When life gets hectic — as it so often does — it’s easy to put off this crucial step to eating well: Plan ahead. But isn’t that when you need it the most? We’ve said it before, and we’ll probably say it again: A little advance planning and few minutes of prep work here and there are often the difference between ordering take-out and cooking a delicious nourishing meal.

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I know that if I’ve thought ahead a little and shopped smart, it’s usually easier and faster to cook at home than to pick up something to go. Here are 4 simple steps:

Plan Meals for the Week

Chances are, you did some serious meal planning during the holidays. Lia’s tips for feasting without frenzy during the yuletide season are easily adapted for everyday use. I do a modified version of this every weekend, thinking about our schedule for the week ahead and which recipes I want to make. I usually make a more involved meal on Sunday evening, with an eye toward delicious leftovers (i.e., “planned-overs”) I can recycle later in the week. For example, I made batch of Easy All-Purpose Tomato Sauce for pizzas last night with an eye toward using the extra sauce with pasta and veggies later this week.

You don’t have to go so far as mark your calendar, though it can help you remember make-ahead steps along the way. For instance, I jotted a note to remind myself to put the farro on to soak for this 15-Minute Farrotto with Sage and Butternut Squash. And there’s also a note reminding me to marinate the steak for Grass-Fed Beef Bulgogi for tomorrow night (which I’ll stir-fry rather than grill, with some veggies that need to be used up).

Stock the Pantry, Fridge and Freezer

There are ingredients I always keep on hand so I can whip up something delicious at the last minute. If I have whole grain pasta, chicken stock, some bacon, eggs and a little hunk of cheese, I’ve got the makings of carbonara, which I can improvise with whatever veggies we have on hand (if there are none in the crisper, I always have a bag of frozen peas in the freezer).

This is a good time of year to reevaluate your pantry, too — get rid of items you’ll never use and restock a healthy pantry. Go ahead and use up that white rice, but replace it with brown; make the switch from white pasta to whole grain.

Shop Smart

Ugh, is there anything worse that stopping by the supermarket after a long day at work? It’s crowded, the lines are long, you’re hungry and then you have to schlep home and cook.

Instead, include shopping in your weekly plan and choose a time that works best with your schedule. My neighbor always hits the store early on a Saturday morning, when it’s uncrowded. This year, I want to visit our neighborhood weekly Friday morning farmers’ market, which is far more convenient (and much less hectic) than the weekend market.

When I have to hit the supermarket, I try to arrange my shopping list according to the store’s layout–grouping all the produce, all the bulk-bin items, all the meat, dairy, cheese, etc.–so I can zip through the store in no time.

Prep (and Cook) Ahead

Doing a few small chores when you have the time–from cleaning farmers’ market greens or chopping squash to cooking a pot of beans or simmering some stock–is painless and sets you up for great meals later in the week. And you don’t always need a lot of time. The prep-ahead step for this farro risotto recipe is as simple as putting the farro in a pot to soak in the morning so it cooks more quickly when you get home in the evening.

Also in this series:
Nourishing Resolutions: Fruit of the Day