Every Saturday morning, my usual routine is to wake up, have a cup of coffee and create a meal plan for the week. God forbid I don’t create one, my life the following work week is chaos. I get super stressed out as to what we’ll have for dinner, and worse yet what I’ll eat for lunch. My office is in a pretty desolate, warehouse area so food options (especially vegan ones) are hard to come by. My meal planning makes my work week stress free, plus it also keeps us eating healthy which is important to us.
I have a pretty specific system I’ve developed for myself over the years that works great for me, so I figured I’d share it.
Step One: A Great Recipe Bank
I’m very specific with the types of recipes I collect. My husband and I are total foodies, so the recipe has to yield a product that tastes better than anything we’d eat going out or getting takeout. Also, because of my work schedule, I try to keep recipes preparation time at max 20-30 minutes. The only exception to this are weekend recipes that might have an hour or so baking/simmering time, so I can do other chores around the house while our dinner cooks. These recipes don’t work for me during the week, because I’m often ravenous after an 10 hour work day plus my workout.
I’m always on the lookout for great recipes and have figured out a great system for keeping them all in the same place. A long time ago I set myself up with an Evernote account. If you’ve never heard of Evernote, it’s a great service that allows you to clip and create notes that you can sync to multiple devices and the internet. So if I find a great recipe online, I can using their browser tool easily clip the recipe to my account. If a friend emails me a recipe they think I’d like (which happens pretty often, any time anyone see’s anything that says “vegan” they send it to me) I can easily forward the email to my Evernote assigned email address for it to be stored in my account. For recipes I have in cookbooks I love, I can either take a cell phone picture, or even scan the page into my computer and send it to my Evernote account.
Once I have the recipe in my Evernote account, I’ll then tag it so it’s easy to locate at a later date. I’ll usually tag the type of recipe, whether it’s breakfast/lunch/dinner appropriate, cooking method (bake, slow cooker, etc) and how long it takes. Also after I try a recipe, if it’s one both Jim and I really like I’ll then tag it as a “keeper”, so I know it’s worth repeating. Using this system literally takes minutes to collect interesting recipes so I have a great database to work with.
Another great perk for me using Evernote is if I’m stuck at the office late one day unexpectedly, Jim will often offer to cook the planned dinner for us. So I can just email him the recipe for the day without having him hassle finding the recipe on the internet or searching through a cook book. It makes the meal planning system super flexible.
Step Two: Organizing Your Week
First thing I’ll do after getting my coffee ready for my planning session is get out my clipboard and meal planning worksheet. I created this worksheet for myself a while ago. I designed it to look nice on my fridge, and to suit the way I like to plan. My list has a chart for Monday through Friday, and includes two additional boxes: one for the entire weekend and one for breakfasts/snacks. Being I’m only buying for myself and Jim, I’ll usually only do one recipe an evening, since we’ll eat the leftovers the following day for lunch. Then I like to have a variety of options on hand for snacks or breakfasts, so Jim and I can choose whatever we feel like that day. It’s very mix and match friendly.
From there I then take a look at my schedule for the upcoming week. Do I have any business dinners on the calendar (in which case I have to get Jim something easy to make that evening)? Or do we have any after work events or dinners planned with friends in which case we won’t need to eat at home? I fill out anything where I won’t need dinner on the chart (example: So and So’s Birthday Party) so I know I won’t need to fill in an option for that date. Once I have that all filled out, I know what sort of recipes I need to look for that week.
Step Three: Working with What You Have
The next thing I’ll do is scour my fridge and pantry to see what I have on hand. An excellent way to save money on your groceries as well as to reduce waste is to cook with what you currently have on hand. So if I find I have a big bag of polenta, I’ll find a polenta based recipe. If I have a lot of corn leftover from my CSA, I’ll look for something that has corn as the main ingredient. I’ll also usually try to create recipes around pantry items I always keep around. Good examples of this would be bean based dishes, dishes based around grains I might have on hand, pasta dishes, etc.
Jim and I are also members of our local CSA. If it’s a CSA pickup day (which is on Saturdays), I’ll pick up our share in the morning prior to planning and then plan my meals for the week around my share and what I currently have on hand in our pantry.
My worksheet is designed to have the shopping list on the bottom of it, so I’ll write these items I have on hand that I’m basing my recipes around on the list. That way it’s easy to visually look to know what I’m working with, and easy to add the additional items I’ll need to finish the recipes.
Step Four: Finding Recipes to Make for the Week
Because Evernote is a OCR based service, it’ll search my entire notes including pictures for whatever word I want to search for. So all I have to do is type in “corn” and anything I have in my recipe notebook that has corn in it will show up. So using what I have on hand as a starting point, I’ll start to look for recipes that suit what I have on hand, as well as what time I have to make them during the week. When I find something I like, I fill it out on the chart.
Step Five: Creating the Shopping List
Immediately after filling out a recipe option on my chart, I’ll then write down whatever items I need to make it on my shopping list at the bottom of the worksheet. Once all my worksheet boxes are filled in and my list is completed, I’m ready to shop!
Step Six: Shopping
Once my list is completed, I then have everything ready to shop. If I’m crunched for time (like if I didn’t plan my meals the week prior) I’ll run out to our local grocery and health food store the same day and pick up what we need. If I’m starting my plan on Monday, I’ll place an online order on Fresh Direct and have it delivered to me. While I love Fresh Direct, they sometimes don’t have all the vegan products I want so I’ll often have to stop by my local stores to pick those few items up, but that’s easy to do quickly granted I have the list on me.
Once all my shopping is done and my fridge and pantry is stocked, I put the worksheet on the fridge so Jim and I are both aware of everything we have on hand, and what we’re eating during the week. I’ll also take a quick cell phone snapshot of the list and store it to Evernote so I can access it from work if need be.
Start to finish, this entire process takes about an hour to plan my meals via the worksheet and create the shopping list, plus whatever time it takes me to shop. It’s a minor time investment that saves me hours during the week, pounds from my figure and unneeded stress. I love it.
Step Seven (Optional): Prep
If I have some extra time that day, or if I have a crazy work week coming up, I’ll clean and prep all my veggies in advance. I’ll store everything in glass snap lock containers in my fridge so then when it’s time to cook, I don’t have to chop a thing. I don’t always have time for this so if I don’t prep in advance it doesn’t add that much to my cooking time and I can live with it.
Additional Timesaving Tips
Here’s a few other things I’ll do to make feeding myself and my husband a breeze.
- Double and Freeze Recipes- I do this all the time if making a soup or a casserole. If you think about it, it takes the same amount of time to make double the amount of food in a recipe as it takes to make a single recipe. So if I’m making a soup or a casserole, I’ll always double it and freeze half. For soups you can either freeze single portions in freezer baggies or freeze it in a batch in a freezer proof container. For casseroles (my favorite in the winter), I’ll just make two and freeze the second one prior to the bake/broil step. I line the caserrole DISH with foil and after it’s frozen pop the whole thing out and store it in the freezer that way. To heat it up, take it out of the freezer, unwrap the foil a pop it back in the casserole tray and bake it for double the amount of time in the recipe. For soups, when ready to eat it just take it out then night prior and put it in the fridge to defrost and it’ll be ready for dinner the following evening.
- Foolproof Quick Dinners- If I have a crazy week coming up, or if I’m getting ready to do a cleanse I love doing this combination for recipes. Pick a grain, vegetable, protein and a sauce. Combine all in a bowl and serve. Yum! When doing this I’ll make a large batch of grain choices to store in the fridge to choose from. Then I just steam the veggies all in one steamer basket, add my protein (pre-baked tofu, tempeh, or beans) and sauce and I’m good to go. Takes around 10 minutes to put together.
- Built In Takeout Night- Because my schedule can be hectic and unpredictable, I’ll often times automatically build into my weekly plan a bonus “takeout” night. Since I’m not buying groceries for food for that evening, I use those monies to budget for takeout. That way if I’m really tired I don’t have to stress out about wasted groceries or wasted money on takeout. It’s all pre-planned.
- Vitamix- I just invested in a Vitamix blender, and I don’t know how I lived without it. It takes the place of a bunch of other appliances (it blends, chops, and even kneads dough!) which makes it perfect for small space kitchens like mine. It’s also super quick to clean (just blend water and some dish soap on high, it does the work for you). I use it to make smoothies for breakfast, sauces for my “quick dinner” combos and it’ll even make soups you don’t have to heat up. The blender is so powerful when on for 5 minutes it’ll actually start to heat up when it blends. It’s an amazing appliances and a very worthwhile investment.
So that’s my system. Do you have meal planning system? If so what do you do? I know my system when written out may seem a bit OCD but that’s how I roll.