For many of us, cooking dinner every night is a frustrating, time-consuming process, even if you know your way around a kitchen. Here's how I (a self-proclaimed fool in the kitchen) turned cooking from a time-consuming chore into a quick, easy and delicious process.
Despite having learnt quite a bit of about cooking from my mother growing up, I never really liked doing it once I started living on my own. I never seemed to have enough food on hand, the food I did have would spoil before I used it, and the preparation was just more trouble than it seemed worth.
Clearly I'm not alone. A quick search of this site alone will net you a handful of tools made specifically to help ease the pain of meal planning. So, thinking that could be my issue, I decided to go all-in and use one of these apps as my weekly meal guide, and it's made a huge difference. Now, with just a bit of forethought, I have my meals for the week planned out in advance, with a well-stocked fridge and a meal ready every night in almost no time at all.
The linchpin of my system is an iPad app called Menu Planner. With it, I can create a directory of my favourite recipes, import them from tons of different food websites, plan out my week and create a grocery list for that week's meals with one tap. Meal Planner works on the iPhone as well, and if you're an Android user, the free Food Planner app has a very similar feature set, so you should be able to set up an identical system with it. Of course, if you prefer, you could always set up something similar using pen and paper or Excel, but I've found these apps make everything very easy once you get past the initial setup. Here's how it all works.
Initial Setup: Gather Your Recipes
Once you've downloaded your meal-planning app of choice, you'll need to take some time and add in all your favourite dishes (and the ingredients that go with them). This process will take some time, but you really only have to do it in-depth one time. To start, make a list of all the regular dishes you like to cook. If you don't have a lot, we recommend checking out these 10+ dishes everyone should know how to make at home). Then, when you're ready, start adding them to Meal Planner. Don't worry if you forget a few -- you can add new recipes to Meal Planner at any time.
The ability to import recipes from websites is extremely handy, so unless your recipe is a specially-crafted masterpiece handed down to you through 10 generations of chefs, I'd find comparable recipes for all your dishes online and import them that way. Go to the import section and click the bookmark button at the bottom of the screen -- you should see a pretty hefty list of supported food websites. Pick one from the list, and search for the recipe you want to add. When you find it, go to its page and tap Menu Planner's "Import Recipe" button.
Once you do, Menu Planner will open up a page where you can edit the details of that recipe. You can call it whatever you want, give it a rating and adjust the ingredients that go into it. You should always scan through the ingredients to make sure they're correct, as sometimes the importing process isn't perfect. The app also has a built-in list of ingredients, so whenever you can, edit the ingredient to match something already in the database. Entering something not already in the database will create it for you. The main point is to be consistent -- don't call something "pepper" in one recipe and "crushed black pepper" in another recipe, or your grocery list will be swamped with duplicates.
When you're done editing the ingredients, you can tweak the directions and add a category if you wish (like "main dish" or "side"), then tap Save. You can always come back and edit it later, too. Repeat this process for all of your other recipes, and you should have a pretty solid cookbook going. If you've done your job in step one, the hard part should be over and you can get to the good part -- cooking and eating it!
Step One: Plan Your Week
Once you've done your initial setup, all you have to do is take some time each week (I usually do this on Sundays) to go through a three step process: plan your meals for the week, go shopping, and do whatever you need to do to prepare them ahead of time (like thaw frozen items or clean the necessary dishes). Here's how it works with Menu Planner.
From the main Menu Planner interface, planning out your week is easy. Just tap a day on the calendar and tap the "Add a Course" button. From there, you can choose breakfast, lunch, dinner or something else you've created, and the click the plus sign on that course to start adding recipes. Do this for each day of the week, thinking about how much time you have to cook each day, the expiration dates on your foods and so on.
Step Two: Go Shopping
When you've finished planning your week, just head to the Shopping List tab and tap the Calendar button. Pick your start and end dates for your grocery list (that is, if you want to shop for all the ingredients you'll need until Friday, make Friday your end date), and it'll show you all the necessary ingredients for the dishes you've chosen. Go through this list and uncheck the things you already have well-stocked, like butter, salt, vegetable oil and whatnot (make sure you actually have them stocked, though). Then tap import. It'll populate your shopping list with everything you need, complete with checkboxes so you can check them off as you go through the supermarket. If you want to, you can even add categories and prices, though I don't do this -- all I really need is a simple list of the things I need to cook this week.
Step Three: Prepare Tomorrow's Meals At the End of Every Day
Lastly, I've found that preparing myself for tomorrow's meal makes the whole process much easier. Start as soon as you come home from the supermarket, though I actually perform this step every night of the week. Put anything that needs to thaw in the fridge, make sure the necessary pots, pans and dishes for tomorrow's meal are clean and ready so you don't have to do it tomorrow. I'll even get the tools and dry ingredients I need and put them on the counter, so I can start cooking as soon as I get off work.
No matter what your cooking issues are, planning out your meals ahead of time can make the whole process much easier, so I recommend giving it a shot -- even if you're just doing it with pen and paper a week ahead of time. If you have your own similar system, though, let us know what works well for you in the comments.