how to meal plan_02

editor’s note: I found myself so stuck in a rut this summer when it came to meal planning, I knew I had to make a serious change when school started this fall.  Keeping up with two young boys and trying to grow my own business often left me too overwhelmed to think about ‘whats for dinner’, but I knew I needed to do better.  I come from a family of amazing cooks (I keep waiting for the gene to kick in), and I know and value the importance of family dinners.  So in hope of getting reinspired and schooled on how to meal plan like a pro, I enlisted the help of a local friend and expert, Marcia Smart.  Marcia is a cooking instructor, recipe developer, food writer and the founder of Smart in the Kitchen. Through this guide, and the recipes on her website, she wants to help you make good, simple meals for your family and friends. Marcia is originally from California and she now resides in Houston with her husband and three children.

Meal planning isn’t just a good idea, it’s a life saver around here. Our house includes two working parents and three kids with busy homework loads and sports schedules. Sunday afternoons are typically spent looking at the week ahead and mapping out schedules with military precision.

What I strive to teach in my cooking classes is that getting dinner on the table can be easy. In my classes, the students tend to be over-committed, stressed, over-worked women wearing about a million hats at a time. Sound familiar? Dinner doesn’t need to be complicated or over wrought. With a little planning on the weekend (you can spare 20 minutes for the sake of your sanity, right?) you can write a meal plan and shop once for the week ahead.



Mondays are my day to hit the market as early as possible. I drop by kiddos at 7:30am and I’m usually inside the doors of my grocery store by 7:45am. Within 5 minutes, there’s an almond milk cappuccino in my hand and I’m hitting the aisles with my list. I divide my shopping list into four sections and write in categories that correspond to the layout of the store, which keeps things fast and efficient. Fruits and veggies go in the top left section, meat and seafood in the top right, dry goods in the bottom left and anything “extra” (vitamins, paper products, etc) in the bottom right. It takes me all of 30 minutes to get it done.

Granted, I didn’t always operate like this. After graduating from culinary school in San Francisco and working as a cooking instructor, food writer and recipe developer for magazines, my kiddos were all under the age of four and I was operating on fumes. We had our share of spaghetti and Jarred Rao’s marinara, still to this day our go-to “fast food” dinner. But what I know now, and what I wish I knew then, is that meal planning takes the grey cloud of “what’s for dinner” off my shoulders every day. Here are my top tips for planning a week’s worth of meals.

Routine, routine!

Pick your meal planning day and stick to it. I like to plan out our meals in the late afternoon on Sundays, and I shop first thing Monday morning. You can also order your groceries from a delivery service, like Instacart, and have everything delivered at a time that works for you.


Theme Party

Create a theme for every day of the week. Monday is meatless at our house, or fresh fish. Tuesday is some sort of taco or wrap, whether it’s Asian Lettuce Wraps or Taquitos with Creamy Chicken. Wednesday, I break out the slow cooker. It’s the middle of the week and I’m ready for easy clean up! Thursdays are “kids’ choice” which often means my weeknight lasagna. Fridays are leftovers, make-your-own-pizza (Trader Joe’s has a pre-made pizza dough that’s great), or a pantry meal. Saturdays in my house are date night or dinner parties and Sundays are a wild card. I might make a double batch of chili or soup that we can eat for lunch during the week. It’s a good time for me to test a new recipe for my website, or dinner might be as simple as a quick sheetpan roast chicken.


Write It Down

Keep a notebook or log with a record of your weeknight dinners. And if there are people in your life who constantly ask, “what’s for dinner” they can check the menu themselves! It’s super cute to have a chalkboard menu in your kitchen, but I much prefer having a hard copy that I can reference down the road. Check out Bartlett Street Paperie’s cute “Dinner: Fear Not” planner or the simple and streamlined Poketo planner. I publish my meal plan every Sunday night, with links to the recipes I’m making and any shortcuts to cut down on time.


images c/o Smart in the Kitchen by Karen Sacher + Kara Trail

Keep It Simple

Remember that weeknight dinners shouldn’t have too many ingredients. The best ones are simple, quick to prepare and have minimal clean up. Look for one-pan, one-pot wonders that cut down on clean up time. A few of my favorite weeknight cookbooks I go to for inspiration: Melissa Clark’s Dinner: Changing the Game, Martha Stewart Living’s One Pot, and the new School Year Survival Cookbook by Laura Keogh and Ceri Marsh.

If you don’t want to reinvent the wheel, you can browse my weekly meal plans here.

Here’s to taking the stress out of weeknights in the kitchen!

~ Marcia