How I plan my meals for the week

How do you plan your meals? I’ve developed a little weekly system for myself and I’d love to hear how you do yours.

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So I’ll be honest, meal planning is not a chore for me — I love thinking about food (even if I’m strapped for time) and heading to the grocery store is one of my happy times. In addition, I am a list maker, so writing things down works well for me.

However, as much as I enjoy those things, I really have finite time to spend thinking about what I eat. In addition, as a grad student, I need to economically use up what pantry ingredients I have as well as the fresh produce that comes through via my CSA (produce which I often don’t know what to do with!). I’ve found that 30-45 minutes spent weekly in meal planning goes a long way in terms of my mental sanity, and becomes an easy reference when the week gets hectic. In addition, as a “grazing eater” it’s easy for me to make a meal out of toast or cheese and crackers, so this gets me mentally thinking about balanced meals.

I make a list like this every weekend. It’s on a cutesy Korean letter pad that has been repurposed for my to-do lists — I figure tasks at least get a little less stressful when put on pastel paper with cartoon characters and poorly translated English… 😉

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From here, I work under four main headings:

(1) Ingredients — I go through my fridge perishables and inventory everything I have and in what quantities. I have a lot of produce because of the CSA and it always hurts my heart to waste it. The only way one can avoid waste is by being aware of what one has in the first place! Finally, I usually put a special mark by the side of an ingredient if I want to make sure to use it up that week. In addition, I note any particular non-perishable pantry ingredients (if any) that I want to integrate in my meals.

(2) Leftovers — Even if I’m just cooking for myself I’ll usually make four servings of a dish, so I can reheat leftovers for future lunches and dinners when I have less time. Often, leftovers can be forgotten and that translates into time and food wasted once it goes bad. In addition, this helps prevent me from overcooking that week, potentially reducing my workload. I list what I have in the fridge and how many servings are left in parentheses. In this example, here I have two servings of roasted veggie pizza left.

(3) Planned meals — So, given the ingredients (particularly the ones I need to use up this week) I have plus my pantry, what can I make? Did I see any dish that seemed particularly tasty this past week that I can modify to fit the food I have on hand? Did any of my food magazines/blogs showcase a dish that looked good? This usually takes a smidge of Googling and a little bit of creativity, but it can also be a lot of fun. I’ve found that relying on a few trusty sources (favorite blogs/authors/websites) makes this all a bit less daunting. Sometimes I’ll also list the ingredients necessary for the meal underneath the name of the dish, just to keep myself organized. This also serves as a quick gut check to make sure that the meals I am planning on eating are well balanced.

(4) Grocery list — Given the meals that I want to make this week, what else do I need? What staples have I run out of? Is anything on sale that I’d like to pick up?

(5) Weekly plan (optional/not shown) — If you really want to get down to brass tacks with everything, on the reverse side of the paper write down the days of the week. For each day, note breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks, slotting in your leftovers and planned meals. Doing this also lets me know what nights I need to schedule in an extra hour to make dinner (“Hmm, I seem to have run out of meals by Tuesday”), and work it around my schedule. In addition, this allows you to plan for special occasions (e.g. if you know you’re going to a restaurant one night or if you’re cooking for a friend one evening). I do this if I know I’m traveling or going out a lot that week, or if I know it’s going to be a particularly busy time.

Then, as the week goes by, I update the list as necessary, as shown below. I cross out ingredients and leftovers as I cook/eat them, and new ingredients as I purchase them. A planned meal may be made, or it might get adjusted according to whim. I may make note of interesting recipes for future consumption, as well (meals written in red ink). The list is a living document that allows me to be flexible and aware. And when the weekend arrives, it’s easy to transfer the uneaten ingredients and the meal ideas to next week’s new list.

(the list from the week before, saved from the trash can (hence the crumpling!))

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So that’s how I keep my food life organized, add variety in my meal rotation, and how I minimize unnecessary (e.g. unplanned, unhealthy, and unwanted!) eating out. Once the system is rolling it works pretty smoothly for me week to week, and keeps me consistently eating the tons of delicious produce that keeps rolling in. So, I’d love to hear from you: how do you plan your meals? 🙂

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