Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Making Weekly Meal Plans

I used to be pretty haphazard when it came to planning meals, and I found that I was going to the store multiple times a week or, more frequently, resorting to take-out. Given how much I love cooking, I wanted to find a less exhausting and frustrating way to try new recipes and to get dinner on the table each night.  I began making a concerted effort to plan and stick to weekly menus. Some weeks I'm better at it than others, but I have finally come up with a system that works for me.

1) Find A Routine

I go to the store on Mondays after work. Over the weekend, I choose recipes for the week since I have extra time to poke around the internet and my cookbooks. It helps me to have this weekly routine, and it cuts down on trips to the store. Find a routine that works for you, and try to stick with it.

2) Choose Recipes Wisely

When it comes to choosing recipes, my rules of thumb are:
  • Go for Variety: It's hard to know what you'll be hungry for in advance, so try for variety: vegetarian, meaty, pasta, soups, etc. Then during the week, you can swap around meals based on what you're in the mood for.
  • Pay Attention to Cooking Time: I'm not overly ambitious during the week. I keep my lengthier recipes for weekends and pick simple recipes for Mondays, as I'm usually tired after my trip to the store. If there's a night where I won't have time to cook at all, I try to pick a recipe for earlier in the week that will provide leftovers for those busier nights.
3) Write Down the Plan

Ok, great! We have a plan, but now what? I use Google Calendar to keep track of what I'm going to cook each night. I make a calendar entry for each day, including the link to the recipe or what cookbook it's from. As an added bonus, this allows me to browse my calendar archives when I'm low on inspiration OR when I think "Oh man, what was that casserole I made last winter?"

If you're into crafty projects, I also love the idea of creating your own weekly menu board, like these cute and functional chalkboards. Anything that helps keep you inspired and organized (and makes your kitchen prettier) is a good thing.
(photos from Life (Sweet) Life and W+S)

4) Keep a Grocery List

I keep an easily accessible grocery list, and I try to list items in the order that they are kept in the store to minimize zigging and zagging all over. Maybe you like the old fashioned way with pen and paper. If that's your style, try to find a cute notepad that you can dedicate to grocery lists.
(Notepad from Rifle Paper Co)

I also use an app called Out of Milk. I add items via their website or phone app, and then at the store, I can pull up my list on my phone and check off items as I go. You can even share lists, so both my husband and I can add items, and we can divide and conquer if we're both at the store.

5) Keep Track of What You Have

Another useful trick is keeping stock of what you have hidden away in your refrigerator, pantry, or freezer. If you know you have a head of broccoli on its last legs or chicken breasts stashed in the freezer, it can help steer your plans. It also helps prevent forgotten foods from going bad. I try to keep an up-to-date list in my phone. Others use dry-erase boards or chalk boards in the kitchen, erasing items as they use them.
(Sliding Barn Door Pantry photo from The Kitchn)

6) Make a Default Grocery List

In case of emergency, I keep a "default grocery list". Because sometimes you just don't have time to search through recipes. For those weeks, you'll already have a grocery list to pick and choose from! 

Brainstorm some of you favorite, minimum hassle recipes, and list them in a Word document, a note on your phone, a paper list in your purse, whatever works for you. For each recipe, I include the name, the source (link/cookbook), and the ingredient list.

If you're in need of ideas, here are some of my favorites:
1. Beef and Snow Peas from Pioneer Woman, 2. Ginger and Cilantro Baked Tilapia from Serious Eats, 3. Black Bean Sweet Potato Chili from Serious Eats, 4. Black Bean Sweet Potato Tacos from Joy the Baker, 5. Pinto Beans from Homesick Texan and cornbread, 6. Fish in Foil Packets from The Kitchn

Other simple ideas are rotisserie chickens served with frozen veggies and whatever grain or starch is in the pantry (couscous, wild rice, quinoa), tacos (plain ol' ground beef or breakfast tacos with scrambled eggs, jalapeno, cilantro, and cheese), or salad topped with some vegetables and stick-to-your-ribs proteins (hard-boiled egg, cheese, canned beans, nuts, canned tuna, etc).

7) Try To Be Flexible

I struggle with this the most, but try to stay flexible. Some nights I am so exhausted that I can't even think about lifting a wooden spoon to cook. Other nights we get unexpectedly invited to dinner with friends. Try to cut yourself some slack and enjoy those moments instead of clinging to your meal plan for dear life. After all, cooking is supposed to be fun! Life tends to be a moving target, and it's impossible to plan every single moment (try as I might).

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