Meal Planning and Quick Dinners

May 10, 2012 · 27 comments

in misc.

I’ve been meal planning for quite some time. I do it for many reasons, including saving money on groceries, saving my sanity by not having to make repeat trips to the grocery store, and lessening food waste.

Over the years, I’ve gone from pen and paper meal planning and ripping recipes out of magazines to “getting with the times” so to speak, and I thought I’d share with you some of my thoughts and strategies on the process. Plus, as the working mom of a toddler (who gets home 30 minutes before dinner is eaten), I’ve learned a few new tips myself for getting dinner on the table quickly.

This is a long post, but I hope you find it useful. It’s broken into two sections: meal planning, and tips for quick dinners.

Update: I have recently added our weekly menu plan to the sidebar. Check it out! I update it every Sunday.

Meal Planning and Grocery Lists

My first tip when it comes to making sure you stick to cooking meals at home as frequently as you planned is to have a fully stocked pantry. This ensures that you aren’t spending a ton of money buying ingredients for every meal each week, but it also means that if something doesn’t sound good on a particular night, or you forgot to thaw something or whatever, you can likely whip up something with what you have on hand.

Plus, while I encourage coming up with side dishes to each main course you plan, that doesn’t always happen. In those events, it’s good to have things that can turn into quick and easy side dishes.

Below is an outline of my meal planning process.

Step 1: What do I already have on hand that needs to get used up?

Do you have some buttermilk or sour cream leftover from last week? A head of romaine that’s not looking so great? Half a brick of cheddar or half a can of beans to use up? Add a meal that has those ingredients to your menu. Less stuff to buy, less food to waste.

Tip: Keep a list of items in your freezer. You can keep this online, or simply just post a list on your freezer door, and add or scratch off items as they change. That way, you know what you already have available for meals, but also make sure you don’t forget about the 10 individual containers of pesto you have in the depths of your freezer (guilty).

 

Step 2: What do I want to make? 

Okay, so you’ve made sure to include a recipe or two that will use your perishable ingredients. Not what? Well, what sounds good to you?

Inspiration and saving recipes

I get ideas from other blogs, magazines, cookbooks, Pinterest, or just an idea in my head. But, the place I save the large majority of recipes I want to try is Google Reader. In addition to following several food blogs in my Reader, I also get daily updates from various food publications like Cooking Light and Epicurious, which makes keeping most saved recipes in one place very easy.

Any time a recipe sounds good to me, it gets the star treatment. Boom.

Update: With Google sunsetting Reader (still a bit bitter about that…) there are other options, such as Feedly for saving recipes. Of course you can always go the Pinterest route. I’m currently using Pocket, which I enjoy so far and if you saved your Google Takeout file, you can import all  your starred items into it, too.

When I’m being good, I also tag the recipe with a main category like chicken, beef, vegetarian, side dish, etc. Many times I’m too lazy to do that but thankfully you can search starred items only in your Reader, so I can quickly find that asparagus pasta I remember starring a few weeks back, even if I never tagged it as “pasta.” (And might I suggest if you’re new to tagging, that you tag by season, too? This is something I really wish I had done from the start.)

Any recipes I come across that may not be in my reader might get added to Pinterest, or simply to my Internet bookmarks folder, inside a subfolder with categories similar to those in my reader. If I come across a recipe in a publication, I try to find it online and save it that way rather than keeping paper around.

I have cookbooks, but not as many as most bloggers. Unless I am craving something in particular, I tend to only flip through these every couple months, vs. every week and note any recipes I want to try in the coming weeks.

Variety

I try to keep our week relatively balanced in terms of the protein – generally 1-2 vegetarian meals, 1-2 chicken, 1 beef, 1 shrimp, etc. You can also balance in terms of cuisine (though we all know I could easily eat 7 days of Greek and Mexican food).

Do I care about sales?

As far as sales go, a lot of grocery stores now keep their circulars online. You may want to browse that first, and make your meals based on items that are on sale. This is a good way to save a little money, or ensure you stock up on things that are on sale that you might otherwise miss because you’re only buying things on your grocery list.

I’m not a big couponer, because I find that they usually don’t apply to the types of things we eat, but I keep Organic Deals and Saving Naturally in my reader, and often find printable coupons through those sites.

What’s in season?

I try to buy produce when it’s in season whenever I can (that doesn’t mean I always do; I make a conscious effort, but sometimes I need to eat tomatoes in December). It tastes better, and it’s usually cheaper. You can also check Local Harvest for farmers markets in your area.

 

Step 3: Make a complete list of your meals. 

If you want to cook 5 days next week, you obviously need to think of 5 meals (or 3 meals and 2 leftovers, or any combination you prefer). Typically, I add things to my menu haphazardly throughout the week, but Friday nights are when I really sit down and make a list of meals and groceries (I know, I’m a party animal). In addition to all your  main dishes, you’ll want to think of sides (when necessary).

Evernote

I like to use Evernote both for meal planning and for grocery lists (and for lists of restaurants I want to try, stuff I want, random recipes, the list goes on).  There are many reasons for this. For starters, it’s online (duh) and I am online, almost always. So, if I think of a random dinner idea I want to make next week while I’m on the train, I can just throw it on the list so I don’t forget. Sometimes I already have a week planned out, but I might think something sounds good for the following week, in which case I just throw it on the bottom of this week’s list because, let’s face it, I won’t remember what it was when Friday comes around. Plus, any time I add a meal to my list, I can just toggle over and add the groceries for that meal to the other list.

Whenever I’m making a recipe from a blog or website (whether it’s my own or someone else’s) I can also link to it, which saves me time from trying to find it later on.

You don’t necessarily have to assign days to your meals, of course. As long as you plan accordingly (whether it means thawing meat or what have you), you can just make the list. I like to assign days, because I try to keep my heartier produce for later in the week, but I also will swap a couple days here and there. No biggie.

I know a lot of people use Google Calendar, so that’s another option you can try, too!

 

Step 4: Make a grocery list (and stick to it!)

The other reason I really like Evernote is that—though this may surprise you—Tom (and Zachary) do the actual grocery shopping at our main store (I tend to do the meat shopping at the butcher shop). With Evernote, I can just email Tom the list directly (or share it to his Evernote), which eliminates paper and the potential for forgetting the list at home. Plus, there are staple foods (milk, eggs, garlic) that are basically always on the list and I can just modify last week’s list without having to re-add things. I also sort the list by aisle, because I’m cool like that.

Tom gets whatever is on the list, and that’s it. No random or unplanned items. Usually.

Here are a few other helpful posts on meal planning from other bloggers:

Annie’s Eats
The Dainty Chef
It’s All Happening! 

 

Quick Meals and Tips for Getting Dinner on the Table

I used to have close to an hour between getting home and eating dinner, but since I now work a little further from home, I have less time. I get home at about 5:50. We used to eat dinner pretty promptly at 6:00 but now we eat closer to 6:15-6:30 most nights.

It took me a few weeks of returning to work to get into my new groove. At first, I was pretty nervous about the whole thing, and having SUCH a hard time coming up with meal ideas, but now I’ve gotten into a good routine and it’s not nearly as difficult.

My first few weeks of the new job went something like this, and this helped a lot because I was only cooking 2 out of the 5 weeknights. I sometimes still follow this schedule but generally I’m cooking from scratch about 4 nights during the week and the 5th day might be something from the freezer, crockpot, going out, etc.

Sample plan for cooking “twice” and eating a homemade meal 5 times:

Sunday:  While making Sunday’s dinner, also make Monday’s. Meals that prep really well include baked pasta dishes, enchiladas, casseroles, soups and stews. Make the meal in its entirety, or up to the baking stage.

Monday: Bake/heat up whatever you made Sunday (Tom and Zachary get home about 15 minutes before me, so Tom will throw the dish in the oven, heat it on the stove, etc.). When I get home I might have to make a salad, and that’s it.

Tuesday: Cook a quick and easy dinner

Wednesday: Crockpot meal (freeze some if it makes a ton)

Thursday: Cook a quick and easy dinner

Friday: Pull a meal out of the freezer

 

Quick and Easy Meals

For a while, I’d been considering adding a “quick and easy” category to my blog but the thought of poring over hundreds of posts to categorize things seemed daunting. Well, about 2 weeks into my new job, I went ahead and did that because the time spent doing that was more than saved by having an easy place to find meals I can make in the short amount of time I have during the week.

So, definitely sift through that category. I hope it’s as helpful to  you as it is to me.

Some other meals that always come together quickly are burgers (and you don’t have to be boring with them, the possibilities are endless), chicken breasts and paillards (a max of 12 minutes to cook on the stovetop), stir fries, pasta dishes (there are plenty where the meal comes together while the pasta cooks), breakfast for dinner, and hearty salads.

More resources for fast meals:

Cooking Light Super Fast Recipes
Food & Wine Fast Recipes
Epicurious Quick and Easy Recipes

How and what to prep ahead

You can do as much or as little prep as  you want and have the time for. Obviously if you are making a meal that’s easy to put together in 20-30 minutes, you may not need to do any. But, you can always do things like slice vegetables, peel and cut potatoes (store them in water in the fridge), pound or marinate meats, make sauces, etc.

There are obviously countless things you can make ahead and what you want to make will obviously depend on what you like to eat. We eat a fair amount of  brown rice in this house, and I simply don’t have time to cook it during the week any more. So, rather than relegate it to weekends only, I make big batches of it, and then freeze it in meal-sized portions. You can just microwave it whenever you want.

A good rule of thumb is that you’ve seen something prepared and frozen in a store, you can do it yourself for a fraction of the price. Seriously, browse Trader Joe’s frozen foods and you will get plenty of ideas, I guarantee it.

Freezing meals

I don’t go out of my way to make freezer meals, and I know I don’t have them as often as other people do. That said, a lot of times there is no more effort put into making 2 of the same meal than one, and you can just freeze the second one. Or, simply freezing a half batch of something. This works particularly well with casserole type dishes, baked ziti, enchiladas, etc.

Several slowcooker meals also make a lot, and I just freeze the leftovers. You can eat them the same way or repurpose them.  Recently I froze some of this Tex-Mex chicken stew and we were able to eat it a few weeks later. I love to freeze this pulled chicken because it makes a ton. I froze leftovers of this Cuban pork and repurposed it into Cuban quesadillas. Sometimes you may need to cook a little something on “frozen meal” nights but it should never be as time consuming as making a whole meal.

It’s great to have some pizza dough in the freezer, as well as some pesto or pasta/pizza sauce. Tortillas and pitas freeze great and are good for quesadillas or mock pizzas, too. I always keep shrimp in my freezer because even on a night where nothing is planned, cooking some shrimp in a pan and adding it to pasta is pretty much always a possibility.

 

So, there you have it. A very lengthy version of my weekly routine. Do you have any tips for meal planning and quick dinners? Any other questions/things you’d like to hear about?

 

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{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

Janell May 10, 2012 at 10:30 pm

Since my first child was born two months ago, I’ve been struggling with getting meals on the table. Thank you for this advice!

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Meg May 10, 2012 at 11:29 pm

Your Google Reader looks just like mine! Since I signed up for a CSA this summer, we’ve started eating a lot more vegetarian meals (the CSA only delivers meat once a month). I’ve been stocking my pantry so I can meal plan based on what’s available from my CSA. I also do my meal planning in Excel. Meals in one column, then I copy/paste the ingredients in the next and I can take my laptop into the kitchen and highlight the ingredients I need to grab from the store. I’m trying to freeze more often but I always seem to run out of room, (seriously, where did all these ice trays come from?).

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Liz May 10, 2012 at 11:38 pm

I have four daughters at home (number 5, the oldest is away at college….) and for the past four years or so I have created THE MOMMY MENU on a weekly basis. I write out the menu for Mon-Fri and post it in the kitchen for all to see (this keeps me on schedule because heaven forbid I make Tilapia on Taco Night!) on Sunday afternoon after I have painstakingly made my grocery list, shopped, shelved/refrigerated/frozen all our goods for the week. Like you, this practice has helped me considerably when it comes to finances and alleviating multiple trips to the grocery store in a week’s time. Great advice! There’s no question that others will benefit from it.

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Joanne May 11, 2012 at 7:18 am

I’m totally a neurotic meal planner and I found this post super helpful and super similar to my meal planning attack! Although I think I might have more cookbooks than you do…so I often find myself surrounded by a pile of them come Friday night!

Also, I’m so touched that you used my post as your Google Reader starred recipe! Made me blush.

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Lisa May 11, 2012 at 8:05 am

This is a great post and perfect to read on a Friday so I can tackle my meal plan for next week. I always struggle with meal planning. I have 3 year old twins and have a similar work schedule to you so the “quick and easy” meals are a huge help for me. Thanks!

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Erin May 11, 2012 at 8:38 am

LOOOOVVVED this post! You inspired me to update my google doc of my freezer contents, AND to get a lot more ideas for quick & easy dinners. I have to admit, I’m kind of petrified of returning to work with 2 kids now – it’s been really easy for me to get dinner started while I’ve been on leave, but in a few weeks I’ll be picking up both kids, having to nurse probably pretty quickly when I get home, and somehow get dinner on the table. Luckily Ben is fine cooking too and still should be able to get home around 5 or a little later. And thankfully we still have about an entire month’s worth of freezer meals since I used barely any on leave! I have a bit of a problem with those type of meals in the summer though – who wants to heat up baked ziti on a 90 degree night?? Good thing I live in MN where some cooler days are pretty much guaranteed at some point in the summer :)

Anyway, great post – I’m sure it’ll help a lot of people – meal planning has seriously been one of the best things we’ve ever done to get us to cook and eat better.

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elly May 11, 2012 at 10:44 am

Yeah, the discrepancy between what is usually considered a freezer meal and what you actually want to eat in the summer can be tough. I think we’ll be eating a lot of pulled pork sandwiches and shredded meat tacos. :)

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Kathleen May 11, 2012 at 9:08 am

GREAT post! I work a ton of hours at work and sometimes we aren’t sitting down until 8pm for dinner. Thanks for all the tips :-)

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kimu May 11, 2012 at 9:34 am

Thanks for sharing your process! Very interesting.

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Stephanie @ Macaroni and Cheesecake May 11, 2012 at 10:10 am

This was a fantastic post and very timely because I’ve been trying to get back on track with meal planning! And who knew you could tag in the google reader!?! I have got to start doing that.

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sharmie May 11, 2012 at 10:39 am

wow, what a lovely coincedence. i’ve been planning a big shop for the past few days to get back into the groove of cooking dinner and not just grabbing fast food or making grilled cheese and salad. this is very helpful, as someone cooking for one it’s good to get some input on how to shop. cheers!

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Ellen May 11, 2012 at 10:40 am

Thank you, thank you, thank you for this fantastic and helpful post! I get home around 6:45 from work most days, and my boyfriend even later, so I really need fast weeknight options or we end up eating around 8:00 or later!

And speaking of Google Reader, there seems to be an issue when I click on the RSS feed on your blog to subscribe to yours. I did a search within Reader and just subscribed that way, but I thought you should know in case others are having the same problem. (FYI, I get this error message followed by a bunch of coding text: “This XML file does not appear to have any style information associated with it. The document tree is shown below.”

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elly May 11, 2012 at 10:41 am

Thanks, Ellen. I got an email from someone else that said that, too, but I’m not getting it. No clue how to fix it, I’ll have to figure it out!

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Urban Wife May 11, 2012 at 11:03 am

What a wonderfully comprehensive post! Thanks for sharing all your tips with us. I’ve starred this post in my Google Reader. :)

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Donelle May 11, 2012 at 11:58 am

Great ideas and resources! Cooking and eating at home is a constant struggle for us due to long work schedules, but after eating out nearly every night this week, I will definitely doing some shopping and planning this weekend!

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Ann P. May 11, 2012 at 12:27 pm

SO many great ideas here! It’s going to take me a while to learn all these and get good at making meals really quickly, but soon enough, I’ll be ready :)

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Angie @ Coffee and Cannolis May 11, 2012 at 1:51 pm

This is very similar to how I plan my menu, but sadly, I love doing it on paper. I think I’m going to have to reevaluate evernote since my son constantly tries to eat my list when he comes to the store with me! And, I’m the same way with my Google Reader – I very VERY rarely label or tag anything. So thankful you can search starred recipes!

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Nikki May 11, 2012 at 9:12 pm

Thanks for putting so much effort into this wonderful post, Elly! I haven’t used my Google Reader in ages, because I pretty much let it get out of control. You’re inspiring me to get back to it! :)

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Esi May 11, 2012 at 9:26 pm

This is my favorite post ever, by anyone in the history of blogging…ok, maybe being dramatic, but I love it. I always aspire to be someone who plans ahead and never wastes food, but more often than not, i find myself throwing so much away. Thanks so much for all of the detailed information.

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Aimee May 11, 2012 at 11:01 pm

Thanks for sharing your strategies and tips! I’ve become better about menu planning over the past couple years, mainly inspired to do so as means of (a) utilizing our produce before it goes to waste, (b) becoming a bit more organized so that I can spend time on other pursuits, and (c) salvaging some evening sanity for myself and our two young children. We now have less of the it’s-five o’clock-we-are-jumping-shrieking-crying-and-I’m-stressed-about-what-to-make-for-dinner episodes. We have some messy joint cooking sessions, some post-bedtime solo cooking/prep sessions, and some happy bellies. I admit we have several leftover/repurposed dishes throughout the week, but that’s mainly because the fridge and freezer are only oh so big. Thanks again!

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Krissy@DaintyChef May 12, 2012 at 11:19 am

Great post, Elly! Thanks for the link to my tips!

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Kerstin May 13, 2012 at 2:13 pm

Such great tips Elly! I generally don’t meal plan very well but I think that will have to change once our little one arrives and we have less free time!

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Peter G | Souvlaki For The Soul May 15, 2012 at 4:40 am

A very informative post. I use Evernote too and was interested in reading how you use it. And the starring option in Google reader is a great idea (I can’t believe I never thought of it!).

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Danielle May 15, 2012 at 10:20 am

This is by far the most thorough post I have seen on this topic!!
Thanks a Bunch, Danielle

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Kimiko May 16, 2012 at 12:53 pm

Thank you SO much for this. I’m sure this took a lot of time for you to write such an elaborate, detailed post, but I really appreciate this information. This will be a HUGE help to me, since I also get home from work with little time to prepare dinner.

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Mary Ellen May 16, 2012 at 1:09 pm

This is a great post! And thanks for the intro to evernote! I LOVE lists and organizing and cannot wait to play with it.

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