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Originally published Sunday, September 23, 2012 at 5:00 AM

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How to create a customized meal plan

If frantic 5 p.m. "What's for dinner?" drama, guilt-inducing drive-thru runs, too-frequent takeout meals or "quick" last-minute trips to the grocery store with a hungry toddler in tow are common occurrences in your household, you're probably thinking there's got to be a better way to get your family fed. There is, and it's called making a meal plan.

Special to The Seattle Times

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This sounds like a really great idea. Will have to give it a bash! MORE

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If frantic 5 p.m. "What's for dinner?" drama, guilt-inducing drive-thru runs, too-frequent takeout meals or "quick" last-minute trips to the grocery store with a hungry toddler in tow are common occurrences in your household, you're probably thinking there's got to be a better way to get your family fed.

There is, and it's called making a meal plan.

Meal planning is a simple concept that delivers great value. I know that my family eats healthier meals when I've taken a few minutes to plan them out rather than scrambling around to get something on the table by 6 p.m. (That's usually when frozen pizza ends up in the oven.)

Other benefits: You have a grocery list extracted from your menu, you save money by eating out less, you can enjoy more variety in your diet and utilize more local and seasonal ingredients, less food (and money) is wasted because you buy only what you need, cooking is more enjoyable because you're more prepared, and you're less stressed. Ready to give it a shot? Here's a step-by-step guide to making your first meal plan.

1. First, block out a small chunk of time weekly — 30 minutes to an hour should be sufficient — preferably when the kids are at school or in bed (the process will be quicker and smoother if you can tackle it without interruptions).

2. Create a chart or download one online (a quick Google search for "meal plan charts" will offer plenty of options). This will give you a designated place to organize the menu, your grocery list and any notes. I recommend starting with a one- or two-week plan, but you could plan a full month if you're really ambitious.

3. Consult your calendar for any obligations that alter your mealtimes. If you know you'll be at your son's soccer team potluck on Thursday or out of town for the weekend, take that into account. Similarly, if you'll be rushing home from work only to race back out to 6 p.m. swim lessons, plan quick and easy meals for those days.

4. Take stock of what's in your pantry, fridge and freezer; then flip through your cookbooks and recipe folders, tagging the ones you're considering. This is a great time to glance over the grocery circulars to see what's on sale (and at which stores).

5. On your chart, fill in breakfast, lunch and dinner meals for each day of the week, plus snacks if you want to be really organized. And don't forget to account for leftovers. Some people like to use leftovers in lunches, some like to plan for a "leftovers dinner" at the end of the week. Do what works for you.

6. Write down any and all ingredients you'll need to pick up at the grocery store for the week. This will ensure you only have to shop once. Before heading to the store, gather or print any coupons you may have for the items on your list and keep them all together in a small envelope. Staying organized will streamline your shopping trip and save you time.

7. Consider making notes on your chart throughout the week about each meal to keep in mind for the next time you make that dish. Did you need 10 extra minutes of prep time? Would your family have preferred it with less sauce? Could you make healthful substitutions with a couple extra minutes of planning?

8. Try coming up with festive recurring theme nights, such as Stir-fry Saturdays or Taco Tuesdays. This is a way to add structure to the week and decrease planning effort. To keep it fresh and interesting, alter the recipe a bit each week (you could do fish tacos, vegetarian tacos, turkey taco salad, etc.).

After planning a few weeks, you'll have a stash of regular menus you can then rotate to make planning a breeze. You can incorporate new recipes here and there, but you'll no longer be planning from scratch, which will save you even more time.

Andrea Dashiell is a freelance writer.

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