31 January, 2012  |   26 Comments

How a Meal Plan Comes Together

There’s a logic to my meal planning, teased out through years of the effort.

Our meal plans are, on average, followed 60% of the time. Some weeks (especially the broke ones), it’s 100%. Some weeks (the busy ones) it’s 25%. All averaged out, 60% followability.

And like I says, 60% is better than 0%.
I’ll take it.

Yay ketchup! For breakfast!

This week I’ll go through the whyfores of how I plan my meals in the hopes that it might save you a little money, time or effort yourself.

Today is all about first, the food-we-have list and second, the calendar.

First. The food-we-have list.
Usually early Saturday morning, I creep downstairs and make a really messy list of all the ingredients that we need to use up. Man, it’s ugly, real back of the envelope, back of a crumpled piece of construction paper kind of list.

On this list, I take note of rotisserie chicken carcasses, wilty green onions and potatoes that might just be starting to sprout. (Those foods you really don’t want to toss quite yet.)

Then, I add pantry staples. Sometimes, I have an errant 1/2 cup of corn meal that’s just bugging me. Sometimes, I need to use up one of the 6 giant cans of roma tomatoes that are taking up too much room. Sometimes, I become obsessed with using up a can of evaporated milk and I take it from there.

It’s the ugliest little list you ever did see, I scratch things off, I circle and draw connecting lines. I look at what leftovers we have and what leftovers we will have so that we can minimize food waste and maximize our prep time.

Second. The calendar.
Meal PlanningOnce I have that, I look at my calendar. Just like you, between social events and an intense work schedule, we’re pretty booked. Thinking about our week ahead of time, helps prepare us for the events ahead — and sets up a sense of happy anticipation.

(When I look at my schedule as it relates to food I look forward to my week instead of dreading it.)

On the days I work in San Francisco, I don’t get home until 8:00 pm. This means that dinner for James and the girls needs to be ready to go without me. James is a great preparer of food, but as you know, with two toddlers, there’s just not a lot of time. So we plan meals that can either be made in the slow cooker or meals that are ready to go.

This week, I work in the city Monday, Wednesday and Thursday. I’m spending the night on Wednesday, so I know that on Thursday, James is going to be beat.

Knowing this helps me work around the calendar with a combination of convenience, pre-prep and the freezer.


Sunday is my day to make all of the foods – Sunday dinner is a priority for our family, so we usually have some sort of time and/or intensive meal. On top of the baked potatoes, greens and steak, I made chicken soup, the meat sauce for the spaghetti and cooked the broccoli. I also packed the lunches for the next day and set up the coffee. (Sunday from 3-6pm is quite a busy time in the kitchen, I’ll tell you what.)

For dinner on Monday, all James needed to do was boil some pasta and heat up the sauce, insto-dinner-presto! I rolled in at eight and made a late night salad after the girls were settled.

Since I’m home Tuesday (today), when I’m preparing tonight’s dinner, I’ll brown the short ribs and cut all the veggies and add them to a slow cooker bag. I put the meat and veggies in a slow cooker baggie in the fridge.

Today I’ll also make the mashed potatoes for Wednesday (mostly). I’ll cook and rice the potatoes — and stir the butter through. I’ll leave stirring the milk through for James on Wednesday.

On Wednesday morning, James adds the short rib mixture to the slow cooker before heading to work. Wednesday night, he’ll heat up the mashed potatoes, stirring through the milk and the short ribs will be ready already! Thank you slow cooker!

For James and the girls, Thursday will be a fun convenience food night because sometimes, you need to eat foods named poppers.

Friday, is for chicken soup and sandwiches — I made this chicken soup on Sunday. (We had a surplus of cooked chicken and some celery and carrots that were starting to wilt.) Sunday night I tucked it in the freezer when it was done. We’ll defrost and heat up the soup and make grilled cheese sandwiches and super salads.

Friday is the day most likely that we cave and order a pizza or pick up something — so I like to have Friday’s meal be easier than pizza ordering. Self hack!

Saturdays are our funnest food days. I usually do my grocery shopping on Saturday, so I don’t need to plan my meal based on food I already have in the fridge. We’ll plan for make your own pizzas (also thwarting any Friday night pizza temptations) — I’ll have time to do the crust myself, and if I don’t, I can buy a crust. I’m easy like that.

And I have a sneaking suspicion you are too.

(Tomorrow, we’ll talk about shopping lists and strategies for meal planning.)

Any more questions about meal planning? Ask ’em in the comments!

26 thoughts on “How a Meal Plan Comes Together

  1. 1
    Michele Schwartz says:

    I love, love, love meal planning, and use your template every week. I do have issues with running out of meal ideas and sometimes lack the motivation to plan, especially since we eat less meat and eat many, many more vegetables than we used to. I somehow find it so much easier to take the meat out of the freezer and cook it, than coming up with a non-pasta, tasty, vegetarian meal — but know it is so much better for our health and waste line. Thank you for the inspiration!!

    • 1.1
      Helen Jane says:

      I’ve found that cutting veggies ahead of time is a big help.

      And lots of Asian noodle recipes and stir fries are easy to mix up on the speedy.

      Ooh! And Keeping peanut sauce in the freezer is also good for the quick healthy preparation.

  2. 2
    Gayle says:

    Now I am contemplating the Meal Execution Percentage at our house. We probably fall below the Mendoza Line 🙁
    And we don’t even have toddlers as an excuse! After all, who needs toddlers when you have a husband set on pizza for dinner. Or who looks at the list and announces that though it sounded good on List-Making and Shopping Sunday, now decides “I just don’t want that.”
    How do you force yourself to stay on target when you “just don’t want that?” Not every meal can be short ribs (no one would ever say they didn’t want short ribs in my house, anyway)….

    • 2.1
      Helen Jane says:

      Ha! We’re usually running so fast, it’s not even an option not to want it. That said, we have a few default meals in case we’re missing an ingredient or it sounds gross.

      Breakfast for dinner is always a hit and we always tend to have those ingredients at hand. Frozen pizza is a close second. Make ahead frozen burritos is a solid third.

      Another trick is to master a small handful of recipes you KNOW will be good and plan to eat those. Being broke regularly also helps. If we can’t afford to eat out, we have to eat what’s on plan. 🙂

  3. 3
    Catherine says:

    I don’t think I could manage without making a dinner plan, especially with unpredictable work hours and lots of after-hours activities to factor in. Would you plan work lunches in the same way? I’m not quite succeeding on that score yet – any and all awesome HJ-hacks most welcome!

  4. 4
    Helen Jane says:

    Since my work lunches are pretty unpredictable, I get around lunch in SF 2 ways – frozen soup in lunch sized portions and always bringing close to the same damn thing (lentils/chicken/greens).

    At home, I tend to eat leftovers.

    Pro-tip! We put our leftovers on a dinner plate *as if we were going to eat them* and cover them with plastic wrap. That keeps working from home lunches to minimal dishes and prep time.

    • 4.1
      Catherine says:

      Ooh, lentils! My default lentil mode is chucking them in soups – I hadn’t thought of making up a lentil dish as a lunch option. Checks the cheap/filling/portable/easy to prepare ahead in bulk options nicely!

  5. 5
    bv-5jw says:

    How do you all know this?

  6. 6
    BethT says:

    OK, you make meal planning look too easy. Here is where I get bogged down:

    1) Lunches, per the other commenter above. Lunch is the bane of my existence.

    2) Deciding what to cook. Like you, I take stock of my pantry, etc., but then in thinking about what to cook, recipes to try, etc….some of this also goes to hell if I go to the store and find they are out of ______.

    3) Figuring out in advance if we’ll have leftovers, and if so, of what. Having leftovers tends to complicate things.

    I don’t expect you to solve these problems, but man, it feels good to vent! 🙂

    • 6.1
      Helen Jane says:

      But leftovers, leftovers, mmmm.

      WRT leftovers, I like to include at least one meal a week that I call “Helpie Selfie.” Helpie Selfie nights mean, it’s every man and woman for his or her self.

      And leftovers become magic.

  7. 7
    Natasha says:

    Planning meals each week makes a huge difference in how stressed I am. I also keep a few things around to throw together something if I don’t feel like cooking what I’ve planned — current fave is white beans + greens or fennel+ the fancy tuna in jars (spendy, but cheaper than pizza out). The past two weeks I’ve roasted a bunch of vegetables on Sunday to use in meals throughout the week, and love how easy it makes dinner.

  8. 8
    Sarah van Loon says:

    Yes! Thank you! This is so, so helpful. My husband is kind of a picky guy (or maybe it’s that I love food *so* much that it hurts a little when dinner is “fine.”) so I have a hard time planning ahead, but I think doing a major prep on Sundays will definitely help. I look forward to hearing your shopping lists and strategies! Again, thank you!!

  9. 9
    bari says:

    This is amazingly helpful…I meal plan and shop but my execution is sometimes embarrassingly bad. I work at home and have a 2 year old and a husband with crazy hours. You’d think working at home would make it easy for me but no, its often harder than when I worked at an office. We live in NYC and its just too convenient to pick up the phone when I am busy but I can’t stand it! I have read this post 4 times and shared it with like 11 people, its HUGELY eye opening for me. Not only planning what you are making but how. I plan things to the minute for a living but the thought to plot things out to this degree for dinners never even crossed my mind. Sad, I know. So thank you! thank you! thank you!

  10. 10

    […] ← Previous 1 February 2012 Comment […]

  11. 11
    Lindsay says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!

    I think the biggest takeaway from your post is to set aside a few hours on a Sunday and try to do as much prep work in those hours as you can. I’ve got my Sunday carved out for me.

    Also, it’s really refreshing that you admit it’s only 60%. I think that’s another thing I am always baffled at, is all of these wonderful plans, and wondering how people actually do it all. It’s nice to hear that maybe you don’t do it ALL, but that doing at least half of it is better than doing none of it. 🙂

    • 11.1
      Helen Jane says:

      It’s funny, it’s taking me so long to describe how I make my lists when that part only takes 12 minutes. The REAL heavy lifting is during that few hour prep time (for me on Sunday too) where I get things ready for the week.

  12. 12
    Hanna says:

    Envelopes are the perfect list-making shape! I sometimes forget that they can also be used to send mail.

    About a year ago I experimented with meal planning (http://hannalamode.blogspot.com/2011/02/this-week-we-feast.html) and implemented a few new tricks into my process… and then forgot about them entirely. A year later, I’m in the middle of an inspiration slump that has landed us in take-out world. Your post comes at a perfect time to revitalize my meal-planning initiative – can’t wait to go home and make lists on all our new credit card offers!

  13. 13

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