The idea of planning out a whole month's worth of meals makes me want to pull out my hair. It's probably why I've run away from every single meal planning organizer I've come across. Here's the problem: I love to cook and hate wasting food, but don't relish the thought of having all of my meals planned out (or doing it myself).
However, when I don't plan ahead for my meals in some form or another, I'm left with three situations:
- When I finally decide what I want to eat, I'm out of certain ingredients so I have to make several trips to the grocery store.
- I'll buy an ingredient or two for a specific recipe, and then never use in time before it expires.
- It's late and I don't feel like cooking, so my only choices are take-out or frozen pizza.
In years past, the above situations were the norm for me. I didn't plan ahead and I didn't prioritize cooking or the food in my home. This type of behavior costs a lot of money in the long run.
You waste money on food that expires before you can consume it, use up extra gasoline on multiple trips to the grocery store, and over spend eating expensive take-out food that's usually cooked with over-processed ingredients.
I wish I could say that these days are completely behind me, but they're not. Despite my love for cooking real food recipes, I get burnt out in the kitchen. There are days when I just don't want to cook. Or, I have a busy day and by the time early evening rolls around, I have no meat thawed and I'm out of certain pantry and fridge staples.
But here's what I'm doing to combat this. I'm making a deliberate effort to stay organized and plan at least a week ahead for my main meals.
Enter the Real Food Planning Challenge
My friend Kristin, of the real food blog Live Simply, recently published an e-book called the Real Food Planning Challenge: a real food lifestyle in 12 days. As soon as I heard about it, I asked for a review copy. I needed help organizing my kitchen, learning how to meal plan, and tips on making it a habit.
Once it appeared in my inbox, I read the book from start to finish in one sitting! Her book is filled with practical and actionable tips broken up into twelve days of challenges. I immediately began the first challenge, which is to take a written inventory of your fridge, pantry, and freezer.
Doing this helped me take a hard look at where I was wasting my money in the kitchen. I needed it! I'm slowly working my way through all the challenges and benefiting from them immensely.
Renewed Inspiration to Meal Plan in My Own Kitchen
And perhaps the best part? This book has inspired me to incorporate actual meal planning into my weekly and monthly routine. This is coming from a person who hates it!
Because planning my meals is becoming a norm in my home, I thought I'd share some of my own tips for keeping home cooked food on the table, several of which overlap with the copious tips in Kristin's book.
Ten Tips For Meal Planning with Real Food
Would you like to start meal planning, but the idea of actually doing it makes you want to pull out your hair? I'm with you! Check out my post for some easy tips to help you ease into the habit of planning, so you can start wasting less food, saving more money, and stressing less about what's for dinner.
1. Stick to Recipes You Know
If you want to begin meal planning for real and really make it a habit that sticks, start with recipes that you know and love. They'll take you less time to fix and ensure that you'll eat the leftovers. When you're reading to switch things up, go to tip #10.
2. Make Batches of Food That Can Be Re-Purposed into Several Meals
I don't about you, but I love leftovers! Most dishes taste even better the next day, because the seasonings and flavors are more pronounced. But for folks who hate the idea of eating the same dish twice over (aren't we blessed to have that opportunity?), fixing meals that can be transformed as leftovers is key.
Some of my favorites are meats like whole roasted chicken and slow cooked pulled pork. The first night we'll eat chicken breast with roasted veggies and a starch, then I'll shred the rest of the meat and use it for salads, pastas, and casseroles over the next few nights.
With the pulled pork (carnitas), I'll usually serve it with a cilantro rice the first night, then make tacos, Chipotle "knock-off" burrito bowls, cheesy tortilla baked casseroles, and lots of other meals with the leftovers. Large batches of rice and beans can be stuffed into squashes or bell peppers and baked to make a whole new dish. Those are just a few ideas to get you started!
3. Plan Your Meals Around Foods That Expire Soonest
Coming home from the local market or grocery store with lots of fresh foods feels great, but can soon turn into regret if you let a piece of fruit, a head of lettuce, a package of chicken, or a carton of dairy sit too long without using it up.
The best way to avoid this is to keep a running list of perishable foods on your fridge and plan your meals around them. When fresh food is the focal point of your meals, it's less likely to get pushed into the back of the fridge or the far reaches of your pantry only to wilt or mold.
4. Keep a Running Inventory
This idea comes straight out of Real Food Planning Challenge. Earlier this month I used the awesome printables in this ebook to make a written inventory list of my pantry, fridge, and freezer. I spent a day sorting through, cleaning out, and tossing expired stuff within each section of my kitchen. I'm not afraid to admit that I found stuff in my freezer from late 2012! Obviously, this was long overdue.
And if you know exactly what food ingredients you have on hand, meal planning becomes MUCH simpler. Most importantly, it helps reduce or eliminate waste, which will save you lots of $$$ in the long run.
5. Invest in Kitchen Equipment For Batch Cooking & One-Pan Meals
To be honest, cooking the majority of your food at home can be time-consuming. When you switch from buying stuff for making real food recipes instead of pre-packaged items, your kitchen will transform into a space occupied by ingredients instead of ready made food. This can be daunting when you're tired or not feeling well. But, have no fear! You don't have to cook three times a day every day.
The key to overcoming this real food hurdle without sacrificing delicious homemade food is to cook smarter not harder.
One of the best ways to achieve this is to invest in high quality, reliable kitchen equipment that allows you to cook in large batches and craft homemade staples that can be used to quickly build meals later on.
Some of my favorite and most helpful kitchen equipment:
- stainless steel pots or enameled cast-iron dutch ovens (for one pot meals, soups, stews, and slow cooked meats)
- slow cooker (the best way to fix a meal when you aren't at home)
- large rimmed baking sheets (I use these for baking, flash freezing & roasting)
- cast-iron skillets (one of my favorites for searing, sauteing and baking)
- High-speed blender or immersion blender (for making your own dips, sauces, pureed soups, and smoothies)
- muffin tins (for sweet treats, breakfast egg muffins, and portioning out leftovers to freeze)
6. Keep Your Freezer Stocked with Homemade Staples or Wholesome Convenience Foods
To make meal time easier, stock your freezer with a mixture of homemade and store-bought ingredients to build meals quickly. For example, every time I cook homemade beans, I make sure it's a large batch. After the first few days, I'll portion the leftovers into quart sized freezer bags (usually 2 cups per bag) and lay them flat before freezing so they take up less space. When I need a quick meal later on, I can pull out a bag or two to use in chili or soup.
Here are some foods I regularly keep in my freezer:
- kielbasa sausage
- grass-fed ground beef
- locally made ground chorizo & breakfast sausage
- wild-caught fish fillets (salmon and assorted white-fleshed fishes)
- homemade chicken stock or beef stock
- veggie scraps & peelings (to make homemade broth)
- raw nuts and seeds
- bell peppers (I dice & flash freeze them when they're on sale)
- assorted block cheeses (I shred it myself)
- fruit, especially berries and bananas (for smoothies & baking)
- grass-fed butter (I stock up when it's on sale since I use it every day for bulletproof coffee and in cooking)
7. Decide What You're Eating the Night Before
To prevent the dreaded 6 p.m. scenario where you stare at the fridge, trying to conjure up a recipe to make last minute, do this: plan your dinner or breakfast the night before.
It sounds too simple, right?
It doesn't matter what you plan (it could be a box of mac n' cheese with veggies and protein thrown in), just pick something. Come the next day, you'll know exactly what ingredients you have to work with, which will eliminate stress and allow you to actually enjoy the cooking process.
8. Be Flexible
In the spirit of reducing waste and stress over eating, make your meals flexible. For example, embrace leftovers when you make a large dish, fix breakfast for dinner on a night that you're tired, or allow what's in season and on sale that week to dictate your meals.
This also goes for recipes. Instead of forgoing a recipe because you don't have all the required ingredients, make do with what you have and craft something new.
9. Make a List of Your Favorite Pantry Staples and Always Keep Them Around
Think of foods or cooking ingredients that can be used in a variety of ways and don't perish quickly. Or, foods that you use frequently in several different recipes and don't often waste.
This will be different for everyone.
Keeping your unique list of foods on hand makes it easy to plan a meal on the fly, the night before, or even weeks ahead. That means one less grocery trip, which saves you time and money.
For example, I almost always have these staples in my home for meal building:
- fresh onions
- fresh garlic
- red or gold potatoes
- sweet potatoes
- dried pasta
- jarred pasta sauce or tomato sauce
- basic dried spices such as: sea salt, whole peppercorns, Italian seasoning, garlic powder, crushed red pepper, oregano, thyme, rosemary, bay leaves, paprika, cumin, cinnamon, allspice, homemade creole seasoning, homemade taco seasoning, homemade lemon pepper seasoning
- fresh carrots and celery
- canned beans
- canned coconut milk
- coconut oil (organic & virgin)
- extra virgin olive oil
- balsamic vinegar, apple cider vinegar, white or red wine vinegar
- brown and yellow mustard
- raw, local honey
- real maple syrup
- homemade barbecue sauce or my favorite jarred brand without HFCS
I'd like to hear from YOU!
What's your favorite tip for planning your meals ahead? Do you have anything in particular that you struggle with the most?
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