Monday, December 16, 2013

How I Meal-Plan

Soba w/ Veggies was the new recipe this week.  See instructions on how to make it here

I know I've written several posts on this site about meal planning, but the topic comes up often, and not just in conversation with patients.  One of my friends has a 3-month old and is feeling ready to get back into cooking.  She recently asked me how I meal plan and... I wrote her a bit of a novel.  Planning meals is a big deal!  Yes, it is possible for people to eat well on a budget without meal planning, but that usually involves purchasing the same items every week with very little room for life to happen.  

Since I wrote it out, I thought I'd share exactly what I do with you all.


Here's how I meal plan, and writing it out, it sounds time-consuming, but remember, most of this happens in just a few minutes in my head.  I grocery shop on Sundays, so that's when I start my menu, and there are some days that the same thing always happens, like Friday (pizza or gyoza night).  We also eat leftovers for lunch, so I start the week with bigger meals and choose smaller meals with less leftover for the middle of the week if we are going to have enough food.  I freeze leftovers if it's obvious we aren't going to finish the food and save it for a busy night.
To start, I look at my calendar.  What's my week like?  Am I really busy with work or other obligations?  Is Ben around at all in the evening?  (If I ask, Ben will take over some of the cooking responsibilities.)  How's my energy level?  How creative am I feeling?  Do I have some recipes I want to try or should I just go with tried-and-true to keep it simple?  What's on sale at the market? What am I craving?
I look in my fridge and pantry.  Is there anything I need to use up that I can plan a recipe around?  Is it the end of the month, and therefore the end of the grocery budget?   
Even if the meal plan below doesn't name a particular veggie, I put veggies in the dish or make them as a side dish.  I usually just purchase what's on sale.

I was working 11-hour days M-Th, though I tried to be a little creative with a new recipe
on Monday night.
I can tell you the fish tacos didn't happen on Wednesday,
 and that's OK, because we had SO MUCH FOOD!
Then I start writing it out.  This is an example of how I look at my week:
Sunday:  Need something hearty with leftovers, so it's soup/stew or pasta with meat sauce and lots of veggies.  Examples include beef stew, coconut chicken soup, chili, etc.  I always double the veggies so we don't need a side, or I throw a salad together with it.  
Alternatively, I may get a bug in my bonnet to make something creative.  Lately I've been making quiche on Sundays, so I make sure that Monday's meal is filling.
Monday:  I've been working from early in the morning until after 6:00 pm, so I've been doing slow cooker this day.  I have a selection of recipes I choose from; sometimes I want to try something new, and then I pull out a new recipe while meal planning.  I always put the meal together in the slow cooker the day before, and then just throw it in the fridge to be put on to cook in the morning.
T/W/Th: These days vary by schedule and energy level.  Thursday is traditional guys' night (though it just switched to Tuesday, so I'm all confused) and I either don't cook and Ben grabs something out, or we eat leftovers.  Lately I've been cooking to save money.  T/Th were slow cooker days while I was working a contract job, but now I'm working at home on those days.  I almost always pre-make dinner during the day because I'm so exhausted by the evening.
Friday: Pizza or Gyoza, two special meals that we love, though we sometimes go out with friends. 
Saturday:  Variable.  Sometimes we go out, sometimes we eat leftovers, sometimes we have plans with friends, sometimes we pick up something to cook.  I don't plan this day.
I was working a lot this week.  I doubled or tripled the veggies in every recipe and made sure we had a lot of leftovers!
And if you want to see how I make my gyoza, click here.
I have a list of 20-minute meals or meals I can get together with barely any thought to use on days/weeks I have very little time or energy.  Ideas include: 
  • Fish tacos (20 min in the oven and I prep other ingredients while the fish cooks.  We used to have this every Monday night b/c the fish was fresh after shopping.)
  • Pesto pasta with smoked salmon (I usually have frozen pesto in the freezer... just not right now.)
  • Beef tacos
  • Tofu green curry with rice
  • Stir-fry
  • Red lentil soup
  • Chicken soup
  • Any pasta dish 
Finally, I try to get a variety of meals/proteins in during the week.  I usually have a vegetarian dish, a fish dish, a chicken dish and a beef dish.  I don't eat lamb/veal and we don't digest pork well, so I avoid those sources.  I tend toward more chicken and less beef, except pregnant Autumn LOVES beef and doesn't like fish!   
If chicken is on sale that week, we'll have more chicken.  And I'm not afraid to modify what I'm doing: meals change nights or mutate.  Squash and sausage soup turned into squash and sausage with kale hash because I didn't feel like soup.
I'm not working as much, can you tell?  I think this week shifted and I made dal on Sunday, cassoulet on Monday and quiche on Tuesday.  It all worked out in the end.
The meal plans I've shown you here aren't perfectly balanced, so it's a good example of how I work.  Unfortunately, you can't see the accompanying schedule that I planned around, but you can see that there are some repeaters.  We had a lot of gyoza filling in the freezer (bought supplies on sale and made a lot), and we both like gyoza, so we ate it and loved it!  There's also a lot of beef; I think Ben got a family pack of ground beef on sale at the beginning of November and split it into one-pound chunks, so we had that to use.   
During a couple of those weeks I was still working my contract, so you can see what an exceptionally busy week looked like (lots of slow cooker).  Also, I don't always mark it down, but if by Wednesday we have a ton of leftovers, we sometimes just have leftovers that night and I save what I was going to cook for later.  What it comes down to for me is energy, schedule, cravings and motivation.   
I love variety, so some weeks I spend 30 minutes to an hour planning out the week and making a grocery list.  I look through my cookbooks and magazines and get really creative.  Some weeks I'm exhausted/stressed/unenthusiastic, and I just plan meals around what we already have in the freezer or foods I know I can make quickly.   
The trick for me is not having a schedule I follow every week, but rather changing from week to week.  I know some people who really thrive on having a monthly meal plan, but that wouldn't work for us because my energy, time and motivations vary frequently.  You have to decide what will work best for your family and do that.  Don't be afraid to experiment and change if things aren't working.  What works one week (lots of different meals) might not work the next, so you do a pre-roasted chicken and bag salad and call it good.

I'd love to hear how you plan your meals.  What works well for your family?