Wednesday, September 14, 2016

My Meal Planning Process

When I first mentioned what my schedule and routine is like lately, I said that I could do a separate post on my meal planning process if that seemed interesting.  And I got feedback that people actually wanted to hear about this so here we are.  Man, sometimes my posts just get out of control.  Maybe that's why I've been a lazy blogger lately and the posts have been fewer and further between - every topic I want to blog about ends up being so damn long!  This is particularly detailed but I didn't want to leave anything out, so if you're still curious how I go about meal planning, read on:

I sit down on Sundays, sometimes Saturdays, and figure out dinners for the week.  This is the part that actually takes planning, so that's why it's listed first.  It's also pretty much the only part I actively plan.  I select all our meals from my 'recipes' Pinterest board.  The one area where it's a little tricky is the fact that I'm a vegetarian (mostly vegan) and John is most definitely not.  He has to have meat every day.  I pick what to make him for dinner and then tweak whatever I need to to make sure I can eat most of it too.  (I'll explain.)

I do not plan 7 dinners - I only plan 4 or 5, the 5th being grilling out when the weather is nice.  Otherwise, 4 seems to work for us!  John likes pizza pretty much once a week and eventually I'll learn how to make dough and do pizzas at home, but for now we (a) always have a frozen one on hand and (b) live in Chicago, land of the pizza options.  So we'll just order it in on Fridays.  Saturdays it seems we always have plans, and they always involve being out somewhere for dinner.  And Sunday we always have leftovers on hand.  So I only plan on actively making dinner Monday-Thursday.

While it's not organized on my Pinterest board, I do have the recipes mentally organized by type - Italian/Greek, Mexican, Asian, or American.  Pretty much everything we like falls into those categories.  I try to pick one from each category each week, so we aren't having stir fry 4 nights in a row.  I get John's input if he's feeling like anything in particular, and then I check the cabinets to see what we have on hand.  We tend not to over shop, so I don't stockpile things. But for things like ketchup or teriyaki sauce, I don't use an entire bottle in one recipe, so I make note of what is already opened and in the fridge, ready to get used up, and pick recipes that use those ingredients.  If you buy meat at the store, this is when you would check the circulars and see what meat is on sale, and plan the meals based off of that.  I buy the stuff in bulk from local farms because it's fresher, healthier, and the animals are free range and not treated cruelly.  It's slightly more expensive but not by much if you have a deep freezer to store bulk meat.  (Which you should, for ultimate price savings.)  If you buy organic and lean anyway, you won't even notice a price difference.  As a vegetarian, I'd rather not buy it at all, but since John won't budge, I feel better about buying meat this way.

Anyway, I try to vary these 4 meals as much as possible - using different meats and flavors as well as making sure it's not something we had just last week.  Although tacos make a regular appearance, let's be honest.  I also try to make at least 1 very easy (like the tacos), but usually it's 2 easy ones, 2 tougher ones.  To be perfectly honest, none of the recipes I make are that difficult.  I search on Pinterest and if something has 10+ ingredients, I skip it.  Seriously.  We're not crazy foodies, so it doesn't matter to us.  But some recipes might be more difficult simply in the time it takes to get everything cooked.

So in practice, week 1 might look like: spaghetti and meatballs, ground beef tacos, pork chops, and chicken stir fry with rice.  To make it veggie friendly, I'd skip the meatballs, only put beans and other toppings on my tacos, make my own veggie burgers (frozen ones from Morningstar) instead of pork chops, and skip the chicken in the stir fry and stick to the veggies and rice - exactly what I'd do in a restaurant. The tacos and pork chops are easy, the meatballs and stir fry would take more time.  Week 2 might look like: sausage and spinach gnocchi, chicken burrito bowls, sloppy joes, and teriyaki pulled pork.  Pulled pork is a crockpot dish, so that's easy, as are sloppy joes.  The other two take more time.  Same rules would apply for just skipping the meat and sticking to the veggie and starch/grain portion of the meal.  Makes sense, right?  

As for side dishes, I try to stick to what I learned from the Food Nanny - one starch, two vegetables.  If those things are already included in the dish, like tacos, I don't bother.  Though we do try to eat salad with tacos, to get extra veggies.  Starches would be pasta, rice/quinoa, potatoes, or bread.  For the veggies I like to pretend that we do one raw and one cooked for each meal, but unless it's salad we are just not raw veggie people.  Our sides are never complicated - with spaghetti I make garlic bread and salad.  With pork chops come baked potatoes, roasted broccoli, and corn on the cob.  With teriyaki pulled pork, I make steamed vegetables and roasted red potatoes all tossed in the same teriyaki sauce.  I do check the store circular to see which veggies are on sale, and if everything is too expensive, I'll just grab frozen options.

I don't tie myself to making a certain dish a certain night.  If I can prep stuff on the weekend (besides defrosting the meat, which I always do), like chopping veggies, I do that, but otherwise, I prep dinner in the mornings.  Remember I wake up almost 3 hours before I have to leave for work.  So as long as I have the ingredients for 4 dinners, I make them as I feel like it. (Or plan the meat heavy ones, like pork chops, for week nights where I might plan a dinner with a friend after work - John cooks his own pork chops anyway!)

We grocery shop on Sundays, so as soon as I make my dinner plan, I get a notebook or paper and write out all the ingredients for each dish as well as the sides.  Since I make simple dishes this doesn't take long!  I check the cabinets and fridge and cross off anything we already have.  I put the final list of supplies into the Reminders section of my phone, trying to keep it organized by item type (like all produce together.)  I add in any breakfast and lunch necessities and we hit the store!  We're in and out super quick so I can get back and prep some things for the week.

Breakfast is super simple in our house - I don't eat it.  I know I should but I just... don't.  Makes me nauseous to eat before, like, 11 and it always has so whatever.  I just have my coffee.  John is also simple in that he'll always eat the same thing.  I think since we've moved in in May, all he's had is Greek yogurt with berries and protein granola.  He likes the routine.  In the colder months when berries are so expensive, I make him breakfast sandwiches.  These are all over pinterest and incredibly simple - just grab a bread (English muffins, croissant dough, tortillas), breakfast meat, eggs, and any veggies you might like (peppers, onion, mushrooms.)  I cook these on the weekend and then freeze them like this recipe here.  John can take one or two out each morning and heat them up in 2 minutes in the microwave.  I've also made breakfast casserole in the crockpot before for Sunday mornings, and then we'll wrap individual portions and freeze those as well to be reheated during the week.  He'll grab a banana with any of these options.  Easy!  I'll check what we have on hand and add anything to the grocery list we might need.  All of these options are incredibly cheap, so I know breakfast never adds much to the bill, no matter which option I make.  On the weekends we wake up late and don't eat until lunch, but sometimes he'll grab fruit if we're up early.

John has been taking whatever he doesn't have to microwave, because in the academy he eats at the same time as 150 other guys and there's only 2 microwaves and they barely work anyway.  He's been taking turkey sandwiches and he's a pretty plain eater in that he hates condiments and cheese.  So I get whatever sliced turkey is on sale from the deli section (the pre-packed stuff is full of nasty ingredients and it's hardly any cheaper, don't bother), bread, tomatoes and lettuce.  I chop the tomato and lettuce on Sundays and put those in containers in the fridge, and he'll grab everything each morning to make his own sandwich.  I'll do it for him if I'm not too busy prepping dinner.  With the sandwich he takes a couple sides, whatever he picked up on Sunday - granola bars, chips, trail mix, nuts, etc., and a fruit like orange slices or an apple.

For my lunch, I like to make Greek salad (spinach, tomatoes, cucumbers, chickpeas, red onion, green pepper, olives and Greek dressing which is essentially just olive oil and red wine vinegar with spices, it's easy to make.)  I pair that with some French bread or pretzels.  I bring a piece of fruit as well, almost always a banana because I once got hospitalized for low potassium and the IV to fix you takes HOURS and I ain't doing that again.  I make a huge bowl of the salad, chopping everything up, on Sundays and I pack it in a large glass tupperware dish.  I bring the entire thing to work on Monday and then eat that throughout the week.  I can always make more later in the week if I run out, or I'll bring dinner leftovers on Thursday/Friday.  If I'm not feeling Greek salad, I've also been known to make lentil soup, veggie burrito bowls with avocado (generally lots of beans and no rice), or pasta salad with lots of spinach.  If you're in need of more healthy lunch ideas, you can find them on my 'healthy' Pinterest board here.  They're all easy to prep on the weekends, and I only need to make 1 or 2 to last me through the week.  For weekend lunches, if we don't eat out, we eat leftovers or John grills.  Or we make mac and cheese, like children.

All in all, I think we keep it simple (though the length of this post suggests otherwise! I just get detailed, I swear.)  I don't stockpile or try to make a ton of leftovers, we like to just go day by day.  If large portions of something are left come Saturday, or if we ended up not making a meal, it just gets frozen for next week.  That's why I prefer not stockpiling - we can see everything in the fridge and cabinets and there's no danger of anything going bad.  We also live 1.5 blocks from Aldi and 4 blocks from a 24 hour Jewel so it's pretty easy to get anything we need last minute, if it comes to that.

I think that's everything!  Did I miss anything?  Ask me in the comments.  Do you meal plan and prep on weekends?  Got any good recipes I should add to the line up?
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