Say goodbye to stress in the kitchen!
Here is a series on how to meal plan wisely, so you save time and money, and enjoy time spent in the kitchen. Be kind to yourself as you embark on this meal planning adventure – as with anything, change requires efforts. It will be worth it!
This is the strategy #2 of our approaches to meal planning like a chef.
We are 2 registered dietitians, we cook a lot and we are methodical, yet our approach with meal prep is very different. We found a method that works for our family, and we’ve adapted it to our reality.
We share both our methods and what we’ve learned over time (both from theory and practice) here and here.
Make sure to download your free Meal planning like a chef bundle for all tools and resources you’ll need.
Marie presents…. The savvy shopper’s approach (strategy #2)
With my strategy, each week is a new beginning. You save money by building your menu around what’s on specials and what’s in-season, while having the flexibility to eat what’s tempting you that week (….and trying that new recipe you just saw on Facebook or the tons you’ve saved on Pinterest!).
I only plan for dinners. Lunches will almost always be left-overs from the previous night’s meal. In terms of breakfast, we always eat the same 3-4 things and I include them in my weekly grocery shopping list: bread, cheese, fruit, oatmeal.
Step 1 (0.25 hr): Do the inventory of your kitchen (fridge, freezer, pantry) = list # 1
What is left in your fridge and freezer? What do you need to eat first so it won’t go bad? Write it down on your list #1.
Step 2 (0.25 hr): What is on special and in-season this week? = list # 2
It is wise to look if there are any items on special that would be worth building a menu around: a cheaper carbs, an in-season veggies, etc.? You can use the grocery flyers you received at home, but I prefer to use an app that centralize all the deals. If you are going to capitalize on reduced-price items, check if your grocery store will price match. In this case, the app is more practical (no cutting items in the flyers, carrying all this with you and keeping it organized at the cash register!).
Write down the specials that appeal to you on your list #2 (and if using an app, save them).
Step 3 (1.5 hr): Build your menu using list #1 and #2
Looking at your two lists, you definitely want to use all ingredients from list #1, while taking advantage of what’s on list #2 (without going crazy either). Write down your meals in your menu planner as you go.
Maximum results for the least amount of efforts
You want to have balanced meals while not working too too hard at it! My secret is to plan 2 easy dinners each week: a soup, and a salad. These are simple, they require minimal prep and cooking, they are healthy, delicious and cheap. At the beginning, it can be a significant change, but with time, it will become easy! Take it one step at a time. Aim for discoveries and improvement, not for “if it isn’t perfect, it isn’t worth it”.
Try soups as the main dish!
At home, I always keep soups in my freezer, ready to eat. I make one recipe a month and freeze meal portions. Now, not every soup recipe includes a protein source, so I make sure to complete my meal following the healthy plate. My favorite items to make it a full meal:
(Veggies = soup)
Proteins: hummus, cottage cheese, nuts
Carbs: Tortilla, crackers, bread
Imagine. 6 o’clock, tired from your stressful day, 2 kids starving. Here is the plan: pop the soup in the microwave for 3 minutes, and set up the table in the meantime. Grab the hummus container, the bag of crackers. Bam. Done. (Thank god, soup exists!) Eat until you’re satisfied. Try it and let me know how it went! (During Summer, I suggest you try a cold soup!)
Who said salad was a side dish?
Say goodbye to no-dressing boring lettuce. We are talking fancy salads here. Be creative. I usually include rice/pasta/pulses/legumes (I cook one batch a month, so I always have it ready in my freezer), fresh veggies (not necessary lettuce) and a protein (often plant-based… sometimes not!) Oh, and a good vinaigrette is the secret!
Here are my favorites:
- Potatoes, red beans, hard boiled eggs, pickles, diced peppers, corn + dill yogurt dressing
- Cooked beet cubes, avocado, feta cheese, cooked sweet potato dices, pine nuts + mustard dressing
- Fusilli, asparagus, sliced almonds, feta cheese, cherry tomatoes, parsley + oil dressing
- Dragon bowl from the Buddhist Chef
Revisit soups and salads – place them as the centrepiece of your dinner table
Plan meals that you can freeze
Once you have your soup and salad, plan meals for the rest of the week. I include 1 or 2 meals that I will double (or triple!) and freeze. These will make for our lunches. The trick for delicious frozen meal is to make sure they are still going to be good when thawed and reheated. For that reason, I often freeze my meals without veggies and I eat fresh veggies on the side (but Maude freezes her veggies and doesn’t mind the change in texture because convenience wins over crunchiness for her family). So it is up to you! Again, do what suits your family.
Having frozen meals ready to eat is a life saver.
Complete your weekly menu
Looking at your list #1 and #2, start with what needs to be eaten quickly or it will go bad. That half-full pesto jar and that tired eggplant… Yeah, you need to it it soon! That reminds you that you love creamy pesto pasta. You have your first meal! Complete it with a protein and veggies to get your healthy plate.
Quick tips to make it even more efficient:
- Not sure what to do with 2-3 random ingredients you have in your fridge? Google it!
- All recipe are adaptable. The recipe says mushroom but you have eggplant? Eggplant it will be! The recipe says rice but you prefer pasta? Pasta all the way! This isn’t the military approach after all 😉
- Always buy stuff to make quick (and often cold) lunches when you won’t have left-overs: think sandwiches with different breads, proteins and toppings, etc.
At home, I plan meals for 5 days…so there is room for inspiration, last minute change, and restaurant! Because sometimes we feel like eating sandwiches, eggs over-easy, oatmeal, smoothies or a good old toast with cheese and an orange (You know, those kind of nights!).
Optimize (don’t compromise) your menu using what’s in your kitchen and what’s on special.
Complete your grocery list according to your planning
You’ve added what was needed for you soup, salad and other meals of the week. Make sure that you buy everything you need to double or triple recipes. Unless there is a good deal on bulk items, don’t go crazy with buying extra. You will re-do this exercise and do the inventory of your kitchen next week, so it’s not like you need to plan for a nuclear war.
Bravo! You just meal planned your first week!
(Ok, you probably just read this post rather than do your own meal prep….but you’re ready to start now!)
No need to be techy but…
Be wise here and use technology. Keep picture of your menus, do your lists on the computer, and save all weeks you create. This way, when you lack time or inspiration, you can come back to previous weeks (and also save time).
Since we mostly buy the same thing every week, make yourself a grocery shopping list template (see two versions in the bundle!). Once it’s done, you can adapt it from week to week. I like to write my list following the order of the aisle I visit in the grocery store. This way I am effective and I don’t forget anything (still trying to be more efficient!). Oh and don’t go searching for a printer, take a picture of your grocery list and bam, it’s on your phone ready to go!
Life is too short not to plan!
Step 4 (1 hr): Grocery shop
Choose your best day and time to grocery shop. I shop on Friday, the day before I plan to meal prep (Saturday). This isn’t a secret, meal prep on the weekend is a must so you’re ready for the busy week ahead. Planning and shopping on Fridays also allows my family to decide what special meal we will cook and eat on Saturday. It’s a family tradition! On Saturday, we all cook together, with good music, good wine, and we take our time!
Step 5 (3 hr): Prep your week’s ingredients and basics
Either you do it right when you’re back from the store, or you dedicate a time when you (and your family) will get to it. At home, we do it on Saturday afternoon. We start with the prep for the week, and then jump right into the prep of our special dinner. We start around 4pm and finish with the meal around 7pm. What a reward!
What my family does every week :
- Wash and cut fruits and veggies for snacks
- Make a (big) batch of soup, rice, pasta or whatever we need for the week (and freeze left-overs!)
- Cook one recipe from our meal plan that can be frozen
- Cut ingredients for our recipes of the week (onions, carrots, celery, etc..)
Every week: 6 hours
Plan ahead, but be flexible when the plan doesn’t go as planned!
This method is awesome as it allows for creativity and eating what you feel like at that moment. Saving money by planning my meals around specials and in-season items is a definite bonus! And in-season fruits and veggies just taste so much better, we would be fool not to eat them when they are available! That is the strategy that works for my family. If you try it out, let me know how it works for your family. And if you have a different method, please share with us. We always want to be more efficient and incorporate new tricks in our meal planning!