Your 4-Week Plan to Getting Ahead in the Kitchen in 2021
Shop smarter, get organized and finally tackle meal prep once and for all.
If finding time to grocery shop, make dinner and actually enjoy a meal with your family is on your resolution list this year, we're here to help. This guide is designed help you form habits that’ll get you ahead in the kitchen. Each week, you’ll master several manageable skills that you can stack together like building blocks to get a handle on every aspect of meal prep, from grocery shopping to actually finding the time to get into the kitchen to cook.
Week 1: Make Your Schedule
You’ve got a workout routine. A skincare routine. A bedtime routine. Although you might not think of them as calendar events, you do them at the same time every day. This week, we challenge you to block off grocery shopping, meal prepping and cooking times on your calendar. Yep, make appointments for yourself — with reminders 15 minutes beforehand and everything. As you follow your schedule, make notes about which times work best and which times don’t work as well. At the end of the week, make an improved schedule for week two, only set the events as re-occurring weekly. Here are some more tips.
- Dedicate one hour on Sunday to big tasks. Some guides will tell you how to cook every single meal for the week ahead from start to finish on Sunday. That sort of prepping feels exhausting and impractical. Instead, set aside one hour to wash all your produce and store it properly. While you’re at it, chop up some veggie snacks. Roast several sheet pans of vegetables with olive oil, salt and pepper and make a giant batch of a versatile grain like rice or couscous. You can slot the veggies and grains into different meals throughout the week.
- Cook dinner a night ahead. Yep, you typically think of cooking dinner…right before dinner. But we’re here to say that you should find the times that work for you. Maybe it’s in the morning. Or maybe it’s after you’ve put the kids to bed. If you’re making in advance, consider something that’s meant to be served cold (like cold noodles) or that can easily be reheated (like baked pasta or veggie burgers).
- Slow-cook or braise in the morning. If you’re working from home, the good news is that you can start dinner earlier in the day. Focus on recipes that involve hands-off cooking time, like slow-cooker recipes or braises that take 10 minutes to prep and several hours to cook in the oven.
Week 2: Organize Your Pantry and Fridge
Does anyone else have two-and-a-half bottles of open soy sauce, plus a dozen little takeout packets shoved in some drawer somewhere? Knowing what you have stocked and where are the first steps toward writing a tight grocery list. Take time this week to check expiration dates, consolidate ingredients and properly organize your refrigerator. While we’re not suggesting you decant every item in your pantry into matching glass containers like a Pinterest board, we’ve got a few thoughts below.
- Invest in square glass food storage containers. Square food storage containers are better than round ones because they stack against each other in the fridge with no wasted space. Glass is sturdy, and because you can see through it, you’ll always know what’s in the fridge.
- Label the tops of your spices. Maybe you’re blessed with one of those special pull-out spice drawers. But if not, take a leaf from the Food Network test kitchen and write the name of each spice on its lid. This way when you’re faced with a crowded spice drawer, you can quickly pick out the one you need without needing to take out seven bottles to find it.
- Keep a running grocery list. Keep a running grocery list and write down pantry items as soon as you run out of them. Bingo, you’ll always have a stocked pantry.
Week 3: Make a Meal Plan
Sit down and map out what you’re having for dinner each night. Maybe you prefer pen and paper, your laptop or an app (the Food Network Kitchen app contains a meal planning feature) – but you can also get fun with this and write everything out on a magnetic whiteboard that sticks to the fridge. This way, the family can look forward to the house special every night. Here, a few meal plan pointers.
- Choose dinners with overlapping ingredients. If Night 1 uses half a package of chicken, try to plan another dinner, for example, that’ll use the second half up to avoid waste. Meal planning is all about balance. Consider mixing a few meals you know and love with several new, exciting recipes.
- Plan to double several dinners. If you cook double a recipe several nights, you’ll have built-in recipes for lunch. Flag recipes that’ll keep well in the fridge overnight or that are fine enjoyed cold.
- Fill in lunches and snacks last. Remember, lunch doesn’t have to be fancy. You don’t need to plan recipes for every day. We’re all about leftovers or sandwiches — or serving leftovers over lettuce/grain and calling it a salad.
Week 4: Try It
Now is your time to put everything together! Below, we’ve mapped out a sample meal plan with annotations on how you can shop smartly and turn dinner components into breakfast and lunch.
Sunday Dinner: Sheet Pan Chicken Fajitas
This meal cooks in a matter of minutes under your broiler. The chicken remains unbelievably juicy because the peppers and onions release steam as they cook.
- Double and eat leftovers for lunches, tossing the chicken and peppers with lettuce or serving over a grain.
- You’ll have leftover tortillas and cheese for breakfast burritos or cheese tortillas.
Monday Dinner: Turkish Poached Eggs with Garlic Yogurt
Eggs are one of the most economical proteins out there, but sometimes it’s hard to figure out how to eat them for dinner. Enter this simple dish with standout flavors.
- Buy big containers of eggs, Greek yogurt and walnuts and you can use what’s left for breakfast.
- If you can’t find watercress, swap in arugula.
Tuesday Dinner: Poached Ginger Chicken
This is a smart choice because it doubles down on boneless and skinless chicken breast, which you used on Monday, and watercress, which you used on Tuesday.
- Double the plain poached chicken and use the leftovers to make chicken salad for lunch.
Wednesday Dinner: Spinach Tortellini Soup
Ahh, hump day. At this point we want something super simple, and this 15-minute soup is just that. It’s got a short ingredient list and draws on pantry and freezer staples including chicken stock, packaged cheese tortellini, frozen spinach, canned tomatoes and dried basil.
- You can make this the night before or morning of, then reheat before serving.
Thursday Dinner: Sheetpan Sausage Supper
With just 15 minutes of active time, this is the kind of straightforward recipe you can pull together after work. There’s minimal chopping; all you have to do is quarter most of the veggies.
- Buy extra Italian sausage and serve them with eggs for breakfast.
- Bulk up the dinner with a hearty green salad, and you’ll probably have leftover peppers and sausages. Serve them on a rolls with mustard for an A+ lunch on Friday.
Friday Dinner: Alfredo Shimp Scampi Dump Dinner
When it comes to getting ahead in the kitchen, part of doing that is choosing fast but satisfying recipes that’ll help you out, like this creamy dinner. All you have to do is dump the ingredients in a casserole dish (5 minutes) and then slide it into the oven to bake. No chopping or other prepping necessary. Save the cooking projects for the weekend when you can enjoy them.
- This dish gets garnished with fresh parsley for a pop of green color. But you know what? If you don’t feel like buying herb garnishes, you don’t have to. They’re more for aesthetics than anything else.
Saturday Dinner: Two-Ingredient Pizza Dough (Plus Your Favorite Toppings)
Now that it’s the weekend, you’ll have a little more time to try something new. How about this fun recipe? As dough from scratch goes, it’s pretty darn simple: it doesn’t require any yeast, and takes just 35 minutes to make. Finish it with all your favorite ingredients.
- When you have enough time to supervise the kids, they can be a big help in the kitchen. Set them up with a kid-safe knife and get them involved in chopping.