When I think back to childhood, I tend to think of my dad effortlessly filling the dinner table every night with an array of home-cooked dishes. Weekends were even more elaborate, some Saturdays devoted entirely to cooking together as a family. I always knew our meals didn’t just appear out of thin air, but I don’t think I fully understood just how much a labor of love it was to provide us with a homemade meal three times a day. Even now, whenever I visit home, on the mornings I get up early to catch a flight, my mom or dad will still get up before me to make a hot breakfast and a packed lunch for the trip.

I’m still learning these lessons of sacrificial love. And as I’m continuing to grow into my roles as a wife and a mother, I’m always looking for ways to not just feed my family, but to put the same amount of care in the meals I make.

In reality, this is less about making every meal a feast and more about striving for balance in time, nutrition, budget, and taste. And still leaving room for spontaneity, creativity, and leisurely meals around the dinner table (or coffee table in our case :)!

This series of posts is devoted to some of the ways I try to make weekly meal preparations go more smoothly in our home. It is also an excuse to ask readers to share your own tips and tricks with me!

Here’s a look today at how I typically approach meal planning…

Meal planning. We eat most of our meals in (and usually bring lunches to work), so planning out the week’s meals in advance definitely helps me see how busy of a week it’ll be, which meals we need, and when I’ll have time to cook. I’ve come to rely on a couple of tools to help with this: I create Google spreadsheets to plan out a schedule and adaptable menu for the week. I keep running grocery lists for various stores on Things (a task-management tool). And I’ve recently been experimenting with Mealboard, a recipe-storage app that allows you to import recipes, generate grocery lists out of the ingredients, and create weekly meal plans. Since I’m going to be relying more on repetition this year, I thought I’d try using this app more often. Even when I’m not using recipes, it helps to have an ingredient list so I don’t forget to pick up anything.

Rotation of dishes. I try to keep several favorite dishes on rotation, which helps streamline the grocery-buying as well as the cooking process. The system is flexible, and there are some slots in there that I leave open for whatever we may be feeling like that week. I find that a two-week rotation works well for us — short enough to get into a rhythm, but not so repetitive it gets monotonous. I also like to use base meals as a starting point, leaving room for variation. For example, whole chicken is something that is always in our rotation — oftentimes I like it poached (which yields broth in addition to chicken), but I’ll vary it up some weeks by roasting instead, or, on a busy week, we’ll just pick up a rotisserie chicken from Costco (I find theirs the tastiest, and it tends to be the cheapest too). I also have a couple easy fallback dishes, like steamed egg, that use ingredients I usually have on hand and are quick to make.

How do you typically approach cooking for your family or yourself on a regular basis? If you have any favorite timesaving tips, resources, and products, please do share them in the comments this week!

Stay tuned tomorrow for a glimpse into my grocery-shopping process…