Thoughts on Meal Planning

So I have a confession to make: I don’t actually enjoy cooking enough to want to do it on a daily basis.

I don’t mind cooking breakfast, so much, since my breakfasts usually involve tossing stuff in a pan and maybe giving it the occasional stir.

But after a long day the last thing that I’m going to want to do is rush home, walk the dogs, and then have to chop vegetables, sear meat, and mix sauces. I usually arrive home already hungry and giving the dogs a walk before dark is a triumph. I’ve tried over the last month and a half or so to get in the habit of making dinner + leftovers for lunch the following day, on a daily basis. But half the week I’d just come home and make peanut butter toast. Sometimes I didn’t even put forth that much effort – I’d eat the bread on it’s own and take a spoon to the peanut butter jar. Yep, it definitely happens.

Ever since I started cooking for myself I’ve been on a tight food budget with the added constraints of either working full-time and being a part-time student, or being a full-time student and working part-time. And since I’d much rather come home in the evenings and sit on my couch with a plate of food than spend the evening in the kitchen and have to basically go straight to bed, I quickly got into the habit of finding meals I can microwave and enjoy. (Because if I had more money and if I were to be completely honest, I’d probably grab take out most nights of the week.)

There was a time when I’d get a bag of Bird’s Eye steam-in-the-bag frozen veggies and add a pat of butter and some Mrs. Dash. There were a few years where I lived without a microwave and I remember eating a lot of boxed soups and cheesy toast. But my overall approach to meal planning has been to find a casserole-type recipe that makes about 6 servings, cook it up on Sunday and eat that for the rest of the week. That’s also why I like my ‘tray dinners’ so much these days – spend 15 minutes chopping vegetables, open a can of beans, cut up a chicken sausage, toss it all with some olive oil + salt + garlic powder, bake for about 30 minutes at 425* and eat well for a few days. (Granted I usually only add the chicken sausage for the last 10 minutes.)

Last week’s tray dinner: Sweet potato, cauliflower, chickpeas, Brussels sprouts, chicken sausage

So cooking at home saves money. Cooking a big casserole, or pot of soup, or roasting up a bunch of vegetables at the beginning of the week saves time and money (only buying ingredients for one dish vs. buying different ingredients for different meals throughout the week? usually cheaper.)

However, if you aren’t as big a fan of leftovers as I am you can still use this same approach but divide the finished meal into single servings and freeze them. It will just take a few weeks to build up enough options in your freezer to pull out for different meals throughout the week.

Or find 2 casseroles, freeze half of each, and alternate when you eat them during one week. This is a safer method to use anyway – food scientists would point out that refrigeration only slows down the growth of bacteria, it doesn’t stop it completely, so cooked food should be eaten within 3-4 days of cooking.

What else do I do when I’m planning for the week?

First I’ll check out what meat is on sale at Sprouts that week and base meals around that. I’ll also check out other sales and my iBotta app to see if there are any items with rebates that I can build into my week.

Next I’ll look for recipes that can incorporate the foods that are on special:

  • I check out my “Favorite Foods” Pinterest board or some of they other food related boards I’ve created over the years.
  • I also check out what my favorite food bloggers have recently published: Juli over at PaleOMG, Casey Joy at Fed and Fit, Jenna of Eat, Live, Run, and Ali who writes over at Gimme Some Oven. Looking for new recipes is a great way to keep your meals interesting and get excited about cooking for the week!
  • I also love The Kitchn when I need help with basic cooking skills or food facts.

You could also come up with themes if you feel like you need a little more direction! Meatless Monday, Taco Tuesday, stir-fry Wednesday, breakfast-for-dinner Thursdays… make it work for you and what you like. And make extra to take for lunch the next day.

Perhaps the most important step to meal planning: Make a list! Take your fun new recipe, write down the ingredients, check your pantry and fridge and cross off what you already have at home. Plus if you keep a piece of paper around the kitchen you can write things down as you run out, things that you don’t necessarily need for a specific recipe like half and half or garlic.

Obviously you’ll want to shop at some point before those sale items are no longer on sale.

Plus you’ll want to find a time to actually cook those recipes you picked out. If you’re like me, you can cook your big casserole or soup the night before your week begins (maybe Sunday night for a lot of people, but not everyone works a classic Monday-Friday!). Or even if you plan to cook a few times through the week you can do some prep work on your weekend. Go ahead and chop your vegetables for a dish later in the week to save time. Marinate some meat. If you’re using the oven for one recipe, maybe season some chicken breasts and cook them along side to toss on a salad, a sandwich, or in a bowl of pasta.

I, personally, like to turn on some upbeat music and have a solo dance party in the kitchen while I meal prep. Just remember to put the knife down first.

And as I’ve said above: Take advantage of your freezer. Make a double batch of something and freeze half! Just make sure to date and label it in case it gets forgotten for a month or two.

So what kind of meals do I have planned for next week?

Breakfasts will be scrambles with spinach, peppers, and onions (love the frozen fire-roasted peppers and onions from Trader Joe’s), roasted sweet potatoes (roasted on Sunday), green hatch chili salsa, and avocado. I should probably grab some fruit to throw on that plate too.

Lunches I’m lucky to get free from the hospital cafeteria. While I was pulling together the nutritions stats for next week’s specials yesterday I found three that sound particularly good (a brisket, baked bean, and roasted potato bowl, an Asian salmon, and some rosemary chicken), and the rest of the week I’ll build my own salads at the salad bar.

I plan to buy some Larabars or Kind bars to have on hand for afternoon snacks. Or maybe some trail mix and an apple. We’ll see what looks good at the store!

Dinners will be the least healthy meal this week… I’m going to make The Pioneer Woman’s Seven Can Soup and eat it with some tortilla chips. It’s easy and I have half the ingredients on hand already (diced tomatoes, Rotel, black beans, red beans, and half a block of Velveeta), so I can definitely save some money on groceries this week. My advice if you ever make it is to make sure to grab your beans and tomatoes with no salt added. I’m not sure Velveeta is even recognizable as a real food anymore, but I don’t think anything can melt down and provide the same creamy cheesy texture it can, so I’m okay with it.

And in case I need anything extra after dinner I like to keep plain Greek yogurt on hand and thaw some frozen berries to mix in. Or there’s always the peanut butter jar!

Do you guys have any other meal planning tips? I can always use more advice!

Any interest in hearing about my meal plan for the next week at the bottom of my usual posts? It’d be good motivation to actually set out a plan!

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