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Method For: Meal Planning

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Planning is my Love Language. I plan most everything I do in my life (exceptions: falling in love with Jay, getting pregnant with Abby, everything about the pandemic.) It’s just part of what I do and how I’m built. I think it ties into this issue I have with waste and how I consciously and subconsciously try to avoid it. When you plan things out there tends to be less waste of time, energy, money… the list goes on. One of the areas of planning that has had an outsize positive impact on my life is meal planning. I’ve planned out meals as long as I can remember but had to really dial in the process once I had kids and both Jay and I were working full time. I have always liked to cook but in those years juggling work, 3 kids and multiple sports it often felt like a chore and I was exhausted while I was doing it. I didn’t have any extra time to spare (waste) deciding what I was going to make after I got home and I only had enough energy to do the cooking itself. Home cooked meals were a priority I had for my family so I had to set myself for success with a system that optimized the limited time and energy I had. Over time I got really good at it, improving on my process along the way. The method is only 4 steps but they are life-changing if you practice them consistently and make them part of your lifestyle. I realize that there are many people out there who hate to cook, loathe grocery shopping and prefer spontaneity over planning. If you fall into any of those categories I would STILL recommend this method for planning your meals; it will save you time and money but most importantly energy which is a finite resource for all of us!

choose how many dinners you’ll cook

The first thing you’ll want to do is look out at the upcoming week to get an idea of the landscape and how many times you’ll be cooking. There are any number of factors playing into this decision: Are you going out any of the nights so you won’t be cooking? How does your family do with leftovers? Do you have a takeout night? Before you make any decisions about what to cook you should know how many times you’ll be cooking. I use a One Note page to keep track of my Meal Planning + Grocery Shopping. There are many resources for meal planners that you can use for this step. I have tried some of them but always come back to my One Note page (appropriately called ‘Dinners’) because it’s low-maintenance and easy to access at all times. I’ve also used the Notes app on my iPhone which also works well, pretty much any notes app will do the trick. The first thing I do is list out the days of the week and mark the ones where we have plans to go out. Friday night is always marked off because we do takeout on Fridays so I never cook that night. When I was at the height of my kid-crazy years I usually planned one night to leverage leftovers (my family called it ‘fend for yourself night’) which usually left me with 4 or 5 dinners to plan and prepare. If you are the only one cooking the meals you can stop here and move on to the next step. If you live with a spouse or partner who also cooks you’ll want to coordinate at this point to decide who is cooking on which nights. When we were quarantined in the Spring of 2020 Jay announced that he wanted to take on cooking 2 nights a week, which was lovely and helpful. I appreciate the nights off from cooking but it does require an extra step in my process! #worthit

pick the recipes

Inspiration time! This is the part that is the most fun for me. I am not a creative cook, though I have enough years under my belt now that I’m getting better at improvising on the fly. But picking out recipes that appeal to me (pro tip: when you are the cook you have complete control and can pick recipes that sound good to YOU!) and being inspired by other cooks and chefs is my favorite part of meal planning. You can use any resource you like, there are endless supplies to choose from. I do have some favorite cookbooks but most of my meal inspiration comes from food bloggers and cooking sites online. I follow the bloggers and sites on Instagram and save recipes that look good while I’m scrolling. I have two different folders (Insta calls them Collections) for recipes: one for Whole30-compliant recipes and one I call ‘Off-Plan.’ I will get into my Whole30 journey in a future post but it does influence the kinds of recipes I save and I’m happy to report that collection is now my largest! Having an already-curated recipe collection is really helpful and saves you time when you are looking for inspiration. All of the cooking apps/websites I frequent have ‘Recipe Boxes’ where you can save your favorites and I use those liberally as well. I usually do my recipe selection the day before I shop and it can be accomplished while also sitting on the couch watching Netflix, super low-maintenance. I have 2 filters that are my focus when picking out recipes: how much time does it take to make and what is the main ingredient. I generally want fast and easy recipes for weeknights (this was ESSENTIAL during the kid-crazy years) and save the more ambitious/complex recipes for weekends. I still generally follow that rule but now that the kids are grown and my schedule is more flexible I can loosen up on that rule if I want to. I like to make sure there is variety in the dinners I cook so that also drives the recipes I select. We are meat-eaters in the Powell house so our weekly dinner menu usually reflects one chicken, one seafood and one beef or pork recipe as a base and then I layer on from there. No protein source appears more than twice in a single week. Obviously that is specific to me and my family but I do think variety is important so am including it as a filter when you are on the hunt for the week’s dinners!

plot the meals

Okay now you’ve picked the recipes, time to assign them to the night you intend to cook them. This can of course be flexible but I do find it helpful to match a recipe with a night based on how much time I have to cook, what we had the night before or after (see: variety) and who is going to be participating in eating the meal (e.g. Abby doesn’t like pasta, therefore I plot the pasta on a night when Abby is working and yes I know that it is very weird to not like pasta, I’m with you!) Plotting the dinners for the week also drives what meats go into the freezer vs the fridge. This is the least-important step for me now that kids are mostly gone but in the heyday of kid-crazy is really was necessary.

make the grocery list

Okay now, you know what nights you are cooking, what dinners you want to make and which dinner goes with which night. Now it’s time to make your grocery list. I should note that all of these steps are happening in one planning session, so the recipes should be right at hand and easily accessible to make your list. Go through each recipe and put the ingredients that you don’t already have on hand on your grocery list, which is that same One Note page on your phone. My list is right there below the week’s plotted dinners so I can reference them if needed while I’m doing the shopping. Sometimes I do have to get up to check if I already have an ingredient on hand but generally I’m pretty bonded with my pantry/fridge/freezer since I’m cooking all week so I know what’s there and what’s not. I just shop once for the week and get everything I need for the dinners I’m cooking; it keeps me really focused at the store so I can move fast and avoid all of the distracting prepared foods that Whole Foods likes to tempt me with. No Whole Paycheck for me! Pro Tip: Do your shopping early int he AM when the stores are pretty empty, you’ll get in and out fast and won’t have to wait for the butcher! I used to do mine on Saturday morning and then I’d have the whole weekend left to enjoy. Now I do Friday morning but it’s the same feeling. If you are focused with your list (which I check off as I grab each item) and you go early you can be in and out of the store in 20 minutes with a week’s worth of groceries. I do like grocery shopping but I know a lot of people who hate it. For them there is Insta Cart and you can leverage the same process online, presto!

That’s it! If you carve out a bit of time and follow this process each week you will save yourself a lot of time-sucking decision-making in the moment, which for me made cooking possible when my kids were young and I had to get dinner on the table in 30 minutes 4 nights a week. I couldn’t have done it without that up front planning. If you are interested below are links to some of my favorite cooking sites and bloggers. Happy Planning!

cooking sites

NYT Cookingthis is a paid subscription site but it is super-high quality and well worth it in my opinion. Some of my favorite meals have come from their site and they are the most popular source of my dinners!

Food52I love this site, there is so much inspiration beyond recipes that it’s just a great place to spend some time if you like to cook!

EpicuriousBack in the day I used cooking magazines for inspiration and had a subscription to Bon Appetit for many years. When the internet took over all of the Bon Appetit recipes were available on this site so I do have a great recipe box full of old favorites from the 90’s and early 00’s. There are some great recipes, not as inspirational/aspirational as the others but I can usually find a quality recipe here and I like their search/filter functionality


halfbakedharvestTeighan specializes in comfort food so I have to space out her recipes or I’d gain 50lbs! But so good and her team does an amazing job with photography. Stay away if you are trying to lay off dairy and carbs!!

iheartumamiAsian-Inspired paleo from NYC, I love everything I’ve made from Chihyu’s grandmother’s egg-drop soup to the Powell Family Favorite Bang Bang shrimp! Winner!

nomnompaleoAsian-Inspired paleo, West Coast version. Michelle’s stir-frys are spot-on and very simple to execute, good for busy nights!

saltandlavenderNatasha specializes in quick and easy. I’m a big soup fan and she has some really good ones!

pinchofyumAnother blog that focus on fast and simple. Lindsay has a lot of great recipes where I can leverage my Instapot which I love!

everylastbiteI always need recipe inspo when I’m doing a Whole30 and have recently discovered this blog. I love the creativity that helps the variety of my meals when I’m restricting certain categories like grains & dairy

Note that I don’t actually read the blog posts on these blogs, I just skip right to the recipes which I can do right from Instagram, easy-peasy!

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