After overeating for the past two months, people are starting to think about slimming down for summer. Others are cooking more to save money after spending too much over the holidays. If this is you, planning is key. Don’t depend on your willpower to make good decisions all the time. It is far too easy to order pizza or pick up a sandwich from the corner. Instead, use your willpower when you have it to plan ahead for the times you don’t.
Here is what I do.
Shop first, ask questions later
I typically shop first with minimal planning. When we notice we are low on food, we go to the grocery store. I usually have 1-2 meals in mind that I want to make during the following week, but I do not plan a weekly menu in advance. That makes for a stressful trip to the store, especially when something isn’t available.
Instead, I go to the store, see what is on sale, see what looks good, and buy a cart full of tasty, fresh, healthy stuff. Sometimes I have ideas of meals to make while I’m at the store, but I typically don’t worry about meal planning there. This makes grocery shopping a lot less stressful.
Planning after you already have ingredients also lends itself well to the summer. We are involved in a CSA and we never know what our share will include until we pick it up.
Make a list of options
I do my version of meal planning after we’ve gotten home, put everything away, and had a chance to settle down. I treat it as a brainstorming session.
We have this magnetic dry-erase board on our fridge, and on it I write down the best combinations of meals we can make with what we currently have on-hand. I do this for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. When we eat a meal or we use an ingredient listed multiple times, I cross it out. When leftovers come into existence, I add them to the Lunch column.
I don’t typically use recipes when I cook, so for the Dinner Options column I write one protein and one main veggie. We usually add either a second veggie, a small salad, or a starch depending on what we have left in the fridge. If I must use a recipe, I liberally substitute and change quantities depending on what I have on-hand. No need to go to the store a second time. Your meals will still taste good.
You don’t need to plan out what you are going to have each day of the week. Making a strict menu a week in advance has never worked for me because our plans and moods change. Instead, I go with what we have a taste for and what I have the energy to cook that day. I also factor in cooking time and what time Amanda gets home that day.
I usually don’t know what I’m going to cook until the night before or the morning of. Sometimes not until 3pm that day. That’s okay because I have stuff on hand and a list of possible meal options to choose from.
When you are tired, your only defense against eating pizza is keeping healthy options on-hand for every meal.
Keep a well-stocked pantry and fridge
What enables me to be flexible is keeping a well-stocked pantry of staples. I always have enough staples on hand to make a few main ingredients into well-rounded meals. This includes (but is not limited to):
- Beans (Kidney, Black, or Cannellini, usually multiple)
- Garbanzo beans
- Whole peeled San Marzano tomatoes
- Olive oil
- Lots of fresh spices from Penzeys.
- Pine nuts
- Fresh herbs from pots around the house (Thyme, Rosemary, Sage, and Oregano right now)
- Various dried and canned chili peppers, usually ancho and chipotle
- Lemons and Limes
- Chicken stock and Vegetable stock
- Corn tortillas
- Various cheeses, both hard and soft
- About 6 different kinds of hot sauce
- Homemade mayo
- Various homemade pickles (currently cucumbers, turnips, radishes, and beets, all separate)
We live in a one bedroom apartment, and while we have a decently sized kitchen, we don’t have a ton of storage space. I keep a little bit of each of the things above on-hand, usually enough for use in 1-2 meals, then it goes on the “replenish list” for the next round of shopping. This keeps everything fresh and our pantry manageable.
The above list allows me to make an impressive number of meals when you add a protein and a veggie. Sometimes I make spur of the moment meals just with stuff from the pantry. For example, I woke up last Saturday and saw a photo of huevos ranchero on Instagram. I went through my mental checklist to see if we had the ingredients: Corn tortillas, eggs, canned tomatoes, ancho chilies, oregano, cotija cheese, garlic, onions, limes. Yup! The only thing we were missing was cilantro and refried beans, both of which can be left out on short notice. 40 minutes later we had tasty huevos rancheros on the table.
We can also make some pretty good soups from pantry items. On Sunday I took an old ham hock out of the freezer and used it as a base for lentil soup with carrots, onions, celery, garlic, and some frozen veggies.
I do most of the cooking in our household, but I wouldn’t be able to cook nearly as often without Amanda. She is a great helper. I can always count on her to prep veggies while I finish up work, sauté said veggies while I sear the meat I plunked in the sous vide three hours earlier, or do the dishes while I cook.
She also steps in and takes over when I’ve had a demanding day. Whoever has the lowest opportunity cost is the one who makes dinner. Most days that is me because cooking comes more easily to me and I work from home, but sometimes Amanda gets home early and I’m overloaded with work, so she steps in. This is where having the meal options listed on the fridge really helps. She picks an option she likes to cook, asks if I had any particular method in mind, and then knocks it out. She is the best.
After dinner I help her clean up by packing up the leftovers, scraping dishes, and drying things that don’t fit in the drying rack.
Don’t leave your spouse our partner on the hook to do all of the cooking. Teaming up and working together makes a big difference.
“What about when you just don’t have time to cook?!“, you ask. Leftovers, yo.
When I do want to cook, I always make extra food. Sometimes double the amount (4 individual meals instead of 2). If it is a soup or stew, usually 3x or 4x the amount. This serves as our lunches and sometimes as our dinner later in the week if we do not want to cook.
Invest in some tupperware for the fridge and a good vacuum sealer for the freezer to keep things longer and prevent freezer burn.
Leftovers aren’t the only things we freeze. We also buy in bulk when things are on sale and freeze. Usually meat, but sometimes fruits and veggies, too.
We check the “produce rewrap” section each time we go to the store. Last week we picked up 4 bunches of bananas for $3, then cut them up and froze them for smoothies. When we get a ton of one thing in the CSA (like the 30 bell peppers we got over two weeks last year) we chop them up and freeze them in individual-use packets.
We regularly buy high quality whole NY Strips for $4.99/lb. That deal is usually only available during the week (M-Th), so I check the online sale ads when we are running low. I bring home the whole 10-15lb strip, trim off the fat cap, then it into 1.75-2″ steaks and vacuum seal them. We have a small freezer, but we pack it well.
You can also make food ahead of time ahead when you have time and gumption, then freeze. When we see that we have some stuff that will go bad before we are likely to use it, we make a meal with it just to freeze for the future.
If cooking an entirely separate meal is out of the question in your busy life, just double or triple whatever you are making for dinner one night and freeze the rest. We do this a lot with soups. Right now we have these soups in the freezer, just waiting for a day when we are tired or feeling under the weather: Cream of Celery, Butternut Squash, and Lentil & Ham.
Don’t depend on your daily willpower to have healthy, inexpensive meals. Plan ahead.