Saturday, September 14, 2013

How to Plan Weeknight Meals

I've gotten a few reader questions lately about how I have time to cook being a busy mom with a full time job and a tough commute into the city a couple times a week. I'm no stranger to hectic work weeks and I certainly have my nights when I just can't deal with turning on the stove, but cooking healthy meals for my family is important to me, so I do the best I can. But I do have a few tricks to make weeknight cooking easier, so I'm going to share all my secrets with you.

Okay, there really is no big secret. The key is in the meal planning. If you have a plan, it's much easier to pick what you'll make each night; otherwise, if you're like me, you might find yourself staring hungrily into the fridge or cupboards after a long day of work with all your creative juices sapped and having no motivation to come up with a dinner idea, getting more tired and hungry and cranky by the minute. To escape those hungry, cranky, non-creative dinnertimes, I meal plan. And here's how I do it:

Step One: Every two weeks, I set aside time to make a list of meals that we'll eat for the next two weeks and then build a grocery shopping list based on the meal plan. I try to make it an enjoyable experience rather than a chore: I usually meal plan on a Sunday morning, in my pajamas with a cup of coffee and a bunch of cookbooks around me for inspiration. Sometimes I'll put on a favorite Food Network show, like Barefoot Contessa to really set the mood. ;)

This has become a sort of ritual for me and I really look forward to it.

Step Two: When making the meals list, I try to strike a balance between being creative and being realistic. I need to include meals that'll get me excited and actually want to cook (and make my family want to eat - as in, grilled fish and veggies for 5 nights in a row simply won't cut it, and we'll get bored and end up ordering out) but I also need to make sure they're simple and quick to prepare so I don't get overwhelmed. If I have my heart set on making a lengthy recipe, I'll make it for dinner on a weekend, or cook it on a Sunday afternoon and freeze it for later in the week.

Here's my rule of thumb for the meals list:

1. For a two week time period, make a list of about 11-12 meals. The fact is, we do like to order out or go out to dinner with friends on a Friday or Saturday night. If I plan a full 14 meals, I'll feel stressed about using all the ingredients in my fridge and guilty if we go out to eat. If I plan for 11-12 meals, I know I've got a few freebie nights we can use whenever we want. Balance!

2. I don't decide ahead of time when I'm going to make what. I just make the list, put it in a drawer, and then every night we consult the list and decide what we're in the mood for.

3. I plan for the following types of dinners:

Fun: 4-5 fun or new meals that require a recipe (but can be made in 45 min or less OR can be made ahead and frozen, in which case I commit to cooking them on a Sunday evening)
Old Standbys: 3-4 meals that I've made before and don't require a recipe (no duplicates from the two weeks prior if possible unless we're craving it again - boredom will make you ditch the meal plan in a second!)
No-Brainers: 2-3 super easy, no think meals (big salads, veggie burgers, baked fish, etc. I usually keep a few no-brainer things on hand in the freezer so I can pull them out as needed)

This past week, for example, I made a batch of homemade veggies burgers to stick in the freezer and a big pot of crab and cod chowder on Sunday, which we ate for dinner on Monday.

I used my trusty Joy of Cooking cookbook, which never lets me down. I used homemade crab broth I made from our crab fest on Labor Day (omg what a difference in taste when using homemade broth) and swapped sweet potatoes for regular potatoes and milk for heavy cream. It was heavenly. Plus, we got one dinner and two lunches for both me and Matt out of it. Big pots of soup are always a meals list win.

On Monday night, since dinner was already made, I prepped a simple eggplant lasagna (took me 30 minutes) and stored it in the fridge for Tuesday's dinner since I knew I'd be home late that night.

Wednesday night was another late night for both me and Matt, so we made it a "no-brainer" night by cooking up a few sausages (soy sausage for me) and tossing them with frozen broccoli, some sauteed onions, hot sauce and a little cheddar cheese. This literally took 15 minutes to make - it's not pretty, but it was really good.

Thursday evening we had to drop my car off for service and run some errands, so it was another "no-brainer" night. I pulled out a few homemade veggie burgers from the freezer, cooked them in a skillet and topped them with habanero cheddar cheese and avocados.

There's a suspicious lack of greenery on this plate, I know. I usually will at least cook some frozen veggies to have on the side, but I was tired. And lazy. And the huge veggie burgers were filled with carrots, zucchini and red peppers, so really it was a full meal in one monster patty.

And then last night was a freebie. I almost ordered out, but really didn't want to do pizza again, so dug around and found that I had a half bag of tortilla chips leftover from our BBQ a few weeks ago and all the fixings for nachos. Friday night nachos and more Sons of Anarchy, yes please!

I topped the chips with sauteed red peppers, onions and soy crumbles, shredded cheddar and garden jalapenos. On the side we had homemade green tomato salsa, a quick guacamole (made from a sad looking avocado that really needed to be used) and some sour cream. Perfect.

I actually did my meals planning and grocery shopping this morning for the next few weeks, so I'll give you a sneak peek at what you might see on the blog.

Meals Plan 9/14 - 9/30

1. Grilled steak and shrimp with winter slaw and grilled veggies (we're heaving Heather & Kevin and the girls over for dinner tonight)

2. Curry with tofu and veggies (Old Standby)

3. Cod with avocado tomatillo sauce (Fun)

4. Grilled steak and scallops (No-Brainer)

5. Herb crusted snapper (Fun)

6. Southwestern salmon (Fun)

7. Vegetable lasagna with no noodles (Fun - recipe from FoodBabe)

8. Big salads with toasted coconut tofu (No-Brainer)

9. Lettuce tacos (No-Brainer)

10. Manhattan clam chowder (Fun)

11. Gingered butternut squash and carrot soup (Old Standby, a play on this recipe)

12. Spaghetti squash with marinara and meatballs (Old Standby)

I also have veggie burgers, soy "sausages" and a bag of shrimp stowed in the freezer to pull out in case we need some extra no-brainer nights.

And there you have it! Meal planning has been the ticket for me to ensure I make time for cooking and making healthy meals. Let me know how it goes for you, and if you have any other tips for meal planning or weeknight cooking, please share!

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