How I (Loosely) Meal Plan

Sometimes I meal plan, sometimes I don’t. When I have free weekend mornings (which are important for my mental health, so I try to have them as much as possible), I like to sit down with my calendar, think about what’s in my fridge, make a food plan for the week, then go grocery shopping.

My schedule shapes my plan, of course. I have a general meal plan template for the week based on my typical schedule. For example, when I can, I like to make something with lots of leftover on Sundays (whether it’s crockpot shredded meat that I can then add to recipes throughout the week, some sort of casserole, meatballs, or soup that freezes well). I currently telework Tuesdays and Thursdays, which allows me to stay up later on Mondays and Wednesdays, so I’ll often plan to make meals those nights, unless I have other plans. (I actually often have plans on Wednesday evenings, so can’t always cook those nights. I meet up with my best friend for coffee in DC after work every other Wednesday so get home later, and about once a month or so I have book club on a not-coffee Wednesday.) I also have time Tuesday and Thursday mornings to make breakfast rather than needing one ready. I recently decided that I would like to incorporate more fish into my diet, so I aim for one of those weeknight meals to include fish.

My default when I don’t meal plan is to make sure I have staples in the house:

  • vegetables to roast (broccoli, asparagus, root vegetables, brussels sprouts)
  • leafy green like spinach, sometimes kale
  • easy protein (chicken sausages, leftover frozen shredded meat, boneless/skinless chicken thighs or breasts that I can bake in a pinch, frozen salmon fillets). I almost always have frozen chicken thighs and breasts and ground beef in the freezer because Dan gets it for me at CostCo every time he goes.
  • starchy vegetable, usually potatoes (sweet or not)
  • eggs
  • peppers and onions
  • fresh fruit and smoothie staples (frozen fruit, bananas, coconut milk or yogurt, etc.)

With these, I can make a breakfast scramble of eggs, spinach, onions, and peppers, which is my go-to breakfast most telework days and weekends. Depending on my activity level, I’ll often try to add a starchy vegetable. Occasionally when I’m feeling decadent, I’ll add a meat (sausage, bacon) and/or avocado. This morning (a weekend), I had leftover roasted butternut squash on the side of three fried eggs cooked over sautéed spinach. On non-telework days, for breakfast, I typically heat up a chicken sausage or eat pre-made hard boiled eggs, and combine it with something else – lately, pre-made smoothies that I take out of the freezer the night before. I can also make lunches of a salad of leafy greens topped with various things like peppers, roasted vegetables and/or starchy vegetable, and easy protein (which, if you’ve seen my recent Instagram posts, I do regularly). And I can make dinners of an easy protein (baked chicken, broiled salmon, chicken sausage) with a side of roasted vegetables and/or starchy vegetable. I also usually have frozen leftovers from previous weeks that I can rely on if I don’t want to or have time to cook.

That all works when I don’t have time or motivation to plan, but it can get a little repetitive, and I like to cook and try new recipes. So when I do sit down to plan, I’ll often deliberately include the meals described above into my plan, usually with specifics noted (Monday: salmon, Tuesday: chicken) and make sure that I get those items at the grocery store if I don’t have them already. Sometimes the specifics I choose are based on what I have left over from the previous week, especially produce, or what I’ve received in my Hungry Harvest box on Saturday morning. That’s also a starting place for recipes I choose. For example, I bought mint last week. Why? Stupid really – I had been looking for it a few weeks ago and couldn’t find any (see post on Basil Vinaigrette), so when I DID see it, I bought it. But I didn’t have a plan for using it, and now it’s in my fridge, going bad. Need to use it. Also, I got an eggplant in my box this morning. I wouldn’t typically seek out an eggplant, but since I have it, I’ll want to use it. So I’ll look for recipes to use those two things.

When I do plan, I’d say I only plan one to two recipes a week and rely on my defaults or leftovers the rest of the week. One of those recipes is often made on Sundays with leftovers for the week. That might provide dinner on Sunday, or the sole purpose may be to eat through the week. If it’s the latter, I might also make a recipe that’s just for Sunday dinner, often one that doesn’t lend itself to leftovers as well (either because it’s best fresh – generous salads – or just doesn’t make a lot of leftovers). And I might make a recipe one other night of the week. So I guess that’s up to three recipes a week, but usually life gets in the way, and I don’t actually do that many.

So then it’s a matter of determining which recipes I want to make. As I mentioned, sometimes that’s driven by ingredients I have on hand, so I’ll just google recipes with those ingredients. (A Google search of ‘mint eggplant recipe’ just brought up tons of roasted/grilled eggplant with mint recipes. That’s the sort of thing that probably wouldn’t be as good as leftovers.) I also follow several bloggers and podcasters, mostly paleo ones that I’ve mentioned before like Paleomg, Fed&Fit, BalancedBites, Lexi’s Clean Kitchen, and I might hear about one of their recipes that I’d like to make. This week, I came across a recipe for Moroccan Turkey Meatballs on goop and recipes 20 Spring Salads on The Everygirl, several of which I saved to make. The meatballs would be a good recipe to have some leftovers. Meatballs usually freeze well. The salads are advertised for being meal-prep-friendly, so I might consider making them in salad jars for lunch for the week.

So this is how my week looked before meal planning:

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I love this Ink+Volt planner, but I wish it started the week on Sunday, because that’s usually how I think about my week: Sundays are prep for the rest of the week. Most of my planning is actually for Sunday, so not pictured below. Tomorrow, I am running a trail half marathon (hence not being sure if I’ll go to CrossFit on Monday morning), but I expect to be home by early afternoon, which still gives me time to make food. I have plans Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday nights, so don’t need to think about those nights (on Wednesday, I’ll likely get food – Chop’t? – at Union Station before heading home on the train). Next Sunday I’ll be totally free, but I don’t usually plan this far ahead for next Sunday. I’ll think about that next Sunday :-). Sometimes I take Dan into account, usually I don’t. It’s hard to keep track of whether we’ll both be home in an evening, and generally anything I make can feed two people, so it’s fine either way.

Below is the result of my meal planning. Not every meal is filled in. I’ll just use my defaults there. Not pictured: Sunday (tomorrow), I’ll make gp’s meatballs and roasted eggplant and mint for dinner. (I wouldn’t normally white things out – I’d just cross them out if I changed my mind – but I used white out for your benefit :-)).

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These are the recipes I’m planning to use:

One last piece of my meal prep process: I use Evernote to collect, tag, and make notes on recipes. I clip webpages of recipes, tag them with things like ‘want to make’ plus other relevant tags, and then rely on that rather than the website when I’m making them. After making, I also take notes on the substitutions I made, how it turned out, whether I liked it, and the nutrition info if I try to calculate it.

So that’s it!

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