What’s for dinner? Even if you love to cook, finding the time to cook dinner every night can be a challenge. As a commuter, I understand how easy it is to fall into unhealthy, expensive eating patterns. Before I started regularly meal planning, my weeks went something like this: Go to the grocery store at the last minute on Sunday with a vague plan for things we might want to eat that week. Go to work, get home and not really feel like figuring out what to do with the groceries in the fridge, suggest ordering take out (an idea that very seldom meets with resistance), and end up doing this a few times a week. When I finally did decide to use the groceries I would realize that the vague plan was not enough and I would be missing a few key ingredients necessitating another trip to the store. I was spending too much on takeout and wasting too much food because I wasn’t planning.
When I read an article in the NY Times about menu planning services I thought that this just might be the answer. I joined The Fresh 20 and every Friday I was granted access to 5 recipes that focused on whole food, clean eating and a list of 20 ingredients that would allow me to make these recipes. Common wisdom says that it takes 21 days to make a habit. Well, I don’t know if it took 21 days, but I was soon in the habit of grocery shopping once a week and making food that made me feel good about eating it. This left me free to enjoy eating out on the weekend guilt free.
I did the Fresh 20 for a little over a year and then something strange happened. I graduated from needing my menu planning service to plan the menu for me to being able to plan my own menu. I started creating my own list. I started looking through my cookbooks and finding recipes I wanted to try. Of course we live in a wired society, so I quickly found a new service that would help me plan my own menus. Now I use Plan to Eat, which allows me to input my own recipes and collect recipes from online. Every week I can drag and drop my selected recipes into the calendar and a grocery list is generated for me. It’s great and when I tell people about my commitment to meal planning I get responses like: “I should try that” or “that’s a great idea!”. I realized that my experiences might help those who wanted to get in the habit of meal planning.I hope that the tips below inspire you to make meal planning a regular part of your week.
- Set aside the time to plan your menu. This is where it all begins. If you don’t spend the time to plan your meals and your grocery list, you won’t be able to make it work. I’ve made it a priority to dedicate an hour or so on Friday after work or on Saturday morning to create our menu for the week.
- Prep what you can on Saturday or Sunday. If there are vegetables that can be chopped up or things that can be measured, take the time to do it. One of the reasons professional kitchens run so smoothly is that there are prep cooks on staff to prepare everything in advance.
- Find recipes that are designed to be cooked for weekday meals. It’s no longer in publication, but Martha Stewart’s Everyday Food was a great source of these types of recipes. Luckily, before it ceased publication, a few cookbooks of recipes from the magazine were published. I also find Mark Bittman’s Food Matters Cookbook to be an inspirational source.
- Save big cooking projects for the weekend. This was a hard lesson for me to learn, because my favorite cookbooks tend to be the kind that contains long, involved recipes*. I had to teach myself to save these recipes for the days when I had the most time to spend on them. Cooking can’t be fun if you are stressing out about getting everything done in a reasonable time to eat dinner and still have a little bit of time to yourself.
- Find recipes that use the same ingredients and make double batches when appropriate. In the sample menu below I made a double batch of taco meat early in the week. One half was for enchiladas and the other half was used for taco salad. This is an especially good technique when you know you have a busy week ahead. Other combinations include turning chili leftovers into chili mac and using leftover roast meats in fried rice.
- Have a well-stocked pantry. This is a topic I’ve written about before . To that blog post I would add that you should have a high quality balsamic vinegar on hand at all times. Also, make sure you check your pantry before you go shopping to stock up on items that you might need.
*Deborah Madison, I’m looking at you
And finally, here is an example week
- Sunday: Chickpea Minestrone
- Monday: Tex-Mex Turkey Enchiladas (make double meat for taco salads)
- Tuesday: Leftover Minestrone
- Wednesday: Turkey Taco Salad
- Thursday: Garlic Lemon Mahi-Mahi
- Friday: Hit and Run Pan Baked Chicken