In the Kitchen :: Meal Planning 101

Keeping your family fed is work. There is nothing more frustrating (and expensive and time consuming) than going to the store and buying random stuff only to not know what to do with it when you get home or to have to rush out again for forgotten ingredients to turn your groceries into a full fledged meal.

When I was a senior in college my roommate Curt introduced me to meal planning.  My four roommates and I were spending gobs of money on groceries and our meals were quite scattered.  That is until Curt sat us down and brought order to our collegiate cooking chaos.  Each of my four roommates would cook one dinner a week and we would fend for ourselves Friday, Saturday and Sunday.  We would each pour over our few cookbooks (basically all Molly Katzan books and maybe one Joy of Cooking) and write down the ingredients by Sunday morning and go food shopping Sunday afternoon.  So simple, yet amazing.  And our family style meals turns us into the best of friends as well.

And now many years later, the bones of it are still there.  I still have my Enchanted Broccoli Forest, but rely more on Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson, the Barefoot Contessa and dozens of other cookbook writers.

Every Thursday night I sit with a glass of wine watching 30 Rock leafing through my cookbooks and visiting a few very loved Websites–like Shutterbean,,, and Smitten Kitchen.  I think about what is in season right now and often do a search around that ingredient to come up with a winning recipe.

Image via: (recipe is Mushroom and chile tacos)

I also try to cook one new recipe a week, which is a great way to get one out of a rut we all get into every now and then. I’m also that annoying person who tears interesting recipes out of magazines and has  folder full of them collected over the years that easy falls to the floor if you even slightly bump it. Sigh…

I try to think things through–like if I’m doing a roasted chicken on Sunday, we’ll probably have a salad with the leftover chicken on chicken soup on Monday.  And if something produces a lot–like slow cooker dishes, I’ll put us down for leftovers the following day–which is especially useful if one of us is out that night.

After I make a list of the meals I go through each recipe and write down the needed ingredients.  I often read the recipe twice just to make sure I wrote down all of the ingredients and make sure I feel comfortable doing the steps. And then we grocery shop on Friday.

Image via: Shutterbean  And yeah, this recipe is SO on my meal plan TODAY.

Now, I’d love to say this is fool-proof because of course it’s not. There are many days when I am too tired to cook or forget an ingredient or what have you, but most of the time, I’m really happy about this method. And I’m certainly not the only person to meal plan like this. There are some great templates for menu planning.  Like this one. Or this one. But I prefer my old spiral bound steno pad. Why fix it if it ain’t broke?

My sister in law is the exact opposite. She relys solely on what she gets in her CSA box and plans around that. Or she’ll go the market and fix what she and her family are in the mood for that day.  I wish I was more extemporaneous in looking into my fridge and seeing a world of possibilities. Sigh, but I’m not.

Are you a meal planner or more about scratching your food itch of the moment when you go grocery shopping?


9 thoughts on “In the Kitchen :: Meal Planning 101

  1. We try to plan at least three meals a week (although rarely more than a day in advance). David, for instance, braised a pork shoulder all day last Friday, figuring on making enchiladas, but we didn’t get around to it until Sunday!

    Of course, we used to cook every night, but with the kids we do frozen pizzas and rotisserie chicken at least once a week. Grocery store chickens are great for a “real” meal on the go!

  2. Funny you should post this, my husband and I just had a discussion about meal planning last night. He takes the responsibility of cooking dinner but more times than not he doesn’t have what he needs or he waits for something to go bad and then tells me right before he starts cooking or he simply doesn’t feel like cooking. I’m pregnant so eating out every other night isn’t part of what I consider healthy cooking. Anyway, we have a deal right now that if he misses one meal between now and when the baby is born (approx 9 weeks) then I get back rubs every night. So ya, that’s our meal planning for ya. I’m curious to see the random things he whips up when he’s in a bind to avoid the back rubs. I do offer to help, by the way, but he has yet to take me up on my offer. So yes, meal planning is great in theory. It’s the sticking to it that’s hard!

    1. Ashley, you are my hero for coming up with that back rub strategy.

      It is crazy hard to stick to meal planning at times. When I was pregnant meal planning went out the window because so many times I wouldn’t even know what I wanted to eat! Sigh. And I agree–eating out every night isn’t always healthy eating. Sigh!

  3. I have always wanted to be a meal planning-type of lady, but I’ve only had one successful week of it (which did feel pretty victorious)!

    I am much more like your sister-in-law in that regard. I don’t have a car during the week, and we have a beautiful market nearby and a CSA box, so I wing it every day. I think it can get a lot more expensive this way, and I do try to shop for at least two days at a time, but dinner every night really depends on how I’m feeling and how hard I want to cook!

    I love to look at cookbooks. I haven’t bought a new one in a year, “thanks” to the internet, so I look back through the old ones while I’m eating my lunch sometimes. I also do WW so a lot of our weekday dinners are derived from some of their recipes (when I’m stickin’ to it, not a lot!).

  4. I think I’m turning into a planner – it’s all thanks to Birdie waking up from her late naptimes stark raving hungry! Unfortunately it’s her daddy that’s been in charge of dinner. Which is silly because he doesn’t get home until 6. which means dinnertime is slipping towards 7:30. Ahem, not so hot.
    So I’m debating taking the reins … not sure I want the responsibility either … (I won’t go into the other problem: my constantly shifting food allergies. Which makes the whole thing 10,000 times harder).

  5. Kudos for you rocking the WW–you look amazing, lady!

    I wish I was more extemporaneous like my sister in law and you. I think you feel much more connected to the seasons when you eat like that. One of my closest friends also does that and rocks it so hard, but she’s a much more talented cook than I am. I think you have to be a truly talented cook to eat day by day.

  6. Miss Dottie- Love this post. You’ve now completely confirmed that you are a modern day Wonder-Woman! You’ve inspired me to get a bit more organized in the kitchen. And I thought I was the only person that had the Enchanted Brocolli Forest. 🙂

  7. Oh I so wish I was a planner! We actually are just starting up a new CSA and I think meal planning can still be done. We pick up our box on Sat morning, so I’m thinking planning my meals on Sat and shopping on Sunday is totally do-able. At least here’s hoping! 🙂

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