I’ve written about meal planning many times on this site, and most of my efforts have fallen by the wayside at one point or another. However, I’ve finally found a meal planning groove that fits me, so I’m going to share it.
What didn’t work
You may remember my dalliance with Fresh 20, which is a service whereby you pay a small fee and receive a meal plan and shopping list each week. There are also instructions on food prep so that you can do it all at once. I did enjoy this while I was doing it, but realistically I am just not going to make dinner five nights a week, and it doesn’t always work to do all the prep on a Sunday. This is probably a brilliant plan for a lot of people, and the recipes are good/geared toward healthier eating, but I didn’t stick with it. (I discontinued this a long time ago but it does represent a genuine stab at attempting to plan meals a week in advance, so I thought I’d mention it.)
What also doesn’t work for me: Just buying a bunch of groceries and then trying to make stuff out of it. Sometimes I would just go to the store and buy different types of meat, some vegetables, perhaps some pasta…and then just try to invent some meals out of it all. This probably works for people who are more clever than I am, but I just found that it resulted in more trips to the store and a lot of waste.
What’s working now
I get a lot of email newsletters from Food & Wine, Food52, the New York Times, Martha Stewart, and Bon Appetit. I also subscribe to Milk Street and pay for access to America’s Test Kitchen and Cook’s Country. Most of these have weeknight dinner roundups or meals that can be made in around 30 minutes. So on Sunday afternoons I sit down with these sources and pick three or four recipes I think look good, and then I make a shopping list. I do my shopping on Monday afternoon around lunchtime (I work from home on Mondays so it is easy to do this, otherwise I’d probably go Sunday evening, which I personally would enjoy less).
How I choose recipes
I have a few considerations when I pick recipes, one of course being seasonality and what cooking methods make sense given the time of year (no roasting in August, for example; no grilling in February!). I also try to pick something meatless each week, not out of any particular motivation other than to keep some variety in our lives. So many “weeknight” or “easy” recipes involve chicken that it’s very easy to get over-chickened; I totally get it but I don’t want to eat it every single day. Ideally, we’d do fish one night. These aren’t hard and fast rules but if I try to stick to them we end up with much more variation.
Next, I try to choose things that allow me to stretch produce or other ingredients, so I can make one bunch of scallions cover two dinners or one carton of chicken broth do triple duty. It’s also good if I can choose a recipe that makes enough for leftovers another night, or to take with us for lunches the next day.
Finally, I do try and pay attention to how long it takes to make something and how many dishes or utensils I will get dirty in the process. Obviously something like a sheet pan dinner or Instant Pot recipe is the best. I like cooking and don’t mind multi-step processes sometimes, but most nights I have other stuff I need or want to do.
How I make it as easy as possible
I know it’s cheaper to buy a whole butternut squash, but listen: I’m just not going to mess with breaking down a whole squash on a Tuesday night after work. I might not buy pre-cut onions (uh, most of the time) but I’m darn sure going to buy pre-cut squash, or sometimes broccoli florets, or sometimes sprouts. If a recipe calls for riced cauliflower I’m just going to buy it frozen, sorry. If these small conveniences are in your shopping budget I highly recommend giving yourself the gift of time and just buying them.
The other thing I do to try and make this process pain-free is to write my grocery list in order of how I go through my grocery store. You don’t have to do this but it makes me feel extremely on top of things and I also think it makes my shopping trips go faster.
Why this works week after week
The simple answer is because I make it as easy as possible to stick to the plan! I don’t ever plan to cook more than four nights, and ideally not more than three (if we can have leftovers, not too hard when you’re only cooking for two people). Some weeks I might do all new-to-me recipes, but others I’ll rely on tried-and-true recipes that are comfortable and predictable, especially if I’m feeling short on time or otherwise stressed. I also make note of the recipes we like best so I can easily find them again.
Do I still wing it some weeks? Sure. I can always do something like roast a chicken or make tacos with no shopping list, plan, or recipe in mind. Some weeks are just going to be like that, and that’s fine. But I find that most weeks, sitting down with my laptop on a Sunday and looking at the week ahead makes me feel a little bit better about things in general.
Here’s a sample meal plan and shopping list so you can see what I’m talking about.
Note: I keep a lot of spices and condiments on hand, which makes this whole process a great deal easier. At a minimum, I’d recommend salt, pepper, olive oil and/or a neutral oil like canola or vegetable, garlic, red wine vinegar, red pepper flakes and chili powder. Other things that crop up a lot include Dijon mustard, capers, mayonnaise, dried oregano, cumin, coriander, dry mustard, and cayenne pepper. You can also go a long way with seasoning blends like herbes de Provence, taco seasoning, Italian seasoning, and Greek seasoning. A lot of this will depend on the types of food you enjoy making, as well as your budget and how likely you are to use things enough to justify the cost.
Butternut squash pre-cut
32-oz chicken broth
15-oz white beans
15-oz fire-roasted tomatoes
Pasta (mezze rigatoni or caserecce)
Bag frozen corn
Chorizo or andouille