Meal planning is a terrible chore in my books – it requires planning ahead, knowing what it is that you might or might not want to eat, buying a boatload of groceries in one go and then spending 3-4 hours by the stove getting all that food prepared. But I do it anyway, week in and week out. Sometimes I even do it for two weeks in advance because my schedule is crazy. And I have some really good reasons to keep at it:
- Meal planning reduces my food costs significantly
- Meal planning allows me a strict quality control over the ingredients which go into my food
- Meal prep allows me to eat the food I enjoy and want daily
- Having healthy meals at hand at any given time keeps me slender and healthy
- Having meals at the ready saves me a lot of time which I in turn spend doing things I actually enjoy
There are two methods I employ when meal planning. The first one, which I often refer to as my cheapskate plan, is based around the ingredients already available in my pantry, fridge and freezer. You could call it shelf cooking (see Jordan Page’s article here for more information). The second method is a little more frivolous and goes like this: what do I fancy eating today? Of course, you can’t plan a whole week’s worth of foods around just that, keep reading to find out how I make this work.
Ingredient-based meal planning
Before we get into my ‘fancy’ method, let’s start with the more economical one. For this method, I go around my kitchen and note down the food I already have in the house. Often, I find that I have enough ingredients on hand to make complete dishes – this is great especially when I am hoping to cut my costs.
As example, if you have some dried pasta, a can of chopped tomatoes, a clove of garlic and some herbs, you can make a kick-ass pasta dish which will be much nicer to anything you might buy readily made. If you have a bunch of beans and some carrots, vegan chili might be calling. But sometimes you just have a jar of picked onions and no idea what to do with it?
I get that too. That’s what google is for friends – there is no shame in looking up ‘what to cook with picked onions’ in search for an inspiration and you will find me do that once in a while. Turns out, pickled onions make for an excellent garnish for burgers and also go great with tacos. Have some red kidney beans or garbanzo beans in the pantry? Ever tried a bean burger with pickled onions?
Honestly it can be a little challenging to get started with ingredient-based meal planning especially when you are also trying to keep your diet healthy and balanced. But it is entirely possible and doesn’t mean that you will end up eating a miserable casserole every day for the next 7 days. As a matter of fact, if you are eating a miserable casserole all week, you are missing the point.
Let’s get back to noting down what I have available though. Can I make a good meal with what I have? If not, what am I missing to make a balanced meal, or five? The basics of a balanced meal are simple: ¼ of your plate should be protein, ¼ complex carbs and starches, the remaining ½ should be non-starchy, colourful fruit vegetables. If you are a big fan of dairy, it forms part of your protein quarter.
So if I only have rice in the house, I am going shopping for some protein as well as for some vegetables. You can decide your own price point on protein (beans or meat?) and fruit and vegetables (lettuce or kale? or cucumbers?) and on the flavours for your meal (sweet chilli or hearby?). I would not be eating that meal all week, but maybe if I have it on Monday and Thursday, it won’t be boring? And look – I just found some coconut milk in the pantry, could I have some laksa on Tuesday and Friday?
And the same consideration goes for every ingredient. The hardest part is to figure out what you can make with that ingredient, so in addition to using good old google, I will often look for inspiration elsewhere. We’ll get to that at the end of the article.
Meal planning by what you fancy eating
This is my favourite way of meal planning, but it is definitely not as budget friendly as the ingredient-based method. In my case it goes like this – if I had a personal chef who cooks everything I want to eat, whet’s the first thing I’d ask for? And the second? And the third? Would there be a soup? Would there be a dessert? And maybe some nice cheese on rosemary crackers?
Guess what – I have a personal chef and she looks just like me. She knows that I like most of my meals during the week to exclude meat and be full of flavour, and that if I have meat it can’t be just a sad piece of dry chicken breast. She knows that I can’t have too much dairy, BUT I will make an occasional exception for a really nice, delicate mozzarella or comte. She also knows that I could live on cherries and raspberries right through the summer, but she won’t let me because they don’t provide enough iron and your girl as a Chernobyl baby is always a little iron-deficient.
So as my personal chef, I aim to only eat foods which I love, with the caveat that they must comply with what a balanced diet would be. I sometimes have a delicious, creamy chicken pie at work, sometimes I have an amazing avocado and kale salad, other times I might have a moorish soup with some crusty bread. But I already have a backlog of recipes which I love and have learnt how to cook. I also have a backlog of dishes which I want to try and usually every other week I will add something I’ve never made before.
My usual meal plan will incorporate at least 5 different dishes (2 chosen by me, 2 by the boyfriend, 1 we both love) for the week that can be eaten either as lunch or dinner. The dishes aside from being balanced must also be suitable for microwaving. I would not reheat something which has been deep-fried in batter, but no problem with something poached. If I want something deep-fried, like buttermilk chicken for example, I’ll prep everything in advance, including sides, and have it as a dinner at home where it will just take me few minutes to cook the prepped dish, instead of having to make everything from scratch.
My weekly meal plan usually covers 6 days – one day is excluded because we go out for a date night and a team lunch or a friendly brunch at least once per week.
It’s not unusual for me to combine both planning styles and make a couple of dishes based on what I already have in the house and the rest based on what I enjoy. It’s all about striking a balance in my mind, so do what you think you’ll enjoy.
So now you know my two main methods of meal planning. But what I have not covered is how I look for an inspiration for every meal plan. Personally, even though I am very particular about the level of my meals and with an extensive food knowledge, I too get stuck sometimes. If you are only getting started, it can be daunting to think ahead to so many meals, so finding inspiration is a key. Here are some of my favourite sources:
- Youtube: I will honestly say that I find the traditional cooking shows a little boring – instead for inspiration I look for ‘best of’ food videos, in example ‘best of Italian food’ or ‘best of Thai food’ or even ‘best of Polish food’ and subscribe to cooking channels that feature a cuisine that I personally enjoy. If I spot a dish which looks delicious, I’ll make a note of it and find the recipe online.
- Restaurant menus – do you have a favourite restaurant? Do they have a menu? Has somebody out there attempted to replicate what’s on their menu? You get where this is going. I love eating out and will treat myself to a delicious meal once per week or so. This is a great occasion to try something different, so I make a point of ordering something I have not had before where possible (I’ve had a lot of food by now, this is getting harder to be honest). And if you find something you particularly enjoy, take a note of the ingredients listed on the menu and look for similar recipes online.
- Cookbooks and online recipes collections – especially the ones with photos. I have a bunch of cookbooks at home and sometimes I’ll just flip through them or look at the index card in the back to see where a specific ingredient features. Same goes for recipes available online – I usually search by ingredient or dish name and pick recipes which either have a high user ranking or are shown in other way to be popular.
- Instagram – you can find a lot of inspiration on Instagram, but it can sometimes become a total black hole too, so I keep my subscriptions limited to just a small number of chefs whom I’ve been familiar with for a long time, namely Nigella Lawson, Gordon Ramsay and Jun Tanaka (chefjuntanaka), plus a couple more.
- Travel memories – true story, I like to remind myself of the good times. And I have the best times when I’m exploring somewhere new. So can I replicate this amazing massaman curry I had in Thailand? Or the beautiful radish salad I tried in Vilnius? Or the Little Bao’s tempeh bao I had in HK? Or that kick-ass mac & cheese I tried at that little random diner in New Jersey? The answer is yes, yes I can and I will because investing a little bit of time into my food makes me happy, even when it’s a terrible drag while I work on it.
I hope I have given you enough information to get inspired and start meal planning if you haven’t already. And if you are opting for the 2nd planning method, what are your favourite meals this week?