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Strategize Before You Shop

The first rule of easy and effective meal planning: Know thyself. Think back over your last three weeks' worth of dinners. How many nights did you dine at home? Do you enjoy splitting a big pot of soup over several meals, or are leftovers a lunch-only proposition? Can nothing stand between you and Friday night pizza delivery? There are no wrong answers. Meal planning can be a low-stress way to match your grocery shopping to your eating style; it isn't about measuring up to some June Cleaver ideal.

It also doesn't have to be a rigid, complicated affair. If a magnetic notebook stuck to the fridge works, have at it. If you want to plot your dinners with a detailed site like Plan to Eat, more power to you. For a casual approach, look at your upcoming week and subtract any nights you won't be home for dinner. Then figure that one more evening will be a wild card, when you'll eat leftovers, grab takeout, or yield to the siren call of a big bowl of cereal. For the remaining nights, jot down recipes or, to keep it supersimple, a protein, vegetable, and rice or pasta. The short list of meals allows for flexibility (chicken or hamburgers tonight?) without the risk of over- or under-shopping. Don't want to select a veggie before you've perused the produce aisle? Paint the broad strokes (greens X 2) and you can decide on-the-fly. When you hit a week that really works, tuck your plan into a folder or plastic sleeve and return to it a month or two later. Most of us can enjoy a six-to-eight-week meal cycle without getting bored—or even noticing.