Meal Planning for Normal People

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It took me until very recently to truly understand just how many people don’t know how to cook. When you know a subject well, it’s easy to forget that other people don’t. In fact, people have recently begun to pay me to cook dinner or lunch for them a few times a week. I had always assumed that if you can read a recipe, you can make that recipe, and it turns out that this isn’t quite the truth – although why it’s not remains somewhat of a mystery to me.

My husband argues that you have to have “the touch” and my customers state that you have to have “a talent”, but the things that I think are most important about cooking and baking are that you enjoy doing it, because I believe that food tastes better when the cook likes food and likes preparing food… and you absolutely have to know how to plan ahead.

I never lie to anyone about the amount of time that I put into food and, other than work, it definitely takes up the largest percentage of time. This was true even before I started making 20-25 portions of food for other people three times a week. Sometimes I have thought that cooking for just my husband and I takes up too much of my energy and my time, and then I remind myself that there really is nothing more important than good health on my personal list of priorities.

Here are some of my tips for planning and preparing meals as efficiently as possible:

  • Store your recipes in one place and work your way through one cookbook at a time. This is a tough one, because if you’re like most people, you have recipes on Pinterest, in cookbooks that you rarely use and in a few that you sometimes use, and recipes that you’ve torn out of magazines. Lately I’ve been using Paprika to control my mess.
  • Consider organizing your meals by theme, such as Meatless Mondays, pasta Tuesdays, fish on Wednesdays, etc.
  • Check out weekly circulars for sales and use electronic coupons if your store offers them. Also consider apps like ibotta and Checkout51.
  • Always make your biggest meal on the day before a busy night, so that you can have leftovers when you don’t have time to cook a meal. And if you have a “thing” about leftovers, I would strongly recommend that you try to get over it. A lot of the foods that I prepare actually taste better on the second day, once the flavors have had time to develop. Leftovers are typically safe for 3-4 days.
  • Cook in a crockpot, and if you can afford one, get a multi-cooker (which allows you to brown vegetables and meat in it before turning on the slow-cooker function).
  • Make twice as much as you need and freeze half of it for later; this works for most soups, sauces, and casseroles.
  • Plan your meals around fresh food that you have on hand – cheese, fruits and vegetables, or herbs, to avoid wasting money.
  • Let other family members have a say in the menu. There’s no point to shopping for the ingredients, making, and cleaning up a meal that only one person enjoys or is even willing to try.
  • Keep a reference list of must-haves in your household that you can quickly reference before heading to the grocery store – things like yogurt, apples, dish soap, and bread might be on your list.
  • Look for ways you can cook once and use twice – for example, cooking chicken and using it for both stir-fry tonight and tacos tomorrow.
  • Don’t be too ambitious – keep a few really fast, shelf stable ingredients on hand such as whole wheat pasta, tortillas, bean soup, brown rice, and frozen vegetables.
  • Once you know your grocery store pretty well, divide your list by section – produce, meat, baking aisle, etc. This will make your shopping trips so much easier and less frustrating.

A few cookbooks that I think are great:

Robin Takes 5: 500 Recipes, 5 Ingredients or Less, 500 Calories or Less, for 5 Nights/Week at 5:00 PM by Robin Miller

Eat What You Love–Everyday!: 200 All-New, Great-Tasting Recipes Low in Sugar, Fat, and Calories by Marlene Koch

Guilt-Free Weeknight Favorites by Mr. Food Test Kitchen.