meal planning | foodloveswriting.com

Last Saturday night, at a time when most people our age were out with friends or stretched out on sofas, unwinding in front of TV screens, Tim and I sat across from each other at our dining room table, a laptop and a weekly planner before us, and discussed our menu for the next six days. I’d read Natalie’s blog post on meal planning the day before and, inspired, had told Tim maybe meal planning was something we ought to try. My husband, who, to his credit, is always much quicker to jump on board with my random ideas than I am with his, said okay. We would try meal planning, this concept people say simplifies your work weeks and lowers your family food budget. And while the idea of scheduling a week’s worth of meals is nothing new or revolutionary, and while there’s certainly nothing I write here that you wouldn’t find in a simple Google search, I’m chronicling our first week’s efforts here in this post anyway for two reasons:

1) Whatever the future holds for us, at least in terms of planning meals, I want to remember what the beginning felt like, much the way married people want to remember the newlywed years or moms, their babies’ first steps, and also,

2) While of course, when you begin anything new—whether it’s a job or a treatment or a hobby—it’s nice to hear from the experts, sometimes the ones you most want to hear from are the ones who were also new like you, not so long ago. So for any of you out there who have likewise not known about or personally tried meal planning, I hope this is of some interest to you.

(Plus, bonus reason, 3) Who doesn’t like to peek in someone else’s shopping cart? Here’s a figurative look at ours, last week, as well as some meals and methods we used.)


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Meal Planning | FoodLovesWriting.com

Saturday Night: Armed with a clearance-rack weekly planner, my Pinterest boards and my latest favorite cookbook, Tim and I planned out our dinners for the next week. Taking into account our schedules (my Tuesday book club, his Wednesday Bible study, our Thursday appointment to take a meal to friends with a new baby), we penciled in which meal would go where. As we picked meals, we checked the fridge and pantry to see what ingredients we’d need and added them to the running grocery list. I also soaked a few cups of rice on the counter for Sunday’s lunch.

Sunday Afternoon: We grocery-shopped together, hitting two stores and grabbing everything on our list (and just the things on our list) in about a half hour flat. Back at home, we unloaded the groceries, cooked rice (more than we needed, so we’d have plenty for the rest of the week) and made lettuce wraps.

LETTUCE WRAPS HOW-TO: Make or buy a couple good sauces as they are key to the lettuce wrap flavor. Tim did one dijon-yogurt-spices version and one spicy blend. Chop up leftover raw vegetables like carrots, onions, peppers, celery; stuff big leaves of lettuce with rice, veggies, sauce and anything else you like. Roll up or eat like a giant salad.

Monday: Ever since I saw Alex and Sonja’s ricotta dumplings, I’ve had them on my mental to-do list. Luckily, we had a container of unused ricotta leftover from last week, which made this meal practically pull together from the pantry.

ricotta gnocchi | foodloveswriting.com

RECIPE SOURCE FOR RICOTTA DUMPLINGS: A Couple Cooks | Note: if you use einkorn flour in this recipe, note that it will require quite a bit more flour than the original version—closer to 1 1/2 cups.

Tuesday: We put a chicken in the oven during our work day, stuffing a little basil and slices of lemon under the skin and inside the cavity and salting and peppering all over the exterior. A few drizzles of oil and a couple of hours in the oven and we had a perfect bird, ready to have its meat pulled and shredded for pot pies later in the week. Around an hour before dinner, I also made a quick fried rice (method below). Dinner this night was roast chicken, fried rice and a small salad.

FRIED RICE METHOD: Oil a large saute pan or wok until hot. Add one or two eggs and stir rapidly, smearing the pan with the egg and scrambling it. When the egg is no longer wet but not totally cooked, add cooked rice, stirring everything together. Move egg-rice mixture to the side and add chopped veggies (onion, carrots, a little lettuce) to open part of pan, cooking until soft. Stir everything together and add a favorite sauce (we had leftovers from Sunday’s lettuce wraps). Salt and pepper to taste; enjoy.

Wednesday: For this night when we have dinner with Tim’s brother, Nathan, and we knew I would get home a little later than usual, we made vegetable soup in leftover beef broth & roasted sweet potatoes. I also made two pie crusts and refrigerated them for the next day.

HOMEMADE BEEF BROTH: Buy soup bones at the store (they’re labeled as soup bones). Place bones in stockpot and cover with water, bringing to a boil. Keep at a simmer and add water as it reduces, for a total of six hours. Strain broth and reserve for soups.

beef vegetable soup | foodloveswriting.com

VEGETABLE SOUP: Saute onions, carrots and celery in oiled stockpot. Add dashes of spices like tumeric, cayenne, cumin and chili powder. Once vegetables are soft and fragrant and spices are toasted, add beef broth and water. Heat fully and taste soup, salting and pepper to taste.

cooking | foodloveswriting.com

Thursday: Chicken Pot Pie & Salad. We did everything times two on this night, in order to bring a meal to friends. I also planned ahead to soak two cups of black beans for Friday’s soup.

pot pie | foodloveswriting.com

CHICKEN POT PIE RECIPE: Originally from Dinner: A Love Story, published here. Note: If you make the crust with einkorn flour, cut the water in half.

Friday: We’re planning to have soup from The Moosewood Cookbook! (I’ll have to let you know how this one goes.)

 

Also, snacks during the week: Because our pantry was stocked, it was also easy to make a couple snacks and desserts as we wanted them: energy chunks (Vitamixed oats, almond butter, coconut, chia seeds, honey); Summer Harms’s king-sized chocolate chip cookies (gluten-free! we used ground oats instead of rice flour, however); rice pudding from The Moosewood Cookbook

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Some initial conclusions from this first week’s attempt:

(Shanna) We’ve definitely eaten more interesting meals this week, as we’ve branched outside our typical four or five standbys simply through a little preliminary planning. While I don’t love having to come up with meal ideas for an entire week on Saturday, I do love already knowing what’s for dinner each night. Especially this last week, which was busy most evenings, it was a gift to not need to be creative on the spot.

(Tim) I liked having less stress about what we were going to make each night and being able to know how much time to set aside for making dinner. Originally, I thought this would be something that would stifle creativity, but really you can still be creative—meal planning still allows creativity just less spontaneous creativity; you’re planning your creativity for the week ahead.

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Other not-related-to-meal-planning stuff:

  • A new month means a new header image, which you’ll notice at the top of the site. Happy March!
  • A new month also means a new newsletter, which went out this morning and gave details on how the book‘s been doing. Have you signed up for our newsletters yet? Learn more here.

Last thing, because I have to ask: What other tips on meal planning do you have for us? If you do it, how long have you been planning your meals, and why? If you don’t, what turns you off? We were blown away by the feedback on Facebook but we still welcome any and all ideas. Thanks in advance!

Shanna Mallon

Shanna Mallon started Food Loves Writing back in 2008, as a way to remember her grandma and write about her life through food. Since then it's become a place leading her to a lifestyle of eating whole foods, a new home in Nashville and the love of her life, Tim. Follow Shanna on Twitter @foodloves, keep up with Food Loves Writing on Facebook and stay inspired with the monthly newsletter.

This Post Has 45 Comments

  1. Jacqui

    Congrats on your first successful week of meal planning! Mapping out what we’re going to eat for the week has become such a routine for me, I can’t imagine how we even survived before. I remember starting out a few years ago because I was dieting for the wedding and wanted to control how many calories were in each of my meals. It really helps people who want to lose and/or maintain healthy weights. Plus, it helps decrease food waste — I used to buy a bunch of ingredients that I thought I’d use but would end up forgotten and rotten at the back of the fridge. High fives to you and Tim — I’m interested to see if you guys will keep it up! :)

  2. Erin

    Love this! I am a huge meal planner. And I always love getting a peek into what other people eat from day to day (why I started writing my month of meals series).
    Also–I think this has been my favorite blog header yet. :)

  3. Kathryn

    I am borderline obsessed with seeing how other people eat (I’m actually drafting a post about this right now) so I love this little peek into your weekly meal plan!

    We have tried it in the past mainly, I confess, because I bought a rather fancy meal-planning notebook from anthropologie. I can definitely see the advantages – it was nice knowing what we were going to eat each night and I liked being able to pick our meals with my cookbooks in front of me rather than trying to rely on remembering what recipes I’d read that I’d wanted to make. I did, however, sort of miss our daily phone calls or email conversations about what we were going to have for dinner that night so I’ve not bothered for a while. I think I’m just being an idiot though because the advantages do outweigh the disadvantages.

    1. Shanna Mallon

      I want to tell you how much I relate to this (because I do) and wonder if I’ll be saying the exact same thing in a few weeks (because I might) but the thing I most want to say right now is, Wait, Anthropologie has a meal-planning notebook!!!???

      It’s probably a good thing I didn’t know that before I bought the clearance-rack planner.

    1. Shanna Mallon

      I’ve always felt like that, Megan. It was Natalie’s post that finally swung me into the let’s-try-it phase. It’s definitely worth doing once, if only to see what you think and how it feels to you. I’m kind of fascinated by the whole concept still (obviously). : )

    1. Shanna Mallon

      I hate when I don’t know what’s going on with technology. Glad this turned out to be a silly spam filter and thanks for letting me know, Holly! You’re awesome! — but for anyone else who didn’t get the newsletter and it wasn’t in your spam box, I have no idea….

  4. Christina

    Shanna, I’m finally getting caught up on my blog reading…and, can I just say, I love meal planning! We try to plan 4 meals for 7 days (since Zach so often eats food at this work), with another ‘just in case/pantry meal’ in the back of our minds in case we run out. It saves us so much money (a few months ago without meal planning, we went $100 over budget; this month, we were $40 under) and I love knowing our refrigerator and pantry are stocked!

  5. Madison

    Love this post and seeing how you are tackling the process of meal planning, Shanna! I am hit or miss with planning, but lately I’ve been doing a much better job than I have in the past. Like you, I’ve found that we tend to eat more creatively during the week when we meal plan. On the weekends when I make the plan, I actualy have the time to search my Pinterest boards, browse my cookbooks and the like to find recipes that would suit a weeknight meal. If I don’t plan, I find that I don’t have any desire to consult a cookbook when I get home from work. I just want to make what is easy and what I know how to make without a recipe. So it’s made me a better cook (and helped us save money) by planning ahead.

    As far as shopping strategies go, we make a trip to Costco once every two weeks in addition to our weekly trip to Trader Joe’s. That way, we can stock up on items like frozen organic chicken breasts, frozen berries, certain fresh produce and nuts. The weeks we go to Costco are a bit more expensive, but it seems to equal out over the month.

    1. Shanna Mallon

      I keep going back and forth about getting a Costco membership, and your comment swings me back in the YES camp again… On the plus side: bulk organics! coconut oil! On the con side: 20 minutes away! $50 membership! Can’t decide, can’t decide…

  6. KellyH

    You are so organized about it – love it! One thing I have also found to be helpful is to keep a “master list of meals”. Sometimes when I sit down to meal plan my mind goes blank and so a quick perusing through my master list gets by brain working. :) It also makes meal planning pretty easy. Then I can add new recipes to that list each time we try something new that is something we want to add into a regular rotation.

  7. Abby

    This is great! I love peeking into other people’s organization plans.

    I’ve been meal-planning on and off since I started cooking for myself. I’m not brave enough to throw ingredients together willy-nilly, so I’ve always looked at recipes in advance and made a list of ingredients, plus the standbys (milk, juice, snacks). In fact, I’ve been known to spend Mondays planning meals for the following week, because I love flipping through recipes so much. I’ve found that looking at ingredients I already have helps me plan, too. For example, I have leftover ricotta in my fridge, and so next week I’ll probably plan a meal that uses it up entirely.

  8. Vicki

    I love meal planning! It helps me manage my crazy commute from the burbs to Chicago every day and helps with making out a list for the grocery store. We rarely ever have to go back for missing ingredients. Also I should note we only go to the store every other week so I have to think of two weeks worth of meals (usually there are leftovers in the freezer so it’s not as bad as it might sound).

    I don’t have a fancy meal planner but I do have a wipeboard on my fridge where I write down the week’s meals with an upcoming section to remind myself about recipes I want to try or make in the near future. It might be difficult at first but it will be worth the effort in the time and money you’ll save grocery shopping and preparing meals. Good luck!

    1. Shanna Mallon

      Vicki, I’ve heard from a couple people that they only shop every two weeks, and here is what I want to know — how does that work in terms of produce? Do you try to eat the easily wilted stuff in the beginning of the weeks and then move more into like potatoes or something by the end?

      1. Vicki

        We’re still working on not wasting produce. For lunches we tend to like produce that lasts awhile like apples and carrots. I’m trying to get better about making items that might spoil easily sooner. We also get an order from Door to Door Organics every other week. That produce really lasts much longer than what we get at grocery store. Storage is key too. I put a lot of produce you wouldnt normally put in the fridge, like potatoes and onions, which seems to help. Recently i got a produce leftover container that has a vent in the middle. It’s done wonders in keeping mushrooms fresh.

  9. Joanne

    woohoo! I absolutely could not LIVE without meal planning! I don’t have much time to the week to get to the stores and the ones nearest to me are more expensive than ones about a twenty minute walk away so it’s not like I can just go on a whim. Sounds like it was a successful experiment!

  10. Amy

    I love to cook (much like yourself) and have been planning weekly for meals since we got married. I plan 3 or 4 meals for 7 days, that seems to hold us. Luckily, I just do it by myself- my awesome husband will eat whatever I make, and since I do the planning, listing, shopping and cooking, he does the cleaning! It’s amazing. (Can you tell we’re newlyweds?) But yeah. Could NOT live without the plan.

    1. Shanna Mallon

      Sounds like a good team, Amy! : ) You bring up an interesting point: how the person you’re married to will necessarily affect the way you do or don’t meal plan. In my case, for example, we have to talk about it together because Tim is highly involved in what we eat; but some of my friends (or my mom even) would do it as they wanted and their spouses would just eat whatever comes each night. : ) It’s pretty interesting to think about!

  11. Little Kitchie

    I have always wanted to give meal planning a try, but haven’t made the plunge yet. I feel like the biggest challenge for us would be the unpredictability of our schedules on weeknights. But, that being said, if we had a plan in place it would probably help us streamline those unnecessarily hectic days. Thanks so much for sharing your experience – I am determined to give this a try, if even for just a few days at a time!

    Also, loved your newsletter this morning. You may have seen this quote before, but I hadn’t. Thought you might like to read this:
    http://the-girl-most-likely.blogspot.com/2013/02/these-words.html

  12. Paula @ Vintage Kitchen

    I don´t know how to plan meals since I change what I want to eat all the time. But since I always buy too much of everything I will give it a try and see how it goes. It was great reading this post, because the planning is not full of labels and colored paper crafty ideas. So I can really relate to it. I´ve been cleaning my fridge for the last half hour, because in my case it´s the first step. Otherwise I can hardly plan anything!

  13. Hannah

    You guys are so organized and such a good team! Love it! I meal plan each week, taking into account the schedule – and also taking into account our Farmers’ Market days. Generally this means that I go to the market on Saturday morning and buy what looks good, then meal-plan for the week, then a quick run to the grocery store on Saturday afternoon to get the rest of what we need – as you noted, when you have your list and your plan, it’s a quick errand. The hard part for me was figuring out how to get the market incorporated, since what looks wonderful each week isn’t always easy to predict. I finally decided that by going 1. by myself and 2. with only 1 big bag, I wouldn’t over-buy … and then we could just plan based on whatever we got. (So I guess that’s my tip :) ) From May to November, we also get a CSA share, which we pick up on Wednesdays. Since I know generally what will be in it, I plan ‘around’ having that arrive midweek. … I love seeing everyone’s thoughts and tips on meal planning. What a great post and conversation! Thank you.

    1. Shanna Mallon

      It’s funny you say this, Hannah, because I was actually just thinking about what this would look like when CSA season starts. I like your ideas. What I’m tentatively thinking right now is that I’ll meal plan the day or the day after we get our weekly box and make that the fuel for plans… I’m sure it will be a work in progress, but I’m looking forward to vegetable bounty again!

  14. Jess

    Shanna – this was so fun to read. I hope you’ll do this again! Frank and I have just recently started being more intentional about meal planning. There are a lot of reasons to do it, but I was primarily motivated because I was tired of tossing the occasional produce item that I had picked up on a whim and never used before it spoiled. I hate wasting food, and despite my best efforts to freeze or eat things before they go bad, things were still slipping through the cracks. Meal-planning is the solution and has saved me from picking up things I won’t use and from having to run to the store because I didn’t plan ahead. (P.S. Love those pot pies! I’ve never made them myself, but now I want to try!)

    1. Shanna Mallon

      That was definitely one of my biggest motivators, too, Jess. It KILLS me when we waste food. I hate it. My friend Kendra told me she started this thing where, in addition to meal planning, she’s keeping a list of foods she ends up throwing away. She said she did it one week and then never threw anything away in the weeks after.. that’s how powerful just writing it down was. I might try that.

  15. Joanna

    We have a love and hate relationship with meal planning. Basically, we love having a plan. We hate making a plan.

    We’ve been doing it for years (you know about the google doc that houses almost four years of meals for us, right?) so we both feel burned out on it. But it saves so much heartache during the week. And as several other people have said, it helps us be more creative and keep trying new things. In fact, we make more new recipes than repeat performances because of our meal planning.

    Our method sounds pretty similar to yours. Sometimes I’ll take the lead, or Brad, or we sit down together (though weirdly, I find myself more productive when I do it alone. Probably because I can’t stop talking to Brad the entire time). I tend to grab all my latest magazines and go through the recipes I’ve tagged online recently and plug in recipes with familiar techniques and ingredients fairly quickly (more often than not, it’s something you and Tim have made in the last few weeks!). Then, I think about any special needs like how often we want to have meat, if we have enough raw vegetables on the menu for the week, if one of us has something going on that night, or if we want to use something up. And we always try to think of something Tim told us back when we were super strict: Try to have a healing component with every meal. We take that pretty seriously. The domino effect of changing one meal and not having grains too often or dairy two days in a row is the time suck for me. Thankfully, we’re not quite as strict on that as we used to be.

    Couple things that make it easier: If one of us has planned meals without the other, we always try to review with the other so if one of us is sick of salmon or doesn’t want to spend hours making pasta (ha! we only made that mistake once), we can make a change. We go through at the end and make a list of all the ingredients we need to get and try to remember to add any staples to our list, too. If I’ve planned the meals and they’re from my online tags, I leave the recipe open in separate tabs on our computer at home so if (ok, when) Brad starts making dinner without me, he knows right where to find the recipe. If we’re feeling particularly inspired, we plan for two weeks at a time. Because we’ll do ANYTHING to get out of meal planning.

    Also, did you read Jenny Rosentrach’s dinner with kids article in Bon App this month? Or maybe last? I love what she says about doing something to start dinner in the morning, about how it’s a promise to yourself to finish what you’ve started.

    What’s say we plan a group Skype meal plan date?? :)

    1. Shanna Mallon

      ahahaha I love how you admit how much you hate meal planning and then invite us to a meal planning date! : ) I also love the idea of Skyping with you guys. We’re in! Your schedule is definitely trickier than mine, so you name the time!

  16. Ruthy @ omeletta

    I love this! And you’re right- the peek into someone else’s grocery cart is fun :) I do a sort of half-baked attempt at menu planning every week, but something a bit more planned out like this would be a big help on our budget. Thank you!

  17. Christine

    We too, took the menu planning leap a few months ago. I honestly don’t know why I didn’t do it so. much. sooner! Like everyone else, we are now eating much more creatively, diversely, and efficiently. I find I don’t throw away as much food. I save money because I’m not throwing together something at the last minute and having to run to the store to buy that “one item” that invariably turns into twenty items. It seems to be a win/win proposition all around.

    I found my way into meal planning through the genius feature at the iTunes app store (just goes to tell you I must have a lot of foodie apps!) with Menu Planner for $2.99, which was worth every one of the 299 pennies, truly. Originally, I bought it so I could track my pantry staples, so I’d be less likely to buy those 20 extra things I “just remembered what I didn’t have” every store run. BTW, it does take more than quite a bit of time to input all the pantry items but once they’re in, it is so helpful. It has exceeded my expectations and then some! (Honestly, I hate when I’m reading comments and someone plugs something, because I think they must have some financial stake in it, but I don’t; I just have found this to be so helpful in our daily life!)

    Like a paper planner, you can plan out as far in advance as you want, and see as far back as you’d like. You have the ability to change dates, meals, etc… as you need. But one of the niftiest features is that you can import recipes from all over the internet, and keep the recipes in there as you cook. And once the recipe is in there, the pantry feature will let you know if you have those items or not. Definitely helpful when you’re planning and trying to use what you already have! I also plan by the month, and then have the ability to print it out to post in my kitchen. My husband says that it’s almost like being back in elementary school and knowing what was being served for lunch! And my kids aren’t always begging me to make such & such anymore, because they’ve learned that for the most part, I stick to the plan.

    Of course, we don’t always stick to it, because life happens, but just having the framework in place is a major deal. I wish I had learned to do this much earlier in my married life! I’ve become much more organized the older I get, but if I had learned way back when…. well, you’re definitely on track to have a household humming along in the long term!

    1. Shanna Mallon

      Christine, Wow, I loved reading your thoughts on this subject, as well as hearing about a tool that’s made it so much easier for you! You point out so many benefits that encourage me to stick with this meal-planning thing in the days to come. So far, I’ll be honest, I love knowing what’s coming. : ) Thanks for your encouragement and advice!

  18. Kim

    I’m just catching up, but I thought I’d comment anyway :)

    Growing up (3 kids, 2 working parents) my mom planned the week’s menu in advance, and posted it up on the refrigerator at the beginning of the week. We also had crazy-organized shopping lists, so we could check off things we wanted or needed before we took the trip to the store.

    In my house nowadays (2 working adults, no kids), we don’t plan in advance as much as we could…some of that comes from my love of “Chopped-style” meal prep: coming up with something to eat based on what we have in the house. I keep a pretty stocked kitchen, so it’s not always difficult, but I like stretching my creativity in that way. However, my husband is a recipe-follower, and if we happen to be out shopping (like this morning, when we were at the butcher), he’ll often suggest we pick things up for the week ahead. Here we are on Sunday evening with meals planned for the whole week! Granted, I’m eating out Monday and we’re out of town Thursday and Friday, so it was only 3 nights of prep, but here we are nonetheless. It feels good, and it’s fun to plan things together :)

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