I want to be ready for that random knock on the door. Or that moment a friend needs a listening ear. I want to be one step ahead on those nights I don't have a creative bone in my body but crave something nourishing. Here's my truth, meal planning and prep is a process. And I believe it's personal, not a one size fits all sort of thing.
With time, I have found a few things that work in our home. And I can say this: the times I sit down and map out our meals makes for a less cranky Maeve. And the week goes much smoother. Plus, we spend less money.
So today, I'm sharing the nitty gritty of our meal planning and processes. I truly hope it helps you & your family in whatever season you're in. As always, you take what you need here & leave the rest!
BEFORE YOU MEAL PLAN
Before I even decide what we're having for the week, I ask myself two questions:
1. What do we already have in the fridge/freezer/pantry that could be eaten or needs to be used?
Chances are, there's some frozen meat hiding in the freezer or veggies tucked away in the fridge or a box of pasta in the pantry. You might have a random can of beans or one sweet potato. Take inventory, pull it all out if you need to. If you follow The Lazy Genius on instagram, she is so good at this & so good at teaching you along the way! I encourage you to take a peek at her live stories, blog & podcast.
I really love this episode on the best way to clean up the kitchen and this post on ways to give back in your community without making it stressful.
If you have a few random bits and aren't sure how to use them - google it. Literally type those ingredients into your search and see what pops up!
2. How can our meals support this week's activities?
In other words, how do we keep from going crazy. If we’re really busy or the husband is working late or I’ve got a few work deadlines or commitments to keep than our meals will reflect that. We will keep things simple. Things that can be made in big, huge batches to feed us throughout the week. Things that require very little fuss or effort. Things like soups, casseroles, and stir fry's. This probably isn’t the week to try out a fancy, new recipe. It might be the perfect week to recycle ones you already know and love.
To the gal who doesn’t think she can cook. You can cook. You can. The best way to learn how to cook is to start cooking. Start with a simple recipe like this one. Or this soup. Or this green curry. And just keep making the same recipe on repeat. Before you know it, you’ll start improvising and adding things that aren’t in the recipe and changing things around and experimenting. You will. Trust me friend. Just start with one, simple recipe you love on repeat.
HOW TO MEAL PLAN
We could probably devote an entire blog post to this one but I’m going to try and keep it short and sweet because there’s already so much helpful information out there. What I’d like to offer is my simple process.
Each week, I use this notepad to meal plan. Why?
It’s magnetic. This notepad sticks to our fridge where both my husband and I can see it. I’ll list not only our meals but if we have plans with friends, a work commitment, or volunteer/church event. I’d recommend listing your “extracurricular activities” first because those might dictate meals.
The grocery list on the right rips off. I take that with me when I shop. Also, as things we use a lot run low (eggs, milk, oatmeal, coffee, olive oil, etc) I’ll write it on the list so I know to get that thing when I go shopping.
If you’re like me and go to multiple different stores for the best deals & finds then I’d recommend rewriting your list and dividing it up by store. Or highlight certain ingredients (red means costco). This way, you aren’t looking up and down a long list while in each store. You go to each store and buy what is needed off that portion of the list. Then you leave and move on. Simple step that saves a lot of time for me.
The list of meals on the right can be ripped off and kept to reuse again. If we had a week that worked really well -- like the meals sort of flowed together (meaning I didn't end up wasting a big bag of kale or bunch of cilantro because I only needed a tiny bit) & everything turned out yummy then you bet we’re going to do that week again. Switch the days and no one will know the difference. I’ll also list things like “defrost soup” or “pull chicken from freezer” to remember throughout the week.
Note: If you find recipes online, make a note on your notepad of where the recipe is or the website name. If I just list “Green Curry” I’ll forget where the recipe was found. I’ll write, “Green Curry - Minimalist Baker”. (recipe + website)
A FEW FAVORITE FOOD BLOGS
- Cookie & Kate
- Oh She Glows
- Faux Martha
- Serious Eats
- The Kitchn
- Minimalist Baker
- Smitten Kitchen
- Against All Grain
- Feast & Dwell
- Skinny Taste
Meal prep does make things easier for the week. Do I always do this? No. Sometimes it's a random scramble to get dinner on the table. And other times, I find the act of chopping vegetables really enjoyable. For those busy weeks where maybe we’re here and there or hosting friends -- prepping veggies & making things ahead makes a huge difference.
A FEW VEGGIES WORTH PREPPING:
Carrots + Celery: cut and slice into smaller sticks -- store in a large Tupperware filled with water. Perfect for dunking in hummus as a snack, roasting (carrots), or chopping into smaller pieces for casseroles & soups.
Brussels Sprouts: We love them around here. But I’ll admit, they are time consuming to slice. Cut the ends off, slice them in half, and place them in the fridge. That way, when it comes time to roasting, all you have to do is place them on a baking sheet & into the oven.
Onions: I don’t like chopping onions. If I know we’ll be using a lot throughout the week, I’d rather cut a bunch at once and keep them stored in a container in the fridge. That way, I can just scoop some out when I’m starting to cook.
Bell Peppers: Cut into thin slices and store in fridge. Like the carrots & celery, they can be a snack, added on top of a salad or tacos for extra crunch or sauteed.
Sweet Potatoes & Butternut Squash: Peel, cut into chunks, and store in the fridge. This way they can be easily roasted for tacos or throw into the mix for a soup/stew.
Another reason I like things all cut up is because if I end up not using something or have some leftover, I can just freeze it easily. Lay slices or chunks on a baking sheet in the freezer and then store in a ziploc bag.
A few resources on storing vegetables:
Okay, I want to walk you through my kitchen. These are the ingredients I typically have on hand because I know they can be used for just about anything. That means, I can easily whip something up on the days I can’t think of anything to make or we spontaneously say yes to hosting someone for dinner.
These are my saving grace.
Add to soups & stews for more flavor.
Throw in with cooked pasta and some fresh garlic, basil & oil/butter for a simple, light dish.
Beans (I typically have chickpeas & black beans on hand)
Warm them on the stove for tacos or quesadillas.
Throw a few chickpeas on top of a salad for extra protein.
Stuffed Sweet Potatoes: saute veggies (broccoli, kale, onion - whatever) in a pan. Add some seasoning (garlic powder, cumin, curry) & add a can of beans (slightly drained). Cook it all up and throw on top of a baked sweet potato.
Fresh Herbs (I love parsley, cilantro & basil)
Sprinkle on top of a salad, baked chicken or fish for extra flavor.
Mixed in any soup or stew.
I'll often toss leftover herbs in with cooked rice for extra flavor. One of my favorite combinations is brown rice cooked with a spoonful of coconut oil with cilantro & coconut flakes mixed in at the end.
Rice or Quinoa
Serve with curry or stir fry.
Instead of mashed potatoes on top of a shepherds pie, use quinoa.
Make this quinoa salad
Roast with chili powder & cumin for tacos.
Add to any soup or stew.
Slice and roast as a side for burgers -- better yet, make into french fries.
Bake and stuff with veggies to make a loaded potato.
Onion & Garlic
I always say, when you don’t know where to begin -- start with onion and garlic in a pan. And somehow, the rest will fall into place.
Black bean Burgers
I keep these on hand for those nights I don’t feel like making anything. It’s cheaper than going out & with a side of homemade sweet potato fries tastes pretty darn good.
Meat Protein - chicken breast, ground beef or fish.
You’ll typically find some chicken breast or ground beef in my freezer. That way I can just pull it out and defrost as needed.
Fresh & Frozen Vegetables
I like fresh broccoli, brussels sprouts, kale, & cabbage
Spices (most frequently used)
Salt + Pep
When I open my fridge, sometimes I see things to make & other times I’m at a complete loss. I want to bring you inside my head and tell you what I typically see when I’ve got these random bits around. Maybe it'll help?
Broccoli + black beans + sweet potato = baked sweet potato stuffed with sauteed broccoli & black beans seasoned with cumin.
Random veggies + tomato sauce/diced tomatoes + ground beef + quinoa = pseudo shepherd's pie. Saute veggies & ground beef in dutch oven, add tomato sauce, top with cooked quinoa & bake in oven until bubbly. Broil for last few minutes to brown on top.
Cabbage + ground beef = homemade meatballs with roasted cabbage.
Pesto + broth + chicken + noodles + carrots = chicken noodle soup with fresh pesto mixed in.
Corn tortillas + sweet potato + black beans = sweet potato & black bean tacos or quesadillas
Coconut milk + chickpeas + diced tomatoes + rice = chickpea curry
Lemon + fresh herbs + fish + random vegetable = sprinkle fish with garlic & onion powder, lay a lemon slice on top. Bake in oven. Roast vegetables. Sprinkle fish with fresh herbs (cilantro, basil, parsley)
Broth + can of tuna + random veggies + pasta = tuna noodle casserole.
Kielbasa/sausage + kale + sweet potatoes = slice it all up, throw it on a baking sheet, drizzle with olive oil, salt & pep and roast.
Gathering and welcoming people in doesn't have to be a big ordeal. I wrote a whole post on the myths I'm working hard to let go of when it comes to hospitality. Sometimes, a simple cup of tea can be all someone needs or wants. Besides a meal around the table, I like having a few things around to welcome people in on a moments notice.
- Candle: I usually have one or two candles that remind me of that season. It's a physical reminder for me to slow down & breathe in deep and I think it invites others to do the same.
- Assortment of Teas: A cup of tea is my favorite offering. So many varieties to choose from & it's something simple (and cheap) we can all do. I like to have a few traditional teas (black, chai, earl grey) and herbals around.
- Treat: Maybe it's a chocolate bar or a bag of frozen cookies in the freezer that just need to be baked. During the summer, I'll stash a few Popsicle or ice cream in the freezer for sharing.
- Soup: If you make a big batch and freeze half, you'll always have a simple meal to offer. Toss up a salad & buy a loaf of bread and you're done.
Phew, if you stayed until the end -- THANK YOU! I really hope this post serves you well. Particularly during this season of gathering and welcoming people in. I so enjoyed putting it together for you!
Wishing you & yours a very Merry Christmas!