How to meal plan like a chef
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!
We’ve all done it. Arrive home at 6pm after a busy day…to realize that there is nothing in the fridge, we have no idea what to cook and everyone is starving! Recipe for a disaster.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
No, it doesn’t have to be this way.
What if meal prep could be enjoyable? Plan it, that’s the secret!
Everyone can do it!
Ok let’s face it: it will require some planning and efforts. But trust us, planning and prep over the weekend will save you time, energy, cries and tantrums (ok, we can’t guarantee for the tantrums!).
Although we have 2 specific strategies that we’ve personally been testing at home for years, our general approach is similar:
- You gotta plan for dinners, launches, breakfasts, and snacks.
- Before you hit the store, you make a grocery list. That’s the only way to not bust your budget and to buy stuff that will make up balanced and delicious meals!
- You prep some stuff in advance over the weekend so that the burden is less during the week
- You do more than you need (and freeze or make lunches with leftovers)
Now we have some more tricks to share to make this process even more efficient… and perhaps even enjoyable!
A menu, basic ingredients in your pantry, a grocery list and some dedicated time is what you need to meal plan+shop+prep 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 have adapted it to our reality.
We are sharing both our methods and what we’ve learned over time (both from theory and practice)
First, make sure to download your free Meal planning like a chef bundle for all tools and resources you’ll need.
Maude presents… The military approach (Strategy #1)
Marie’s called it the military approach, I really think it is a GENIUS approach, but I shall remain humble about it, so here comes the military approach broken down in steps.
Step 1 (10+ hours): Two Sunday mornings with coffee, map out your weeks
Pen, paper and lots of cookbooks and favorites websites (hello Ricardo!), you are ready to start. Using the weekly menu planner, map out 8-12 weeks of menus at once. That’s right, we are planning 2-3 months of meals at once. The idea is to cycle through 8-12 weeks of menu and then start again at week 1 (or create a new 8-12 rotation menus). We invest a lot in the beginning to be able to cruise later on.
Be realistic on the number of recipes you write down
Decide on how many recipes you want to cook each week. Be realistic, perhaps not 7 new recipes that each takes hours to cook. Think about your weekly commitments- who is playing sports, having appointments, staying late at work? This is your reality. Work around it, don’t fight it. At home, we plan for 3 recipes per week, with some that we double for lunches, of that we are happy to reheat for dinner later during the week. We also let room for one take out or laid back night.
The core: protein sources
Using our list of proteins, indicate what protein sources will be featured that week. That is where you can decide if you have fish once a week, some meatless nights, and if you have chicken in the freezer you need to use. Again, work with what pleases your family. Don’t got all vegan if no one in your family is on board. That will be frustrating!
From the proteins you have listed, find a recipe that uses it. Will you use ground pork in a chili, canned salmon in fish patties or eggs in a frittata? Make sure to write down where you found the recipe (and save it if it’s online) as you will not remember it in a couple of weeks.
What’s on your healthy plate?
When that’s done, complete each meal with veggies and carbs. Think about the overall plate it will create and try to include new items but also favourite ones. Buying in bulk is always a good strategy so if you know some items would be cheaper in bigger format, work that in. For example a 5-pound bag of potatoes is cheaper than buying 3-4 potatoes at once. Commit to a bag and place potatoes as carbs in week 1 and 2.
That’s when having a freezer (even your small fridge freezer) is super practical. You can buy on special and freeze, you can buy in bulk and freeze, you can prep ready-to-eat lunches and freeze, you can batch-cook recipes and freeze…
The healthy plate is the foundation to build our meals.
Step 2 (0.5 hour): Once a week, every week, update your grocery list
What do you have left in your fridge/pantry/freezer? Use that first! If you have broccoli left from the previous week but your menu calls for frozen corn… swap it! Don’t spend money on stuff you don’t need and don’t waste good food! (While you are at it, throw away stuff that has gone bad (hopefully not too many things but we all forget one or two suspicious things at the back of the fridge from time to time)).
It would be a good idea to make a separate grocery list of your essentials. You know, the milk, coffee and bread you buy every week… No need to scratch your head every week and make sure you don’t forget anything. Use our template and just update it. Time saver!
Combine both lists. Delete some non-essential items if you want to respect your budget. For super efficiency, gather similar food items together, and organize it following your grocery store layout. Which aisle do you visit first? That will save you time in the store.
A shopping list is essential before you hit the store!
Step 3 (2 hours): Eat and then go grocery shopping
Eat a nice lunch, fill up everyone’s tummy and then go grocery shopping (your choice to go as a family, alone, do it online… whatever floats your boat).
It’s not a secret: never go shop when you are hungry!
Step 4 (3 hours): Prep your week
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.
So your fridge is super packed and the pantry is full… Take a snack, get comfortable, clean your kitchen and then start prepping for your week.
At home we generally do the following on Sundays:
- Wash and cut fruits and veggies for snacks. We put them in containers every family member can easily grab and place in their lunch boxes
- Prepare mini parfait (that sounds soooo fancy, it’s really just yogurt in containers, but we add frozen fruits and some nuts and granola)
- Unfreeze frozen meals (you know the dinners’ leftovers from previous weeks! Ta-da!)
- Cook 1-2 (or even our 3) recipes for the week to come. We don’t always do, but gosh we are happy when we squeeze it in. The week nights are so much more relaxed when our meals are all ready to eat!
- Unfreeze banana bread (a good idea to transform over-ripped bananas in banana bread. Super easy recipe and super delicious snack. Even better with some chocolate chips!)
- Grind coffee for the week
Once: 10+ hours
Every week: 5 1/2 hours
Prep time is definitely well invested if you do it smart. Start the week ahead and eat healthy.
This approach is great as you never have to think too much! Sure you invest a great deal of time in the beginning, but I like the convenience of grabbing my planned weekly menu and just get started. The other main advantage is that anyone in our family can start cooking dinner and take the lead on any tasks. We found that this method works best for our family reality!