Easy Meal Planning

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Singles. Couples. Families. Empty nesters. Perhaps you’ve gone through a lifestyle change and it’s time to rethink your approach to menu planning. Not long ago, you were setting out dinner for five and now it’s just the two of you. Or perhaps you are living alone for the first time and figuring out how to cook for one. If you feel like you’re spinning your wheels in coming up with the next meal, you’re not alone.

Make a smooth transition with the timesaving tricks below, which will help you double the efficiency of your shopping and kitchen duties. You’ll enjoy delicious meals with less effort, giving you more time to reflect on the day or bond with family at the table.

Singles... Solo Cooking and Dining

Most singles say it’s a challenge to shop and cook for one. Recipes are usually designed for four or more people. We buy bread in sizable loaves, cereal in large boxes and eggs by the dozen. On the other hand, frozen entrées, yogurt and some frozen desserts are available in single servings. Fresh, ready-to-eat produce at the salad bar offers another way of buying just the amount needed for a meal or two.

Canned soup is an easy meal for one. Find soups you like and keep some in your pantry. Then embellish soups by adding frozen or fresh veggies, or topping with green onions, low-fat sour cream or freshly shredded Parmesan cheese.

When purchasing bread, rolls or sandwich buns, take out what you need for the next few days and freeze the rest. The freezer also keeps frozen fruit handy to pair with yogurt for a last-minute smoothie.

Pasta is a perfect entrée for singles. If you use fresh-packaged tortellini or ravioli, boil what you need and freeze the rest. Another option is to make two servings and have the leftovers for lunch the next day. Cold pasta salad makes a lovely lunch, or you can microwave leftover pasta for a hot meal. For easy sauces, try bottled marinara, store-bought pesto or just a drizzle of flavored olive oil and some shredded Parmesan.

Tossing a dinner salad is quick and can be quite nutritious. Buy a bag of mixed greens and add one or more of the following: fresh or dried fruit, roasted nuts, ready-to-go veggies, canned and rinsed beans, or presliced, shredded or cubed cheese. If desired, include cooked shrimp, or sliced turkey or roast beef from your Hy-Vee deli. Use a light salad dressing or drizzle olive oil and balsamic vinegar over the top.

Newlyweds... Till Dinner Do Us Part

The first years of married life often coincide with hard-charging years in a career. But at the end of each workday, the best is yet to come. Take the time to talk, laugh, cook and dine together into the evening and you’ll nourish each other in so many ways.

When preparing food for two, consider halving recipes that yield four to six servings or freeze leftovers. You’ll appreciate having a home-cooked meal ready to quickly reheat in the microwave.

However, should you run into a good buy on meat, poultry or fish, make the purchase. Divide what you buy into perfect-for-two portions and freeze any meat you won’t use within the next two days. Your freezer can also store extra bread or loose-pack vegetables. That way, you can use just what you need and return the rest to the freezer. If you don’t use an entire can of tomatoes, broth or spaghetti sauce, freeze the remainder for up to three months. Always label food with the date it was frozen.

When cooking for two, use smaller-size saucepans and skillets to keep the food from cooking too quickly and burning.

Families... On the Go

Rushing between work and school often leaves parents scrambling for time to prepare nutritious, good-tasting meals for their families. But good-for-everyone meals are possible, no matter how much or how little time you have.

Pull out a variety of recipes—soups, salads, sandwiches, casseroles, skillet meals and whatever your family prefers. Choose recipes that utilize a timesaving appliance, such as a slow cooker or grill. One night have a slow-cooked stew; another night, a 20-minute stir-fry.

Oven-roasting meats is a great habit to get into on weekends. During the week, use the leftovers in sandwiches, on top of pizza or as a flavorful addition to a spaghetti sauce. There are dozens of other ways to whip up quick meals with leftover roasts.

Pasta, eggs and potatoes are versatile foods for quick meals. Set up a baked potato bar with toppers so family members can assemble their own. Omelets are also great for dinner. You can poach, fry or scramble eggs to add to salads, stir-fries and even sandwiches. Pastas will pair with just about anything you have on hand, including sauce, fresh produce and cheese. Toss cooked, cooled pasta with leftover meats and vegetables and your favorite dressing for a main-dish salad.

Empty Nesters... Simplifying

One would think that after the last child goes to college or moves out, mealtime would become less stressful. In truth, cooking for two—or one—sometimes is just as trying as cooking for a crowd. Still, the transition needn’t be rough, you just need a new rhythm for cooking and shopping.

You can enjoy many of the same foods you enjoyed as a family. Pull out a few of your favorites and pare them down to serve one or two. You’ll find that many recipes are highly flexible. Reducing a recipe may mean adjusting the cooking time, though not usually the temperature. For example, a mini meat loaf might be done 10 to 15 minutes sooner than a meat loaf cooked in a regular-size loaf pan, but both will likely cook in a 350-degree oven.

When meat or poultry are the main ingredient, there are multiple ways to cook without the new dish resembling leftovers. Top grilled steaks or chicken breasts with a sauce one night, then use them in salads, pasta or quesadillas on other nights.

Stash extras in the freezer. Freeze meat in individual portions. If you made a half batch of turkey chili and still have leftovers, freeze the extras in pint-size containers for easy defrosting. You’ll feel good knowing you have another meal ready to go.

Shop the Hy-Vee salad bar for smaller amounts of salad greens, fruits and veggies. Also, use this new life stage to try dishes and cuisines you haven’t tasted in a while because of the picky palates of your children.

6 Steps to Meal Planning

  1. Plan a Week's Worth of Meals. Create a master list of meals that your family enjoys and include a few new recipes from your favorite cookbooks, magazines or online sources. Go for simple recipes that fit your time frame. At least one recipe should yield leftovers that can be used in other meals. For example, roast a chicken on Sunday and use leftovers for chicken tacos later in the week.
  2. Make a Shopping List. Check your pantry and fridge for ingredients you already have on hand. Create a shopping list categorized by sections at the store to help cut down on shopping time and to ensure you won’t forget anything.
  3. Prep in Advance. Go through the list of meals that you’ve chosen for the week and set aside an hour or two to do some of the prep work. This can also be turned into a family session where everyone participates. Clean and prep vegetables, and chop onions and herbs. Store all these ingredients in the fridge or freezer until needed.
  4. Invest in a Slow Cooker. A slow cooker allows for easy prep when you have less time than usual. In many instances, your slow cooker is great for the “cook once, eat twice” mealtime strategy. Cooking a large roast one day cuts your work in half another day, when you can toss leftovers with pasta and a simple sauce.
  5. Think Outside the Box. Instead of the usual meatballs and spaghetti, incorporate salads and sandwiches or even traditional breakfast options like scrambled eggs and whole wheat pancakes. Serve with fruit and yogurt smoothies for the added nutrients.
  6. Love Those Leftovers. You can create a range of dishes by adding fresh ingredients to leftover foods. Try tossing lightly cooked green vegetables with fresh salad veggies and vinegar to create a light salad. Stewed or oven-roasted vegetables puree nicely in a food processor to use as a sauce base for a meat or pasta dish. Cooked rice and other grains can easily be incorporated into stir-fries, stews or even grain-and-vegetable burgers.

Go-To Ingredients

Besides the usual staples, stock up on a few more items and you'll have a wealth of mealtime options.

Refrigerator

  • Cheeses, semi-firm and hard
  • Deli meats
  • Eggs
  • Fresh vegetables, presliced
  • Mashed potatoes, premade
  • Salad green mixes

Freezer

  • Chopped cooked chicken
  • Fruits, unsweetened
  • Meatballs
  • Pasta, tortellini (whole wheat or spinach)
  • Vegetables

Pantry

  • Beans, canned
  • Broth, beef and chicken
  • Brown rice, quick-cooking
  • Crackers, whole grain
  • Garlic, jarred minced
  • Diced tomatoes, canned
  • Natural peanut butter
  • Salad dressing
  • Spaghetti sauce

Source: Hy-Vee Seasons Health 2014.

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