve peas and mashed potatoes with pork tenderloin, but it's good to know that those are a big hit and guaranteed to please if you're pressed for time.

3. Be Realistic About Portions
Does your ziti casserole for Tuesday serve 10? Think about if you'll take leftovers to lunch or serve a repeat dinner sometime over the weekend. Having leftovers for future dinners or work lunches will save more time later–simply divide any extra into single-serving containers during cleanup and store in the fridge with a fork or spoon for easy grab-and-go meals.

4. Make a Grocery List
Once you've pulled the recipes and selected some sides, make a grocery list. Create a reusable document that lists the departments of the supermarket on it, then just fill in what you need under each entry. Start with Fresh Produce; Dairy; Meat and Poultry, Seafood; Breads; Pasta, Rice, and Grains; Canned Goods, Condiments and Sauces; Freezer, and Herbs, Spices, and Nuts. You may find that you purchase the same ingredients each week. If that's true, make a master list and highlight what needs to be purchased before you go. If you clip coupons, attach them to the list for easy access at checkout.

5. Limit Trips to the Store
Decide on a day to do your shopping (Sunday might be best for working cooks, but Monday may work better for stay-at-home moms) and try to hit the aisles before noon–the store will be less crowded so you'll get out faster. Go once and get what you need for the week to save yourself after-work dashes.

6. Leave the Kids at Home
Plan meals and shop for the ingredients when you have a minute to yourself. You'll think clearer, move faster, and avoid a lot of kid-oriented impulse purchases like sugary cereal or candy at the checkout. If you do have the kids in tow, make sure everyone's eaten before you head into the store to save yourself from checking out with a half-empty box of crackers. Again.

7. Organize Checkout
Feed items onto the belt by category. No need to over-think the process, but by pairing cold items together, you'll keep them chilled during the ride home and know exactly which items need priority unpacking. Grouping rice, crackers, or canned goods together also expedites the pantry or cabinet restocking.

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