Like most people who love food and cooking, Amanda Haas, Williams-Sonoma’s Test Kitchen Manager, used to wake up thinking about what she’d have for dinner. She loved grocery shopping and went to the store every single day. But with two little boys and a very busy schedule, she started to feel anxious about making meals during the week. Finally, she created a new weekend ritual: making a meal plan.
Now, Amanda sits down every weekend and plans her meals for the week, including dinners, lunch boxes, breakfasts and snacks. And she keeps it practical: “My weeknight dinners are dishes I can either make in advance or cook in less than 30 minutes,” she says. Thanks to some advance planning, she never has to settle for junk food, and her family sits down to a nutritious dinner together almost every night.
Step 1: Make a chart. On the left-hand side, mark your meals — Breakfast, Lunch, Snack and Dinner. At the top, write the days of the week.
Step 2: Look at your schedule. Are there sports events on the calendar? Evenings out? Having people over? Pencil in the nights you’ll be out of the house, and leave your nights at home blank. That’s where you can plan your meals.
Step 3: Take requests. Ask kids what sounds good for dinner and for lunch this week. “For dinner, they usually say something like steak, pasta, fish and chicken, and I’ll add a vegetable night,” says Amanda. “For lunch, they love chopped salads, lasagna and soups.” (See her lunch box tips here!)
Step 4: Fill it in. Once you have an idea of what’s on the menu for the week, start filling in meals. Amanda aims for a balance of proteins, seafood, starches and vegetables — for example, she’ll have bacon or sausage two mornings out of the week, and fruit and yogurt the other mornings.
Step 5: Start shopping! Make a list of everything you need for the meal, and knock it out in one massive shopping trip over the weekend. Yes, it’s time consuming, but you’ll thank yourself during the busy week. Amanda knows her store so well that she organizes her shopping list according to how she walks through the store — and she even knows the prices of most items!
Step 6: Prep ahead. Use down time on Sunday to chop fruits and vegetables for lunch boxes, and go ahead and cook dinners that will keep, like braises and casseroles. When Monday rolls around, you’ll be ready to go.
Here’s a sample meal plan for Amanda. (Spoiler alert: she’s working on a new cookbook!)
Reserve weekends and low-key nights for cooking. Balance fun and creative time with kids in the kitchen and more practical weeknight meals. Once or twice a week, Amanda will bring her kids in the kitchen with her, but not when she’s trying to do a dozen things at once. “Little Charlie would like to cook ever day if he could!” she says.
Give kids more control. Amanda takes her boys to the store to pick out fruits and vegetables for snacks, and she’ll let them choose one sweet treat for the week (sometimes it’s a pint of ice cream, or often she’ll bake cookies).
Make after-school snacks work harder. “On weekdays, my kids come home starving,” says Amanda. “We don’t do the junky snack then.” Instead, she makes sure she has something healthy ready to go. Here’s another tip: snacks and dinners can — and should — overlap! If her kids have an extracurricular activity after school, Amanda will give them a substantial snack of good, homemade food (think lasagna or tacos) between 3 and 5 p.m., and they can have another serving of it after the event.
Be spontaneous! If you’ve planned ahead, you can switch different meals for different nights at a moment’s notice — that way, no one gets bored. And sometimes Amanda will keep one night open to allow for flexibility. Also, if she’s having friends over, she leaves that night free for whatever strikes her.
Let go of your inner control freak. When kids get in the kitchen, messes are made — but it’s worth it. And no one can do it all! Delegate or split responsibilities with a partner when you can. “Since I commute to work, my husband does a lot of dinner duty,” says Amanda. “I’m so grateful when I walk in the door and dinner is ready.”