Saturday, January 12, 2013

Meal Planning 101

If we're really going to do this year of meal planning thing, I should give you a couple pointers on meal planning, and a bit of an insight into my 'creative process'.

Firstly - don't bite off more than you can chew. If you work full time, figure out ways to do crock pot meals, meals in advance, prep in advance, etc. Definitely have those 'bad day back-up' options. If you have little kids, figure out the best time of day to do your meal prep. In our house - predinner hour is children witching hour and so I do as much of my dinner prep during morning 'happy hours' as possible. I also find I can do a lot of prep during lunch time. For my own sanity, I try not to be in the kitchen during nap time - nap time is my time (to watch shows on hulu, eat a lunch in peace and quiet, take a nap, work out, etc).

Secondly - make sure you have all the necessary ingredients in the house before you start cooking. Nothing derails a good meal like not having the ingredients. On a similar note - familiarize yourself with good substitutes (applesauce for oil in baking, for example) so if you do find yourself missing an item you aren't paralyzed with fear/threatened with a shopping trip while the family sits hungry. Lastly - make it a goal to eventually be able to tell which ingredients are crucial to a recipe. Lots of recipes have lists and lists of ingredients, but some of them can be left out without dramatically changing the final product too much (obscure seasonings fall into this category quite often, though definitely not always). This will also save you last minute shopping trips to pick up sesame oil or dried fennel.

Thirdly - plan meals that have ingredients in common. If you're feeling like it's a week for potatoes - embrace the potato theme (homemade french fries, baked potatoes with toppings, mashed potatoes, potato soup, etc). Things are cheaper in bulk, so if you can plan a week of meals with similar ingredients it will save you space, money, and time.

Fourthly - leave a night or two blank. Stuff always comes up, some days cooking is just out of the picture and going out/pizza delivery is an absolute must, there are always more leftovers than you think there will be...there is absolutely no reason to plan 7 meals for 7 days. 4-5 meals for a week (for a family of 4 that hosts others a couple times a week) is perfectly adequate.

One note, before I introduce you to this week's meal plan and shopping list - I usually cook enough for 4-8 adults. Why? I love leftovers. Not always the next day (though my kids get them for lunch, and the hubby takes them to work) but because enough leftovers means another weapon in my arsenal of 'bad day back-ups'. While it may take 20% more time to make a bigger batch, it saves you the other 80% you would spend if you made the same meal twice.

This week's meal excited!!! 

Theme: chicken & root veggies (potatoes, carrots, sweet potatoes, onions, parsnips)

Sunday - Roast Chicken
(this meal will be the base/provide ingredients for several other meals, don't skip it)
* Roast chicken with potatoes, onions, carrots
* Rosemary Bread (Cosco sells an amazing rosemary bread - and while I've made some good ones, this week we'll use, it, like everything at Cosco, comes in a pack of 2 and stays in the freezer quite well for a month or two)

Monday - Salad Night
* Roasted Root Veggie Salad with honey-dijon mustard dressing (salad on Monday night because I'm doing my shopping over the weekend, and don't want the fresh greens to go bad)
* Rosemary Bread (we won't finish the loaf on Sunday night - let's use it again!)

Tuesday - Indian Food 
* Palak Paneer (creamed, spiced spinach with homemade cheese - yup, we're making cheese. You won't believe how easy it is. I mean, it's stupid easy)
* Chicken Tikka Masala (we're using leftover chicken from Sunday night) 
* Naan (I'm making mine this week, but if you want to buy some - Trader Joe's sells great ones. Avoid frozen ones, if you can. The non-frozen ones will stay good on the shelf for a week or so, and in the fridge for a couple weeks, I think)

Wed - Leftovers

Thursday - Soup Night!
* Sweet Potato & Chili (we're using chicken stock we'll make from Sunday night's chicken)
* Rosemary Bread - we'll still have some leftover, but if you don't, just use whatever bread you prefer

Friday - Freezer Meal 
* Pasta with white sauce, artichoke heats, and bacon 
(If you don't already have this in your freezer...which you probably don't, just make sure you get the ** items on the grocery list. I'll put the recipe up for it on Friday to have in our arsenal for later) 

Saturday - Open Night

Non-Meal/Staple Items

Homemade Granola
Greek Fruit and Nut Pastries
Chicken Stock 
Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies

Our Breakfasts
Bagels & cream cheese

Our Lunches
Mac N Cheese
I have no idea what else...I hate lunches

It's a big week, but it should be so much fun! And while you may feel intimidated - this won't take you more than an hour a day to make. I promise. Promise. I dare you. Try it. (most days will probably only be 30 min max)

Shopping List:
# - items not required for this week's dinners, but good to have on hand for other meals/staples

Produce (I do my produce chopping at cheap produce markets, not at mainstream grocery stores where the prices are much higher. Do a yelp search for the nearest produce market near you) - 
Carrots (4)
Ginger (3" piece. I use mine in teas and other things, so you could get much less)
Spinach (large bag)
Arugula or other mixed greens (3c worth - approx)
Shallots (4) (if you have other onions on hand, those will do just fine)
Sweet potatoes (3)
Potatoes (3)
White onion (1)
Red onion (1)
Tomatoes (4)
# Lemon (2 large)
# Pears (6) # (4 of them are for just munching, 2 are for the soup)
# Apples (6)

Whole chicken (yes, you need one with the bones and guts. Be brave!)
Bread (some yummy bread to go with soups)
Whole milk
Cheese Cloth (can be hard to find - try your local grocer, Michaels, or an international food store)
Flour (# if you're buying Naan)
Oatmeal (#if you don't want to make granola)
Bagels #
Yogurt - natural and vanilla (#vanilla is optional - my kids LOVE vanilla yogurt. You need the natural)
Confectioners Sugar (# if you don't want to do the Greek Fruit & Nut Pastries)
Eggs #
Chocolate Chips # (if you don't want to make the Oatmeal Choco Chip Cookies)

Already in my house (these really don't go bad, and add a lot to your kitchen's diversity/ability to meal plan & cook easy. Just like any art, cooking is a bit of an initial buy-in. But it's well worth it. Spices are cheapest at international food stores, and so far - I haven't found a big difference in quality between recognized name brands, and off brands. cheap is good. Buy honey and olive oil in bulk.):

Staples List: 
Olive Oil
Baking soda
Baking powder
Wheat Germ
Cayenne Pepper

 If you're doing the initial buy-in, your groceries are going to exceed the $50-$75 we're going for this week...but I think the dinner specific items are well within the realm of reasonable for that budget. Of course if you go all organic, your bill will be more.

So...there you go! If you have requests on how I organize the meals/shopping list, let me know. I'm just getting started on this so nothing is set in stone.

If you decide to cook along with me, I'd love to know! And I'd love to know how your experience goes. A lot of my recipes will appeal more to confident cooks, but even if you're not a confident cook - I really think you can do it!

Off to get dressed and go to the grocery store!


  1. Hey, lunch ideas for you my dear.

    - Peanut butter bananas (I let Henry put the pb on himself, good fine motor skills)
    - PBnJ on a tortilla
    - Do your kids like tuna? Henry will devour at least 1/2 a can of tuna with some crackers.
    - Hummus is another one, with crackers
    - I am sure you could find a good veggie and cheese dip for some crackers too.
    - Plain kefir with frozen blueberries (he likes strawberries too, but it is way more work)
    - Hard boiled eggs (he doesn't really like egg salad though, but Kai and Mika might)
    - I bet some sort of sandwich meat with cream cheese would be good too, either in a wrap, or not.
    - We usually have some sort of fruit with it (apples, orange, pear, canned, sauce, whatever we have and need to use) and a lot of times we combine a few of the things on the list to make sure he is full enough. Good luck!

    I am also curious about how your budget is going. Once you shop would love to know how much it came out to. (Sorry this is so long...)


    1. Thanks for the ideas! We've tried a lot of these before, some are hits, some are misses. We'll be sure to keep them in the rotation, to be sure, and will continue our search for good lunches :)

      I'll do an update on budget once I finish my shopping for the week. We've been doing this for a couple weeks, and our groceries are at about $70/week. We're still getting staples, too, since we just I'm hoping we can bring it down a little bit. We'll see!

      How's your kitchen/mealing going?


  2. Question posted from a friend on facebook (which I thought might be beneficial for others): 2 Questions: a.) What is a yelp search? Finding good, affordable produce in the midwest this time of year = nearly impossible so any pointers are very welcome! b.) Once you've tackled this year of meal planning, can the next project be a year of lunch ideas for toddlers? Please! Pretty please, as I also HATE fixing lunches! Thanks for this! It takes a lot of time, to put it out there, but you should know, it is definitey being read...and occasionally copied, pasted, and printed

    1. Good question! A 'yelp search' is a search on the open source business review system Yelp. Just go to and type in your town/zip code and whatever you're looking for. I would try something like "fresh produce"/"produce stand"/"market"/etc.

      Re: where to find good,affordable produce in the midwest -I'm definitely not an expert, crowd-source your friends/relatives and Yelp. The easiest thing to do will be to base your meals on what produce is in season - there are some great cookbooks out there that meal plan by season, I'm sure you could find some good websites that would do the same. You can also get a pretty good sense by whatever is cheapest at the grocery store. Right now root vegetables (which happens to be this week's theme - lucky you!) are going to be a good go to for you.

      I'll think about the year of lunch ideas for toddlers :) In the meantime, Daisy made some great suggestions just above in her comments. I would add grilled cheese, pbjs, mac n'cheese & hotdogs/tuna, and quesadillas to the list - those are always a hit with my kids. Also - no shame in cereal or bagels for lunch...just get food in 'em! Good luck!