Use these hard-earned tips to make your meal planning efforts more successful!
When I first got married, dinner was an epic event. In my efforts to become the next star of MasterChef (I'm only half joking), I regularly picked out elaborate recipes, and as a result, spent too much money on food (a lot of which ended up in the trash).

Now that my family has grown, my goals at dinnertime are different but only slightly less ambitious. I need to prep fast and easy meals for me and my husband, but I also have to ensure that my child has a nutritious and varied diet. To keep our grocery bill down, I have to make sure we use everything we purchase. Plus, I want to reduce our carbon footprint by wasting less food.

Effective meal planning helps me to better meet my goals because I think about ingredients that can be used repeatedly and how to use leftovers. Meal planning spells out my grocery list and streamlines my trip to the store (my child hates sitting in a shopping cart!). Most importantly, it takes some of the stress out of dinnertime.

Related:6 Tasty Freezer Meals to Prepare Before Baby's Arrival

Whether you're a beginner or a dedicated meal planner, use these hard-earned tips to make your meal planning efforts more successful:

1. Use a template every week.

Some software programs (such as Excel) have meal planning templates with fun designs that you can download easily. Since it can be hard to come up ideas for every single meal, start off by planning dinners. A white board works too!

2. Make a list of 10-15 easy meals that you know how to make.

The best meals are ones that take an hour or less, use few pots and pans, or have a short list of ingredients. Use that list to fill in ideas on the weeknights, which I have found are not the best time for experimenting. Save new and complicated recipes for the weekends when you have more free time.

3. Take stock of what you already have before you go shopping.

Start with the fridge, where things go bad more quickly. Prioritize based on what needs to be eaten first, especially meats.

Related: Review: 'Dinnerly,' An Actually Affordable Meal Kit Delivery Box

4. Make your food work for you.

A store-bought rotisserie chicken can be chicken dinner one night and chicken noodle soup the next night, using the parts to make your own soup base. Overripe bananas can be thrown into smoothies or even pancakes. Don't forget to keep butter wrappers - use them to grease your casserole dishes or baking pans.

5. Make decision-making easier by designating themes to certain days.

In our house, laid back Friday nights mean pizza and salad, while slow-cooker recipes are reserved for busy evenings when I don't want to worry about prepping dinner by myself with my child clinging to my leg.

Still struggling to come up with meal ideas?

Some websites have pre-made meal plans available for a small fee (a good list is available here), but lots of food bloggers post free ones.

Happy planning!