At the end of a long workday, most people dread driving home, figuring out what to have for dinner, then spending time preparing it. By the time dinner's actually on the table, you're tired, hungry and generally not in a good mood to spend dinnertime with your family. But there is a better way! And no, it doesn't involve calling for pizza.

It's called meal planning, and it's not as scary as it sounds. When you spend a little time planning your meals for the week – or even the month – you can save a lot of time actually making them. In addition to saving time, you can also reduce food waste, which saves money. As an added bonus, when your family knows what to expect each night, it reduces complaints about what's for dinner!

Here are some tips to get started.

Planning

Create a calendar. Try a dry erase board that lives on the refrigerator. Use it to write out what each night's dinner will include for the week or the month.

Keep a grocery list near the calendar. Add ingredients to the list as you plan meals so you won’t be missing an ingredient come dinnertime.

Also near the calendar, keep a running list of ingredients you have in the refrigerator, freezer and cupboard, along with how many meals they can contribute to. For example: 6 chicken breasts = 2 meals. 2 boxes of spaghetti = 4 meals. Remember, ingredients in the refrigerator will go bad before those in the freezer or cupboard, so you those first.

Sprinkle family favorite meals throughout the calendar to keep everyone happy. You can even create special nights to make planning easier. For example, make tacos every Tuesday night.

Keep track of days with evening or afterschool activities. It's helpful to plan leftovers for these nights. Also keep track of special events where you'll be eating out!

Check the calendar in the morning and take any necessary ingredients out of the freezer to thaw for dinner that night.

Recipes

Keep a list of recipes you want to try. Group recipes together with similar ingredients so you can buy an ingredient once and use it all before it goes bad. Similarly, if you buy a perishable ingredient you don't normally use, plan another recipe to finish up that ingredient so it doesn't go to waste.

Make sure your list of meals includes several quick-and-easy recipes.

Mix new recipes with family favorites. This keeps dinnertime interesting, but ensures that picky eaters will be happy at least some of the time.

Cooking

Cook once, eat twice. Eat the same meal the next night or freeze it for a later date. An alternative is to cook double the amount of the main ingredient and use that for another meal later that week.

If you don't have an immediate plan for every leftover ingredient, be sure to have a designated place in the refrigerator so it doesn't get pushed to the back and forgotten.

Dishes such as stir-fries, quiches and casseroles are perfect for using a variety of leftovers.

Since each night's menu is posted, anyone can start cooking dinner. It eases the burden of waiting on one person to always prepare the meal.

As you can see, meal planning can save a lot of time, ingredients and money. A little effort can yield big results!

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