24 January 2013

Meal Planning

I've noticed a lot of people have made meal planning as one of their 2013 resolutions and thought I'd share some thoughts and tips.  I've always loved to cook and even in college, I attempted to make myself a home-cooked dinner once or twice a week.  I tried to make homemade meals for myself as often as possible when I was single and living by myself, but it is SO HARD to cook for one and I often fell into the expensive trap of take-out or frozen meals.
When M and I moved in together in the fall of 2010, I realized I had to do something about our evening meals before our spending got way out of hand.  At the time, I would wait until 3pm to decide what I wanted to cook for dinner.  I was never sure what we had in the fridge or the pantry, so I would just go to the store and buy everything we needed.  At one point, we had 3-4 jars EACH of cinnamon, rosemary, thyme, and garlic powder.  Some days at work would get crazy busy and I wouldn't have time to figure out what to have for dinner, so we would end up going out and spending a ton of money and eating unhealthy.
My mom has always been a weekly meal planner for as long as I can remember so she was my initial inspiration.  Then I started seeing bloggers like Kate and Rachel do weekly planning and, to me, that was much more attainable.  I felt like seeing women my age do it made it seem much more attainable and less "one day..." aspirational.
We have definitely had ups and downs in meal planning.  Sometimes I just slack off, sometimes M doesn't want to deal with dirty dishes, and on those nights, there's nothing wrong with calling the pizza guy.  But meal planning has enabled us to stay on an even grocery budget, eat healthy, and try a variety of different dishes.
With all that said, the vast majority of recipes I make I will never make again.  There are various reasons for that but mainly, a lot of recipes are good, not great. Since we've been doing this for 2 1/2 years now, we have narrowed down the list of great recipes that we go back to over and over again.  I hope you take some inspiration from these.  I'd LOVE to know what your tried-and-true recipe repeats are. We're always looking for new ones!
1. Eat, Live, Run's Boyfriend-Approved Spicy Black Bean Burgers {pictured}. I always serve these with Alexia frozen sweet potato fries.

2.  Budget Bytes' Egg Florentine Quesadillas. I use her Creamed Spinach, Take 2 recipe.  It's much better than the original one.

3. Slow Cooker Green Chile Pork Tacos {pictured}. Stupidly easy to make and stupidly delicious.  We usually end up with lots of leftovers.  It freezes well, but it also makes for great lunch quesadillas!

4.  Arroz Congri/Chipotle Burrito Bowls. I'm grouping these together because they're very similar and interchangeable.  Sometimes I made the IGE chicken or some shrimp to go with it, sometimes we just eat it straight vegetarian {the arroz congri is vegan if you don't use sour cream or cheese for toppings}. Either way, it's always delicious and filling and {minus the shrimp and/or chicken} budget-friendly.

5. Eat, Live, Run's Spicy Pecan Crusted Catfish {pictured}. Aaaaah I love this recipe so much! It's just got such a great mix of flavors and textures.  I almost always make this with some form of sweet potatoes and a side salad.  It makes for a very pretty, colorful presentation.

6. Jenny Steffens Hobick Arrabiata Sauce with Shrimp and Linguine {pictured}. I could go on and on about my love for this recipe.  It takes maybe 15 minutes to make.  It makes a TON of food.  And it is so, so, so good. We fight over who gets to take the leftovers the next day.

7. Slow Cooker Pepperoncini Beef Sandwiches.  This recipe was a recent discovery from Rachel. I had bookmarked it ages ago, but only decided to make it in the past month.  It is AMAZING. Just so good and simple and delicious.  I am getting hungry thinking about it!  I typically only use 1-1 1/2 lbs of the beef and we put the Sargento Mozzarella-Provolone slices on top, although I bet pepper jack would be wonderful as well...

8.  Cooking Light's Spicy Lemon Trout.  We have this a lot.  Rainbow trout is relatively inexpensive, easy to find, and when farmed in the U.S.A., is a sustainable fish population, which is important to both of us.  I don't do the fancy dressed trout filets.  I just lay lemon slices on the top and broil it without flipping for a total of 6-8 minutes.

9.  Four-Cheese Roasted Vegetables.  This is borderline retro for me.  My mom made this for us all the time growing up and it will always be one of my favorite side dishes.  I would be willing to bet that if you have a picky eater in your family who isn't big on veggies, this would be a game changer.

10. The Pioneer Woman's Pasta alla Vodka {pictured}.  Despite my serious issues with Ree, I do love this dish.  It's an absolute indulgence, so it's rare that I make it.  And even then, I make adjustments {those can be found here}.  But for a night when you feel like splurging without spending hours in the kitchen, this is really hard to beat.

11.  Laura Calder's Fish en Papillote.  Feels fancy and fiddly, is actually stupid easy.  The spices are what makes it! I find that I need to cook mine a little longer than recommended, as I like my salmon more medium than medium-rare.

12.  Simply Grilled Chicken Breasts.  We have these at least once a week in the summer.  My mom discovered this recipe and it is, bar none, the best grilled chicken.

A few more notes: I find that having some "rules" with regards to planning helps immensely.  I instituted Soup Sundays this fall and plan to continue that through the end of the winter.  We don't stick to a strict Meatless Monday {but if that works for you, do it!}, but I make sure that at least 1 or 2 of our meals each week are totally meat free.  I also make sure at least another one of our meals is seafood.  And I restrict our red meat pretty significantly.  Don't get me wrong, I love a good steak and I have some great beef recipes, but I feel strongly about consuming meat that isn't factory-raised and that is a} expensive and b}hard to find where we live.

I use the Project Girl's Meal Planner/Grocery List {the second one}.  Print off a stack of them and keep them in your office, at home, wherever you do your planning.

Try to have a day each week at home when you plan out everything.  That way you can go through cookbooks, browse Pinterest and blogs, and pull out magazine recipes all at once. You can also go through your freezer/fridge/pantry to see what you have/need to use.

Make notes! It's easy to make a recipe and then forget what adjustments you made, whether or not you liked it, and/or where you found it.  Posting on the blog is obviously a great record for me, but I also delete recipes that I've Pinned, made and didn't like. I throw away any magazine tear-outs of recipes I've made and didn't like.  If I make a recipe and like it, notes go in the margins and saved in a binder.

What other tips would you add?  Are any of you just starting out on the meal planning bandwagon? I'd love to hear how it's going!


KatiePerk said...

Such a good post! I love reading what you are cooking but having a list of your hits is awesome! I will use this for my own meal planning!!

MCW said...

I need to go back and pin some of these!

MHM1314 said...

I try and do this, too, except sometimes it's honestly hard to buy and STORE that many days of groceries! Luckily since JM and I both alternate cooking, we have a pretty decent comprehension of the spices, chicken stock, mustard, etc -- the stuff that's just in our cupboards or in our fridge.

Baltimore Prep said...

I have a similar weekly routine to plan for the week and it works! It definitely keeps the grocery costs down, as well. I used to buy vague items at the store without a specfic meal in mind, but now I only buy what I need for recipes for the week, which prevents me from having to throw away spoiled food.

I would really love your advice on how you were able to introduce your husband to eat vegetarian meals. My husband (JFC) believes every dinner should contain a meat or seafood and there is a always a battle if dinner is meatless, so this rarely happens. Once in a while it would be nice to enjoy a black bean burger or big veggie salad for dinner without having to make something separate for JFC!

Laura C said...

Great post! I aspire to meal plan, but haven't mastered it yet. We cook quite a bit at home, but end up grocery shopping about 4 times week and having some food go to waste. It's really helpful to hear your process & see your "go-to" meals.