How to meal plan

When you practice Good Meal Planning, you will have interesting, healthful, seasonal meals at your fingertips. There are myriad reasons why it's important, but most significant for me is knowing there's something healthy at home just waiting to be assembled. How easy or difficult that is depends entirely on the recipes you choose. You'll save money by cooking at home and buying what's in season and therefore everything will taste better, in addition to not being tempted by unhealthy takeout. A few notes before we begin:

  • I like a balanced dinner: protein, vegetable, carbohydrate. Teriyaki chicken thighs, broccoli, sweet potato. Lime buttered salmon, avocado and tomato salad, quinoa. Steak, rice pilaf, garlicky spinach. Easy peasy. Get familiar with the formula.
  • I run a lean fridge; my husband has occasionally voiced concerns that we're starving/poor after looking in there, but I just can't stand food waste; only buying what you have actual plans for ensures you never have a slimy eggplant at the back of the crisper (wasteful AND gross). It's better this way. You can clearly see what you have, and of equal importance for meal planning, what you don't have.
  • A well stocked pantry is thing of beauty and also a must-have. Mine has shrunk considerably over the past year, as soon as the small mountain goat that lives in my house discovered it and I was forced to sacrifice proper function of the bottom two shelves or spend every day of the rest of my life packing the items back onto them many, many times... I look forward to being able to use them again one day. 
  • I like to buy proteins in bulk and freeze them. I always have a bag of frozen shrimp in the freezer as well as two-person portions of salmon. You can even find organic chicken breasts in little vacuumed 2-packs now, easily plucked out and thawed when you need them. Do it yourself or pay someone else for the convenience, but having these basic elements on hand will make your life much easier.
  • Most importantly, you're going to need to learn to cook and to like it. There's just no way around that for the way I do this. But you don't need to slave for hours; you can control exactly how onerous it is with the menus you select. You're the boss of you. But don't force yourself to make some new complicated recipe every night; that's not what it's about. When I'm trying a new recipe or making something I know is more time-consuming, I make sure the other components are simple or familiar.

Here's how I do it. It's going to seem pretty involved, but after doing it a couple of times, it'll flow naturally and really minimize your work during the week AND your food waste. You may find doing the steps in a different order works better for you; it's best to jump around between them a bit.

1. Divide a sheet of paper into three columns. Forgotten what paper is? Just write three headers in your iPhone notes. Produce, meat/dairy, and grocery. I generally do about 4 or 5 days at a time to minimize potential waste and accommodate "I just don't feel like eating that" nights. Half way down the page, write "To use", and below that, write "Meals". Like this.

2. Start with what you know you want to make. What Facebook video post did you come across and want to try this week? What old favorites have been requested? Write all the ingredients you need in the appropriate column, and write the meals (or components) at the bottom of the page. Let's say I want to make a pot roast in the crock pot because I know I have a busy day on Monday (and this will make leftovers for my husband to take to work for lunch, something I always plan for and encourage you to do as well), and I want to try that stuffed pepper recipe my cousin's mother-in-law's dog posted. Write these under Meals.

3. What is currently in the fridge, especially what is most perishable or nearing expiration? Write these under To Use. Now, how can you use them? Let's say I have bell peppers, a bunch of green beans, a few ripe tomatoes on the counter, and half a tub of feta in the fridge. Ok, green beans can go with the pot roast. The peppers will be stuffed. I'll throw a tomato in with the pot roast, but I'll still have a few to use. I'll make my favorite chickpea salad with the feta. Do I have everything I need for that? The salad needs a cucumber. Check the others, and add anything missing to the appropriate column on the list. Cross out everything you've successfully "used" up.

4. What's in season? This is best started Saturday morning at the farmers market; with your recipes from step 1 in mind, buy everything you can find for those recipes as well as whatever else looks good to you that week. Don't go nuts; if you overbuy, it'll end up in the garbage. Talk to your farmer (me!) about what will still be producing next week and what's on the way out, so you can choose wisely what you should get this week. Add these under To Use. Let's say I picked up a few monster zucchinis from my neighbor Highway 19 produce at the McKinney Farmers Market as well as a pain au levain from Village Baking Co. Then plan how to use them; I'm on a spiralizing kick, so I'll zoodle up the zucchini and I dunno, probably have tomato and mayo toast with most of the pain au levain and garlic bread up the rest. That'll actually go nicely with the zoodles.

5. Round out any meals missing a component with proteins, carbs, and veggies that make sense. Pot roast gets rice, and I forgot to write the green beans in there. What proteins do you have around? Combine proteins with the sides, writing the ones you don't have on your list. Shrimp sounds good with the chickpea salad, which doubles as carb and veg. Also I like to put spinach in my stuffed peppers but forgot to write it down until the last photo. I like a chicken sausage sauce for the zoodles and my freezer stash has been depleted, so I better grab some. Thoroughly check all your recipes and fully populate your grocery list. Be clever; the stuffed pepper recipe calls for half a cup of tomato sauce. Why would I buy that when I can use a couple of the tomatoes on my counter instead? To me, the goal is not accuracy, but tastiness. No one is grading you on adherence to the recipe. 

6. Check your staples and add any to the list. I fear my wee goat will mutiny if we ever run out of bananas, strawberries, or Mill-King whole milk, and everyone else will probably die without coffee. Rice, pasta, quinoa, beans, marinara, and oats are among my pantry frequent flyers. I consider shelf-stable vegetables like onions, garlic, potatoes, and winter squash staples as well, so they rarely appear on my lists because I buy (or in the case of onion and garlic, grow) them in bulk.

Grocery list is done, dudes. Go forth and eat well.

Megan NeubauerComment