1. Organize your pantry, fridge, and freezer. Throw away anything that has expired and anything that you’ve had for a year and haven’t used yet. Sort everything out and shelve it by type: Canned soups, veggies, and fruits lined up on one shelf; rice, pasta, and boxed side dishes in one place; a designated drawer for frozen meat. If everything is easy to see and access, you will be more motivated to cook, and you’ll save money by knowing what you have when you make your shopping list. Cleaning out the freezer is like going on a treasure hunt!
2. Choose simple storage options. Clear plastic containers with snap-on lids are great for keeping cereal, crackers, and cookies fresh. Small baskets make single-serve snacks easily accessible for kids. Recycled jars are great for storing beans, dried fruit, rice, and nuts. When you come home from grocery shopping, empty things into containers and put everything in its place. Freezer bags are such a money saver, allowing me to purchase large family-size packs of meat and divide it up when I get home.
3. Sort through cookbooks. Weed out the ones you never use and whittle down to a few that have recipes your family likes. Store them front and center on a pantry shelf or on the kitchen counter so you can easily grab them for inspiration. Use sticky tabs to mark pages to find favorites quickly. Write notes inside to remind you of alterations or substitutions, or for meals that bombed or were especially successful. Bookmark your favorite recipes online, and pin them to a Pinterest board to find later. Many cookbook recipes are available on the author’s or publisher’s websites, so you really don’t need as many cookbooks as you think.
4. Write down, or type out, every meal you can think of in your repertoire. Ask your family for help. Once you have all of them listed, sort them by common ingredients. For instance, group spaghetti, chili, sloppy joes, and beef tacos; and chicken pie, chicken stir-fry, and chicken parmesan. Now, consult your recipes for any additions you want to make to your list. Strive for at least 25 options. Check out my Easy Meals Pinterest board for some ideas.
5. Create a master shopping list. Decide what common ingredients you need to stock in your pantry, such as canned tomato sauce, pasta, spices, flour and sugar, cereal, and staples like coffee, tea, and chocolate. Determine what ingredients you can live without, and don’t be afraid to skip them when following recipes. I will buy some specialty items, but I hate to waste money on a spice I’ll only use for one recipe, only to have it get dusty on the shelf. When planning your weekly shopping trip, consult your master list first.
6. Make your monthly menu plan. Look at your calendar, and choose meals accordingly: Crockpot meals for game nights; more involved meals for at-home days; quick and easy meals for field trip or co-op days. Be strategic about planning meals that you grouped on your list so you can cook large portions of a common ingredient and store the rest for another night. Take advantage of leftovers to create another meal: spaghetti becomes chili bean casserole; leftover chicken chopped up goes into chicken pie or becomes BBQ sandwiches.
7. Keep family mealtime a priority. A little advance planning will ensure that you’ll always be able to answer the question, “What’s for supper?” and you can gather your family together at mealtime. Enlist the kids to help with prep, cooking, setting the table, and clean up (Click here for some Kids in the Kitchen ideas). You can even incorporate cooking lessons into your schoolwork. Gather around the table together at the end of the day to celebrate, reconnect, and share.