Austin and I do meal planning by fits and starts. Sometimes, we’re really into it, plotting out our week’s cooking on a regular basis. Other times, especially in the summer months, we’re more ad hoc about what we cook, inspired by what looks good at market or in our CSA basket.
One thing is certain: we share the opinion that we eat better and are more satisfied when we take (a little bit of) time each week to meal plan.
As we sat on the couch this morning plotting our week’s meals, I realized this process we’ve developed through trial and error over time would be helpful to share. Meal planning only seems onerous. In execution, it takes us about 30 minutes each week and a trip to the grocer. Our approach is straightforward and hands-off, guided by a few first principles.
First Principles of Meal Planning
- No waste. Above all else, plan meals that use up any and all perishable items already in the fridge.
- Choose recipes with ingredients that can be repurposed into other recipes that week (e.g., if we’re buying tarragon, we’ll try to pick a couple recipes that use this herb).
- Don’t over-plan. We reliably cook dinner four to five times per week. The other nights, we’re in class, eating out or heating up leftovers or something from the freezer. Knowing this, we typically plan four dinners, one soup to have for lunch/freeze and one ad hoc night with ingredients that won’t spoil if we don’t get to the meal.
- Designate one afternoon or evening for prep. Depending on our schedule, this is reserved for Saturday or Sunday, and takes about two hours. We most often prepare a batch of soup and one other dish to have on hand, and make that night’s dinner at the same time. This is also where we’d do any canning, preserving or prep for staples like soup stock or beans to keep in the freezer.
How Meal Planning Looks in Practice
Once a week (often on Saturday morning as we sip coffee and wake up), we take inventory of perishable items we need to use up.
What this actually looks like: I sit in the kitchen with my laptop, and Austin combs through the fridge calling out items and quantities (e.g., 3 small eggplants, half a bunch of parsley, a head of cauliflower) and I type these into a blank document. He also quickly sifts through the freezer, noting different cuts of meat we have on hand to defrost, if needed for a recipe. We also use this time to quickly reorganize and clean the fridge, tossing out any food that’s turned.
This week’s inventory (higher than usual because we had a double-CSA delivery after returning from holidays):
- 2 heads cauliflower
- 7 baby purple eggplant
- 6 small Anaheim peppers (sweet)
- 2 lbs fresh peas in shell
- 1 large white acorn squash
- 1/2 bunch each parsley, cilantro
With this list an coffee in hand, we sit side-by-side on the couch with our laptops. Under our list of ingredients to use up, I create a shopping list, then list the days of the week. I note days when we won’t be cooking because of other obligations, or lunches out with colleagues/friends for which we don’t need to pack lunch.
From there, we pull up our go-to recipe sources. Austin often finds ideas on Reddit and Epicurious that he’ll keep open in tabs or email me through the week. I immediately go to my kitchen-themed Pinterest boards and scroll through for ideas. As a rule, I only pin meals that we would actually cook (I always click through and read a recipe before pinning it), which greatly minimizes “aspirational pinning” of complicated recipes I would never in a million years attempt on an average night.
We most often find a couple recipes from these sources. From there, we review our list to note specific ingredients still waiting for recipes. For example, for the head of cauliflower, I’ll type “cauliflower” into Pinterest search, restricting it to recipes I’ve pinned. Usually, we find something right away, but if not, I’ll broaden the search to all users and we’ll choose a good option. We’ll do the same on Epicurious, which aggregates the recipe archives of Bon Appetit and Gourmet.
Lastly, we pop open our wedding cookbook and other favourites in case an old standby piques our interest.
Make a Shopping List
With 4-5 chosen recipes open in tabs, we sift through the ingredient lists and jot down missing items on a shopping list. We try to choose recipes that only require us to buy a couple supplementary items, to minimize bringing more into the kitchen. If a recipe is too complicated or requires too many ingredients not already in our fridge/pantry, we often nix it and find something else.
Much like when we take inventory of the fridge, making a shopping list often involves me calling out ingredients to Austin as he checks our pantry and freezer to see if they’re on hand (e.g., rice vinegar? jalapeno peppers? ground beef? basmati rice?). I note anything we need, separating the list into produce/dairy case/pantry for an easy sweep of the store.
Here’s this week’s shopping list:
- Sichuan pepper paste
- Rice wine vinegar
- Oil-packed anchovies
- Sheep’s feta
- Kalamata olives
- Fresh mozzarella
- Parmesan cheese
You’ll note it’s a pretty contained list — just 11 items — because we’re working with many ingredients we already have on hand.
Sample Meal Plan
So, what does this planning look like in practice? Here’s what we’re cooking this week to give you a sense:
Sichuanese Chopped Celery with Beef and basmati rice
Chicken Stock (for tomorrow’s soup)
Sunday (cooking afternoon)
Cauliflower Chowder: for lunches/to freeze
Pasta with Slow Cooked Cauliflower and Anchovy: for lunches
Mezes night: Melitzanosalata with feta, olives and pita bread
Maria class/Austin teaching: leftovers/freezer dinner
Ad hoc night: steak with roasted sweet potatoes
Dinner out with friends
For lunches, we’ll rotate between dinner leftovers, cauliflower chowder and pasta, which are kept in the fridge/freezer pre-portioned to grab as we leave for work in the morning.
While the meal plan is never perfectly implemented (we’ll swap days, or get a craving for Ethiopian takeout, or just want to cook something else!) it gets us about 80% of the way to tasty meals from our kitchen.
I’ve researched and read about many approaches to meal planning. We love this style of planning because it’s adaptable and uncomplicated for a family of two who enjoy cooking together. It ensures we’re constantly trying new things in the kitchen. It doesn’t take a ton of time from our schedules, but ensures that we are spending time together making tasty food, and that perishable goods don’t go to waste.
If you’re in a rut, or often ordering takeout after a day at work, I’d challenge you to spend just a month using our meal planning philosophy as a loose starting point. It’s faster and healthier than eating out, can be adapted to any skill level, and in our experience, makes the kitchen an even more fun place to spend time together.