Helen Jane finishes her meal planning lesson

Guest post by Helen Jane

We already talked about my thought strategies and meal planning, now it’s all about the listing.

Like I said, I list out all the foods that we have that I want to use up.

Then, I list out all the recipes I’ve seen that I want to make.

Then, I list the ingredients I need to get at the store.

The Listing of the Recipes

It’s hard to come up with recipes.

New recipes are scary and daunting and not to mention all of the questions in my head:

  • Will my picky three-year-old eat it?
  • Will my meat-obsessed husband eat it?
  • Will it be good in leftovers?
  • Can I make twice as much ahead of time and freeze?

The only way I overcome my fear of new recipes is by challenging myself.

Self-challenges include:

  • No recycling a food-related magazine unless I’ve prepared at least one recipe from it.
  • Make at least five recipes from every cookbook.
  • Clean out my Epicurious recipe box every six months.

These help me consistently make new foods and try new techniques. And for reals, I am honest with my shortcomings. As aspirationally Vegan as I am, there’s just no getting around that dinner for my family includes a starch, a veggie and a big chunk of protein, usually meat.

A great way I challenge myself is through making interesting side dishes. Side dishes are perfect for safe weekday dinner experimentation. I’ve made an amazing spinach and ricotta filled cannelloni slathered with marinara that I served with just plain roasted chicken breasts. (That’s another dish that can be made ahead of time, frozen and tastes good in leftovers.)

The Listing of Meals, part one

I already have my list of foods in our cupboard and refrigerator.
With that list, I get some recipe ideas. Then I write down a sketchy, ugly list (list number two!). I list out a tentative first meal plan. On that meal plan, I make it scribbly. Then, I add dishes I want to make, ingredients be damned.

I look at when we’re eating chicken and what dishes leftover chicken can go into.

I look at when it’s a good time for something complicated.

I look at if I’ll be home for dinner.

Then, I look through the recipes I want to make and list out what I need to buy.

On that same piece of paper as I’ve scribbled draft 1 of our meal plan, I write my shopping list.

This same piece of paper thing is important. When I have the meals I want to eat all on the same list as my ingredients, I’m constantly surprised about what I forget.
(e.g. Oh RIGHT, I forgot we’re out of rice.)

The shopping list includes new ingredients as well as items copied from the big chalkboard in our house that holds notes and reminders and as we run out of supplies (contact solution! diaper wipes!) during the week.

The Listing of Groceries

The shopping list is also grouped in terms of grocery store layout. You know your grocery store as well as I do mine, so group it in the way you shop. It saves oodles of time.

(My grocery list is grouped: Vegetables, Meat, Pantry, Non-foods, Dairy, Bakery.)

Now I’m not going to pretend I always only go to the store once a week. We house a tiny almond milk addict as well as a handsome dairy milk addict. We eat roughly 89 eggs a week. We’re going to run out sometimes.

But by making this effort, I keep my trips minimal. I do my best.

Meal planning, the details

I pick up groceries, I bring them home, I put them away.
You know how it is.

Shopping only once a week makes the unloadening quite a trial. (Though it always takes less time than I think it will.)

I still have my list, you know. It’s the ugliest piece of paper you ever did see. By this time in the meal planning process it’s a mess for sure — crunched, scratched off and pocketed.

It’s not until the very end of my weekly meal planning project that I make the meal plan look nice. Copying it onto the piece of paper I post for the week, I tape it up on our calendar.

(We used to put it on the fridge, but now our fridge takes no magnets.)

Sometimes it takes me more than one try to make my meal plan look the way I want. This used to cause lots of internal friction. (“I’m being a perfectionist! I should just be happy with it the way it is!”)

But then I made peace with my process. Heck, it’s public in our home and I look at it several times a week (day!). If I want to avoid that familiar pang of disappointment, I’ll take the time to make it look the way I want it.

(Pssst. Are you feeling a pang of disappointment about a trivial, visual something? Do something about it! Today! I promise it’ll take less effort than you think and the payoff will be big.)

If it’s Sunday, I get to cooking and preparing.

On the evening before I go to the city, I set up the coffee, make the lunches, know what the girls will be eating for breakfast, usually have my lunch ready and dinner for that night is either made or very close to made.

I know, I know, it seems like a lot.
But it’s setting us up to make fewer choices when our brains are tired and overloaded.
It’s setting us up to make healthier choices at those tricky times.
And best yet, it’s setting us up to save a little money.

Now if only lunch were so easy — by the way, what are you eating for lunch these days? How do you feel about it?

Comments on Helen Jane finishes her meal planning lesson

  1. I love making new recpies. Often I will challenge myself: Make dinner from this cookbook for one week. Only use recipes you find at that website. Vegetarian for one week. Try at least one vegetable you have never prepared before. It’s fun. And if it does not work out – hey, we can always get pizza. ^^

    (And since you asked – the BF and I take dinner leftovers to work these days. Once it’s warmer again, I think I may switch to salads.)

  2. Pinterest has become my source for new recipes at the moment 🙂
    I pin to an inspiration folder, move to a different folder once I’ve made it AND make sure to comment on whether we liked/disliked/need to change something about it

  3. Lunch I feel like is the easiest of all meals. I either eat leftovers or I have a work drawer full of cans of soup, tuna fish, sweet potatos and snacks like nuts and fiber bars. That way I don’t have to be tempted to go out to grab a lunch that is unhealthy or too expensive.

  4. I think you have inspired me to finally go through all my cook books and actually use some of the recipes. (My grandmother and mother are total hoarders and love to cook so I have a bagillionandsix cook books from like the 1800’s up until the ’90s haha.) I have tried and tried to make a meal plan, but my biggest down fall at this point is laziness during the week AND forgetting important ingredients. Also I tend to go crazy and want to plan for the whole month. (SUPER BUDGET!) But… it fails, so really it’s just a run in frustration.

  5. Lunch for me lately is hummus (trader joe’s garlic) with a variety of things to go with it, carrots, celery, cucumber, and bagel chips, also yogurt, and some kind of fruit. This week I’m adding homemade stomboli to spice things up.

  6. Lunch is a tricky meal for me because I take a medication that kills my appetite for 10 hours at a time. So I eat a big breakfast and big dinner but a tiny lunch… like yogurt and a lean cuisine, if that. Today I had a coffee. (I know… I know…)
    I am now inspired to try as many new recipes as I can and figure out which ones can be frozen. The plus side to the single life is being able to cook and eat whatever I like. (I dated a picky eater once… I salute you ladies and gents living with picky people!) The only real downside to being single, in my mind, is portions. I really hate wasting food ><
    For dinner tonight is Jajangmyeon (noodles with black bean sauce from South Korea)

  7. My partner and I eat a lot of tuna fish sandwiches for lunch. Sometimes lunch is an ordeal, sometimes it’s “I have 10 minutes to prep something that can go on the bus while you shower before work.” I’ll make him a sandwich and then after he gets out the door I’ll try to make something for myself. More often than not, those are the days I don’t eat. I have trouble eating by myself. Tuna I’ll sometimes eat by myself, but only because I share the liquid with the cats and can occasionally trick myself into thinking I’m not eating alone.

    I have discovered, though, that if I have chips and dip in the house I’ll almost always eat it. Sometimes that means “Chippy Dippy” which is nachos in a bowl, AKA put all the toppings in a bowl and eat it like dip. Sometimes it’s hummus and pita, and if I’m getting really fancy I’ll put toppings on the hummus too. Rarely, I will heat up some sort of leftovers-type-thing.

  8. I make a big salad on Sunday night with all my favorite vegetables plus a can of tuna and a can of low sodium kidney beans. I divide it up into 5 Tupperware containers and as long as I keep them at the bottom of the fridge with no dressing they stay good for the whole week. I use olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and a splash of Tabasco for dressing and I carry my dressing mix in one of those plastic film canisters. It’s the perfect size and has a pretty good seal. I even make my lunches like this now that I work from home because it’s so nice to have a healthy salad ready to go so I don’t have to stop and make something.

  9. Hi.

    I’m working on creating a meal planning process myself. It is surprisingly harder than one would think but so necessary. Thanks for the tip about making a list of what you already have… I hadn’t thought of that.

    I was wondering about the 89 eggs a week though. That is like 7.41 dozens of eggs or 22.25 eggs per person in your household. I was wondering what recipes you were using or if eggs was just a quick, easy thing for family to prepare.

    Thanks. Going to make my messy, dirty list now… 🙂

    • That was a little exaggeration on my part, but the girls eat 3 a day, I eat 1 and my husband eats 2. Then there are eggs for the random baking and meal. Six eggs a DAY on average. Bah!

      (We also supplement with eggs from our poultry raising friend Bryce.)

  10. My lunch is generally a backpack style lunchbox that is full of food to take me from 3:45am to anytime between noon and 6. So I always pack breakfast, lunch and snacks. Banana and peanut butter, apple slices, yogurt, trail mix and either the ingredients for a pita sammich or my personal favorite lunch-cottage cheese with blue cheese crumbles, diced tomatoes, and sunflower seeds. Yum.

  11. Great meal planning advice! My husband and I have been using this method for about 10 years and we can practically do it in our sleep. It got a little trickier when we started getting our veggies from our CSA mid-week but still did grocery shopping Sunday.

    As for lunches, I usually just pack leftovers. It’s quick and easy, but sometimes I get sick of dishes that make a lot for our family of 3 (like lasagne or soup).

  12. Lunch for me needs to be warm and filling. I don’t eat much breakfast, so by lunch I’m cold and hungry and it needs to last for a long time. Recently, I just started actually packing my own lunches (hooray, meal planning!) and one of the best ones is meat and veggies over rice. You can make it way in advance and refrigerate or freeze as necessary, it’s easy to prepare, fills me up, it’s warm (have to microwave at work), and delicious.

    My favorite is zuchini, yellow squash, onions, and ground beef all cooked together (includes boullion -sp?- flavored broth) over rice, or green beans, canned tomatoes, onions, and ground beef (again keep the tomato-y sauce) over rice.

  13. Thanks for this! Because of an impromtu Vegas trip next month I’m trying to not buy many groceries till next paycheck. Wow. It’s amazing how much healthier and how much cheaper meal planning makes my menus! It also forces one to be creative. I didn’t realize how much food we have around that we just haven’t been eating.

    (Lunches are usually turkey or tuna sandwiches I make for husband with carrots and some fruit from our fruit trees, and soup/salad for me. Soup is sometimes canned, sometimes homemade and frozen. I also love hard boiled eggs – they are portable single-serving protein.)

    Shopping List: Ground turkey, 1/2 lb beef, cheddar cheese, eggs. One tomato, one potato, a baggie of carrots.
    Maybe a bag of spinach for salad if we run low.

    Last night (Sunday): grilled portablello mushroom sandwiches with arugala, garden tomatoes and balsamic-garlic reduction; pepper and onion skewers, salad.

    Tonight (Monday): Grilled chicken breasts with green salad

    Tuesday: Tofu curry with coconut milk and veggies

    Wednesday: Rice pasta with veggies and marinara

    Thursday: Baked chicken with brown rice, salad

    Friday: Slow-cooked beef stew (which we’ll pick at as leftovers over the weekend.)

    Weekend: Grilled cheese sandwiches, homemade chicken soup. Gluten-free pancakes, eggs. We’ll probably have at least one dinner or lunch out.

    Monday: Ground turkey tacos.

    Tuesday: Payday!

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