Do you go into the week without a plan for what you and your family will eat? Do you stress out every night wondering what you will make for dinner that will be quick and healthy? Do you stress every morning about how you will get everyone fed, dressed, and out the door only to find that you haven’t eaten a bite yourself? Then do you go out and buy yourself a super expensive lunch that’s not healthy at all and that sometimes isn’t even delicious, while the fruits and veggies you bought this week rot and go to waste?
I get it. I totally get it. This was me before I started to meal plan. Heck- this was me a few weeks ago! I spent the weekend before last cooking up delicious and elaborate meals for my mom who was visiting so when I finally sat down on Sunday night I realized I hadn’t prepped any meals for the week. I figured we’d just wing it but I ended up having to spend my son’s valuable nap times (which should only be used for catching my breath from the morning) to prep food for dinner and make myself a healthy lunch. While a lot of great food came out of it, I was also more stressed than I needed to be by week’s end.
That frazzled woman was also me in my early working days. I’d run out the door without breakfast, grab a roll and coffee in the city, starve until lunch, eat a lean cuisine (or a $12 sandwich) and rush home only to pick up a slice because the idea of cooking was too exhausting and stressful.
This all changed when I started to make a weekly meal plan.
Ugh- what an annoying and scary phrase! If the only thing you think of when someone says they are a fan of the meal plan is time and stress, then I’m here to tell you that while some people go hard with graphs, spreadsheets, and unnecessary long lists, I don’t. I don’t meal plan like most people- here’s how I’m different:
–I don’t cook a different meal every night. If you’re someone who hates leftovers then you’ll still gain value from this post, but it won’t become your meal planning bible. I like to cook 2 big meals: 1 favorite and 1 new meal, then pre-cook and prep lots of different food which allow me to be creative during the week. This may be why you’ll see me eating a lot of chicken or quinoa in a specific week- I like to use what I have. Which brings me to:
–I hate waste. I go out of my way to use up anything that will go bad in the fridge which is why, by Thursday or Friday night you can catch me making a lot of “cleaning out the fridge” meals. Every dish can benefit from the addition of a few more veggies, mixing grains turns a salad into something much more substantial, and by Friday you’ll find Julian eating a lot of different whole foods on his plate. I hate to waste food.
–I buy what’s on sale. Almost always. I hate buying shrimp for over $10 a pound and when organic ground turkey was on sale this weekend I may have (but definitely did) buy 7 packages. At the end of the day, I hate spending a ton of money on food and use that opportunity to repurpose meals all week.
– I try to cook one vegetarian meal every week. Besides what it does for our environment, and ensuring we get our weekly fill of veggies, it also encourages me to be more creative with vegetables. If I didn’t do this, how would we ever have gotten this amazing lasagne with thinly sliced sweet potatoes??
Sounds easy enough, but how does it work? Well, after being more attentive to my meal plan these past 2 weeks, I’m going to let you in on my process. As always, this is just a suggestion and feel free to adjust as you see fit.
- Gathering Inspo. I spend some time Friday night perusing the weekly circular from my local supermarket to see what meats, fruits, and vegetables are on sale. I then take a few minutes to see what’s in my fridge and pantry. In total this takes me about 10-15 minutes. Sometimes I make a list, most times I don’t. I don’t make any big decisions and like to sleep on my options. Sometimes I’m instantly inspired (like last week when I saw that we had 2 andouille sausages in our freezer and shrimp was on sale it was a sure sign that gumbo would be on the menu) and sometimes I know I want to buy an ingredient but don’t now yet how I’ll use it (like the artichoke that’s currently sitting on my countertop). Flexibility is easier for me when I have some guidelines.
- Decide on 1 or 2 meals for the week. Last week I also knew I wanted to make a play on enchiladas with TJ’s black bean pasta so my 2 larger meals for the week were planned, but there are many times that I head to the supermarket with only one meal planned for the week and just figure it out when I get there. I like to go first thing on Saturday morning, that way I have the option to cook on Saturday or Sunday or do a bit on both days. It is also super slow on Saturday mornings and a great way to feel accomplished early into the weekend. Once I know what’s on the menu for the week I list out each ingredient in Wunderlist, an app I use for any and all list making purposes. What I love most about it is that it sync’s up to my husband’s phone immediately so when I don’t feel like making a run to the store I’ll send him out and feel comfortable adding things to the list moments after he’s left the house because I know it will be sync’ed on our app. You can use any list app or even paper and pencil if it helps, but I always find my list to be relatively short which makes my shopping trip equally short.
- When in doubt, get Pinspired! Because I’m so efficient with the meals for the week I like to allow myself the freedom to be creative, especially on those week’s when I only have one big meal on my list. I’ve been known to spend an extra few minutes searching for inspiration on my Food Inspiration Pinterest board, or just finding an ingredient and allowing the creativity to flow. All I need is a spark to get me on my way. For example, because shrimp was so cheap we bought an extra half pound to use for dinner. I had a hankering for pasta so I paced the aisle until I found this very unique pasta I’d never had. I instantly thought of pairing it with my homemade and very light burst grape tomato sauce and adding some grilled veggies to balance all the pasta. The result was excellent.
- Stock up on versatile ingredients. Every week I like to have the following ingredients on hand fully cooked or ready to go in my fridge or pantry: sweet potato’s (small baked pieces or whole and ready to be nuked), quinoa and/or brown rice, seasoned chicken breast (thin or tenderloin) for quick indoor grilling, beans, peanut butter, cheese, eggs, bread, milk, yogurt, fruit, oatmeal (I prefer steel cut oats but we also have instant oatmeal for quick granola creating), dried fruit, and a variety of nuts and seeds. With these items I can literally make a ton of different breakfast, lunch, and dinner options on lazy nights when I don’t want to eat leftovers and don’t feel like making elaborate meals. With the leftovers in the fridge last week I made this play on Shakshuka and omgoshitwasamazing!!!
- Make a Meal Plan before you get into the Meal Planning. Shocking, right? But the truth is a lot of times people think meal planning just means deciding what you’ll eat for the week but forget to make the actual plan and execute. The true labor of making a meal plan for the week comes when you lay out the steps for each meal or ingredient and begin to plot out how those will work, whether you do it all in one day or plan to spread it out over the week. Personally, I like to get it all done in one weekend. My mentality is: if I work hard over the weekend, it will pay itself off during the week when I need it most. Which is not to say I couldn’t just do some on the weekend and finish it off during the week, because there are definitely times I do that, it just means that putting in the work on the weekend is going to mean I get to relax and enjoy my weekday meals stress free. I know I often say things like “this meal was so quick” or “this was super easy” but the truth is my weekday meals come together quickly because of this prep. Saying that meal prepping is not time consuming would be a lie. However, with a little practice I’ve learned to do things in the most time effective manner. Here’s what I do:
- Once I decide what meals I’m making I list out all the steps involved to getting them completed, kind of like creating a loose recipe for each one. That may include prepping veggies, seasoning meat, preparing a sauce, cooking the grain, and prepping it to be eaten during the week. Once I make this list I can get a feeling for how long I’ll need to be prepping. Very rarely is it under an hour for all meals and often I break the prep into segments: prepping veggies and grains in the am, then a family break, cooking the meat and sauces during Julian’s nap, family time in the afternoon, then I take the evenings after Julian goes down to prep breakfasts and snacks for the week as well as portioning the meals into containers for easy serving.
That may sound exhausting and in a lot of ways daunting. The fact is cooking efficiently is one of my strong suits but it took me practice to understand how to plan in the kitchen to avoid any extra time wasted on waiting for something to be completed so I could move to the next step. Most times recipes will try to help with this but give it a look over and make sure there isn’t another more efficient way to organize your time. Here are a few tips to make the actual planning a little easier:
- One tactic I like to use is grouping all my activities for multiple meals at once. For example, last week as I was making the gumbo and the enchiladas, both required me to cook and chop a ton of veggies so instead of cooking the 2 meals back to back I cooked them side by side. Chopping and prepping is my least favorite activity and almost always feels like a waste of time for me, no matter how accomplished I feel afterwards. When possible I will buy these items pre-chopped and pre-diced to save myself time. TJ’s has an awesome Mirepoix mix I always try to keep on hand and my local supermarket sells pre-sliced veggies that are often times cheaper than the weighted price of the whole vegetable. Even if it was pricier, the time saving aspect is immeasurable as it can often take me an hour to dice, chop, and prep all items for a meal- especially since I try to pack them with as many veggies as I possibly can.
- Another way to save on time is to buy pre-cooked proteins. I personally am not a big fan of the pre-cooked chicken and turkey breast at TJ’s but it’s only because I have a thing about fridge chicken (my husband is rolling his eyes somewhere) and like to season my meats in my own way. There are plenty of people who swear by this to make their weeks go a little more smoothly. However, buying precooked tofu, beans, and sometimes even fish can make the difference between an hour long cooking time and a 30 minute cooking time. I find when the meal is effortlessly put together I just enjoy eating it more.
- I also believe knowing where to purchase what can make the difference between spending an hour at the grocery store walking around aimlessly and frustrated, and being able to shop for what you need in 30 and enjoy exploring leisurely. I don’t shop at Costco, Sam’s Club, Target, or Walmart for food. Nothing against those stores. Heck, I LOVE those stores. But the most convenient places to shop for me are TJ’s, Stop & Shop, and my local mom & pops grocer. Before my local place started selling organic food I would trek into the city to shop at TJ’s where I could purchase organic and non-gmo foods for a price well below what I’d find anywhere else. My local place has stepped it up but there’s still no comparing some of the options that TJ’s has. I know many people think TJ’s is suuuuuuper expensive but are often shocked when they find products cheaper than most places have them when they’re on sale. But don’t worry, I’m going to help you with that soon enough.
Finally, I wanted to address repurposing meals to keep them “fresh” all week long. Beef stew is one of my absolute favorite meals. My crock pot recipe is my go to and I have yet to find one I love more. I can eat it the same way, every day, without getting bored. However, as I mentioned previously, I’m finding that to be successful in J eating the same meals we do that I need to switch it up. Specifically for beef stew I’ve been known to serve it with brown rice (shredding the meat and mashing some of the veggies to create a “bowl”, whole over polenta, tossed with some egg noddles (while smashing some of the beef to create a chunky sauce that clings to the noodles), or along with a side salad. Another example is my meatloaf. I perfected my dads meatloaf and recently made it even juicier and tastier with the addition of some riced cauliflower. Still, as delicious as it was, I got bored after having it once! That’s why I repurposed it tons of different ways: Served alongside veggies or mashed potatoes, stuffed into a portabello cap and topped with some cheese, served as a sandwich on some extra crusty bread, or chopped finely and tossed with some pasta and tomato sauce to create a play on goulash.
You also don’t need to serve this day after day lest you get thrown out of your own kitchen and my site gets blocked on your computer by your angry families. My mom has been known to cook large meals, eat leftovers a night or two that week and freeze the rest in freezer bags to have in a week or month later. I’ve never been a huge lover of freezing foods but am coming around. Matter of fact, there are 2 small bags of shredded pork in my freezer ready to be thawed for my next taco night, Asian Kahlua bowl, or thrown into a bolognese to make a tasty one pot skillet meal. My point is, when you plan you are giving yourself the gift of choices.
So, to summarize what is my longest post to date, my tips for creating a successful meal plan are:
Gather Inspiration on your meals of choice for the week.
Make a list of ingredients.
If you get stuck, don’t be afraid to use Pinterest for inspiration.
Stock up on versatile ingredients.
Plan out how you will cook your meals to maximize on time.
Think of ways to be creative with your “go-to” ingredients and how to repurpose any large meals.
Take stock at week’s end of what worked and what didn’t.
Whew, that was long! I truly hope this was helpful in helping you understand how to meal plan and maybe getting a few more tips for your arsenal along the way. Are there any questions or any tips you have to share??
Drop me a note below!