Making Meal Plans: How I Make Them

My meal plans go from Monday to Sunday because that's just what works for us. I have friends who start their plans on Thursdays and others that start on Saturday. I make my meal plans on Sunday morning and then Lee and I got to the grocery store to buy what we need for the week. We usually don't have to go to the grocery store again that week, though sometimes we might need to pick up a type of herb (usually cilantro) for a late in the week recipe or a vegetable that doesn't store well (I'm looking at YOU green onions). Or we run out of milk.

We usually only go to one grocery store each week. We won't run over town to buy things on sale. Grocery shopping usually takes us 30 minutes or less, depending on the size of our list. We go to Costco once or twice a month and buy a few things in bulk that we use a lot, such as coffee beans (we grab the Kirkland brand) or large bags of onions (we use a lot of onions and their large bags seem to keep better than the small bags I get at the grocery store). A few times a year we'll go to an Indian grocery store to stock on spice blends and paneer (we freeze blocks of paneer). We'll also go to the large Asian grocery store a few times a year and stock up anything that looks good and to buy large containers of wasabi peas. Mmm wasabi peas.

Every Sunday morning I sit down at my computer, open Evernote, and ask myself a few questions:

What Do We Have In the Freezer?: We very rarely buy meat specifically for our meal plan. We shop from our chest freezer. That isn't to say that we don't buy meat on a weekly basis. We totally do. We just tend to buy things that are on sale and pop them in the freezer to use in the future. Yes, this means we lose track of what's in the freezer. We try to do an inventory of it once a quarter or so. We also freeze a lot of leftovers so it's possible for us to pull a main course out of the freezer and just need to make a side. Other things that we pull from the freezer include baguettes that we've cut in half, homemade soup, homemade pasta sauce, pierogis (occasionally homemade but usually not), and stock.

What's Our Schedule for the Week?: Lee has dinner with his friends every week so I know that most Thursdays it's just me at home. I'll schedule leftovers, pull something from the freezer, or schedule something that he doesn't particular care for on those days. For example, I like pasta a lot more than Lee does so it's a great night for me to have pasta since it's easy to scale down to one serving. We also have regular dinners with friends, we do schedule dinners out at restaurants, and yes, we even schedule take-out nights. If I think it's going to be a busy work week I'll plan more slow cooker meals or pull some of our homemade meals from the freezer.

Are there any requests?: Every week I ask Lee if he has any requests for the week. While ultimately I am the one that decides if something makes it onto the plan that week since I do most of the cooking, I do like to ask and try to accommodate his requests. No, I don't feel bad about saying no to some of his requests since nine times out of ten when I ask what we should eat in the coming week he says pizza and tacos. Sometimes what he wants doesn't fit due to our schedule but I'll add it the next week.

Is there anything else I need to consider?: Sometimes we have friends come over for dinner and they can't eat x or y. Sometimes Lee's friends help us with home repairs and I pay them in food. I'm writing this during Lent and Lee isn't eating meat on Fridays so I need to remember to put one of our weekly meatless meals on Fridays right now. Every St. Patrick's Day I make chili. On Fat Tuesday I make pancakes.

What's on sale?: Sides and meatless meals are often dictated by what's on sale. Lee is the flyer guy (he loves looking at flyers) so I usually just ask him. Aside from meat, which I mentioned above, we'll stock up on frozen vegetables, canned beans and tomatoes, pasta, and baking supplies when they are on sale. If there is a good sale on cheese we'll buy bricks of it and toss them in the freezer.

After I've asked myself these questions I start filling in the week. If we had planned a meal for the weekend, and it got bumped because our plans changed, I'll usually add it to the next week. We've been trying to make sure we have at least two mostly meatless meals each week. Mostly meatless for us means we may us a bit of meat for flavouring, such as a bit of bacon in baked beans, or we use chicken stock in an otherwise meatless soup. If I'm making a roast chicken it's likely to be on a Sunday. If we're having pizza or take-out it's likely to be on a Friday.

Once I've done this I have usually have a pretty good idea of how the week is shaping up but I'll still have blanks. That's when I'll start looking for recipes. I'll pull from food blogs, my Pinterest collections, and cookbooks. (I'll write more on that in my next post.) Some weeks all my recipes will be from cookbooks I own, other weeks it will all be from food blogs and Pinterest. Some will be recipes we've made before but most weeks there's at least one new recipe.

At this point, my meal plan for the week is usually full. I stop and look at it to see if it's balanced. Do I have too many meals that make a lot of leftovers? Am I cooking meals that don't create enough leftovers? (Lee takes leftovers in his lunch.) Am I cooking chicken three times that week? Because I really don't want chicken three times in a week. Am I using mostly ingredients we have on hand? Is it too ambitious, meaning am I trying too many new recipes or recipes that take more time than I really want to spend during the work week? Sometimes things need to change but I'm getting better at writing my meal plan only once.

Once I've got it finalized, I create my grocery list. Most of the list is fresh produce. Unlike many people, we generally don't stick to our list and frequently make impulse purchases. They just tend to be along the lines of, "Hey! I didn't know this fruit was on sale!" or "Hmm, I just realized I didn't add anything to the list for my lunch so I'm grabbing some hummus and pitas." Meat is hardly ever on our list because even though it may be on sale it won't be until we see it in store that we'll decide if we're getting it. Some kind of meat almost always makes it into our cart, but not much, unless it's a really, really good sale and then we stock up. We're no strangers to needing a manager override at the register thanks to in-store discounts on meat.

Most weeks I can churn out a meal plan and grocery list in 25 minutes. If I'm struggling (it happens) it can take me up to 45 minutes. Grocery shopping generally takes less than 30 minutes. If we've bought a bulk package of anything that we need to freeze Lee will repackage them into meal-sized portions for us. For example, a bulk package of chicken breasts will broken down into small freezer bags that hold two pieces of chicken each. We also cut full packages of bacon in half and freeze them. This takes at most an extra 15 minutes. We don't chop and prep vegetables.

And that's it. We're ready for the week. I know it seems like a lot but it really doesn't take long. Add this all together and on any Sunday we spent about an hour (maybe a smidge more) actively preparing for the week ahead.