Since I went to culinary school and cook and write about food for a living, one might think that I'm super organized when it comes to making everyday dinners — but I have a confession to make: My meals can be just as unplanned and thrown together as the most amateur cook. I've been known to race to the supermarket at 5:30 p.m. with no idea what I'm going to make, or even to suggest going out to eat or ordering take-out, simply to save myself the trouble of making something (and having to clean up).
Living this way certainly has its drawbacks, though. Planning meals ahead of time can save you time and money and help you eat healthier. But it can also allow you to live a greener lifestyle. After all, proper meal planning cuts back on food waste, and fewer trips to the supermarket mean less gas and pollution.
This year, I'm going to make it my goal to do a little advance planning for dinners so that I can not only take advantage of these benefits, but also have a more relaxed evening as well. If you, too, want to get your dinnertimes on track while helping the planet, here are some ways to get started:
Make a Game Plan
On any given Sunday afternoon, Thursday night's dinner is probably the furthest thing from your mind. But taking an hour or so out of your weekend to plan the upcoming week's meals will save you plenty of stress. Thumb through cooking magazines or recipe books for inspiration, or search online. If planning entire meals seems too daunting, take a mix and match approach. First, pick out some entrees, then buy a few days' worth of vegetables that you can quickly steam or sauté, as well as side dishes like rice, couscous and other grains. You can pick which ones to make that evening according to what you (or your family) happen to be in the mood for.
Make up a shopping list of everything you'll need, and head to the supermarket either on the weekend or at the beginning of the week. Pick up breakfast components, lunch fixings and snacks too. By cutting back on excess car trips to the supermarket, you're saving gas and cutting down on pollution.
Have a Well-Stocked Kitchen
Keeping your pantry and freezer stocked with nonperishable items helps ensure that fewer things are wasted. You can find lists of essential pantry items online, or just think about the staples you typically use. My list includes olive oil, balsamic vinegar, rice, couscous, canned soup, canned tuna or salmon, tomatoes, beans and chicken or vegetable stock. In the freezer, I like to have a stash of frozen vegetables, dinner rolls, meatless crumbles and oven fries.
Plan Around Sales and Seasons
By getting started on the weekend, you can look at sales circulars and plan your meals according to what's on sale. For significant sales, don't be afraid to buy stuff for several meals and freeze or store what you don't use right away. This will build up a stash of ingredients that you can use when you don't have anything planned, but want to avoid another grocery run.
Similarly, plan your vegetable dishes around what's in season. This will guarantee your food is fresher and tastier (and probably cheaper too). Find a local farmer's market or a supermarket that carries local ingredients. By doing so, you'll be supporting nearby small farmers, and cutting down on the environmental impact caused by shipping foods long distances.
Take Advantage of Time-Saving Cooking Techniques
There are many appliances and cooking techniques that can keep your time in the kitchen to a minimum. A meal made with a slow cooker can be assembled in the morning and will cook all day while you're at work or running errands. Quick-cooking methods that allow you to make dinner in 30 minutes or less include pressure cooking, stir frying and grilling.
Bonus: Quick cooking also means that you're conserving energy, since your stove or oven is on for a shorter period of time. A pressure cooker, for instance, cooks food in two-thirds the amount of time, which means your stove is on for less than half the time it would be on if you were cooking food in a conventional pot.
Plan for Leftovers
When you're making a recipe with a lot of ingredients, like lasagna or a pot of stew, plan to make double what your family will eat, then cool and freeze the rest. It's always a pleasure to know that you have a few ready-to-go meals socked away for when you're just too tired to cook. Similarly, you can also use the leftovers from one meal as an ingredient in another; leftovers from roast chicken, for example, can go into fajitas another night, or tomato sauce from a pasta dish can be used to top pizza or calzones later.
If I have to buy a perishable ingredient like herbs or carrots for one recipe, I will also plan another meal later in the week that uses the rest of this ingredient, so that it won't go to waste. You'll conserve energy and reduce food waste by making leftovers part of your meal planning.
Quick cooking also conserves energy, since your stove or oven is on for a shorter period of time.
What are your favorite tips for planning your dinners for the week? Share your ideas and recipes by commenting below.