People often ask me how I have the time to cook almost every night. My answer is: I plan ahead. 20 minutes on a Sunday night saves me hours the following week.
That said, meal planning is definitely a practiced art. The more you do it, the better you’ll get. Meal planning saves you money (no wasted ingredients), time (no last minute trips to the grocery store) and sanity. Here’s how I approach it, with an example of my meal planning this week.
Step 1: Pick 4 things you want to make.
I collect recipes that I want to make throughout the week, gathering them from my favorite Instagram accounts (Smitten Kitchen, Lexi’s Clean Kitchen, Skinny Taste, America’s Test Kitchen, Half Baked Harvest, and Food 52, to name a few) and from friend’s food posts, too. I store all those recipes on Pinterest boards.
On Sunday nights, I head to those boards to peruse my options and gather inspiration. I have my go to recipes, of course — quiche, pasta salad, enchiladas, mac n’ cheese, roasted veggies and goat cheese on toast, kale salad — but I try to make at least one new, creative or inspiring dish every week. Before I nail down my choices, I also open the fridge and freezer to check for leftovers I might want to use.
Here’s an example of a week’s-worth of recipes:
- Crockpot Thai Coconut Curry Chicken
- Shrimp Linguini
- Sweet Potato Honey Lime Tacos
- Pasta Salad with Salami and Sharp Cheddar Cheese
We had frozen shrimp, so I wanted to use those up. We were also nearing the end of our food budget for the month, so I chose pasta salad and sweet potato tacos because they’re cheap and make good leftover lunches.
Step 2: Make sure those recipes use some of the same ingredients.
What exotic or weird ingredients do you need to buy? Can you find a way to use them up? For example, I needed basil and heavy cream for the linguini. I could use some of the leftover basil in my pasta salad. Cilantro also had cross-usefulness in both the curry and the tacos.
Step 3: Leave 3 days open for leftovers.
Sean and I are only 2 people, so I make full dinners 4x per week, then leave the other 3 days unplanned. On these empty days we eat up the remainder of our leftovers, or go out to dinner, or have a “whatever is left in the fridge” dinner — eggs and bacon, waffles, or random soups. I try to clean out the fridge hard before we grocery shop again. Plus, this kind of schedule leaves room for last minute plans with friends — if we get invited to a fun dinner, we can just shift our planned dinner to the next night without too much worry — and it allows for you to easily change your mind about what you’re eating. Don’t feel like having tacos today? Swap them with pasta salad.
After shopping on a Friday, my schedule for our 4 meal/ 3 free day plan looked like this:
- Saturday: Shrimp Linguini
- Sunday: Sweet Potato Tacos
- Monday: Pasta Salad
- Tuesday: Crockpot Thai Coconut Curry Chicken
- Wednesday: Leftovers/ Jenni out to dinner
- Thursday: Leftovers
- Friday: Leave for weekend trip (pack sandwiches for dinner before the airport)
Step 4: Think about quantities.
We like to eat leftovers for lunches, so I factor that into my planning and I make enough of each meal to cover us for lunches, too. But if you hate leftovers for lunch, make half of the recipe — otherwise, you’ll waste the leftovers by throwing them away. If you’re only cooking for one, you should also half the recipe or pick a recipe that freezes well — then you’re making dinner for next week (or 2 weeks from now), too.
For example, I probably don’t need 8 servings of curry chicken for me and Sean to eat on one night — but we’re planning to eat it for lunch or dinner for the next 3 days, so I’ll make the full recipe anyway.
Step 5: Make a leftovers game plan.
It’s always a bummer when you buy something and it goes bad before you can use it. While living on a tight budget, Sean and I became hyper aware of how to use leftovers or food that’s about to go bad. My favorite strategies include:
- After roasting a whole chicken, freeze the carcass — you can dethaw it later to make homemade chicken stock.
- Cilantro and Parsley keep a lot longer if you store them in a cup of water, like flowers, in the fridge
- You can turn arugula and basil into pestos by adding olive oil, garlic, pine nuts and the basil or arugula to a blender, then stirring in parmesan cheese and salt and pepper. These freeze great, too.
- Overripe bananas make delicious banana bread, which is great to keep around for a snack.
- Freeze super ripe fruit, like berries or watermelon, for smoothies.
- Fresh herbs can be added to ice cube trays with olive oil, then frozen for use later in pasta, soups, and more.
- Roasting almost-wilty mushrooms and peppers completely brings them back to life.
- Soggy tomatoes? No problem — add them to a pasta dish with garlic, onions, pasta water and cheese, and you won’t even notice.
- Meat or cheese that’s about to go bad can be thrown in a quiche, which can be frozen for later use.
This week, I turned the rest of our basil into pesto before I left for our weekend trip. Leftover heavy cream was used to make ice cream (I added strawberries to my shopping list because I thought this might happen.) My super-brown bananas became banana bread! And our leftover watermelon went into the freezer for next week’s blended watermelon-gin cocktails.
Step 6: Make a grocery list.
Going to the grocery store without a list is dangerous for me — I often come back with things that don’t fit into a cohesive meal or impulse buys, and a large bill. So after I think about the above steps, my last to-do is to make a list of what I want to buy. This week’s list looked like this:
- apples (3)
- 1 bell pepper
- avocados (2)
- sweet potatoes (3)
- limes (3)
- 1 red onion
- 1 yellow onion
- chicken thighs (1 package)
- linguini noodles
- macaroni noodles
- coconut milk (2)
- almond butter
- canned crushed tomatoes (1)
- tomato sauce (1 can)
- black beans (1 can)
- jasmin rice
- frozen latkes
- 1 frozen pizza (for Sean)
- cheddar cheese
- heavy cream
- mexican cheese
- 1 bottle of ginger kombucha
- taco tortillas
- 1 loaf of bread
All in all, this week’s menu clocked in at less than $80 and made enough food for all of our meals, for 2 people for 7 days.
Really, your meal plan strategy should depend upon how you eat — no two meal plans should be the same! But if you spend a little bit of time meal planning each week, I can promise you won’t be disappointed by the results.