Since I've been living in my apartment, I've taught myself to meal plan. It blows my mind that people can spontaneously plan dinner the same day they cook it. I am one of those people who has to know what they're doing in advance, or it drives me crazy. I guess you could say I'm a little type-A about being organized. Meal planning has become something I really enjoy now, and I think some of you will too! Meal planning is great for students, or just anyone who is busy and wants a more slightly structured meal schedule.
So what decides what I eat and when?
- What season is it?
I try to only use local, seasonal produce when possible. For example, I don't eat zucchini in winter because it's not the appropriate season for it; so I will eat winter squashes instead. This helps me decide what recipes I can use, depending on what month it is. Some sites, like naturally ella, focus heavily on seasonal produce and recipes. Seasons also decide what type of dishes I'm cooking. Since it's winter, I'm doing mostly warm dishes, with a few salads every now and then. In the summer, I do pretty much the opposite.
- What day of the week is it?
During the school year, I obviously have more time to cook on the weekends. But during the school year, it's somewhat of a struggle. During the week, I choose quick, easy meals or things that can be made in the slow-cooker. On the weekend, I can choose more slightly involved recipes since I'm not on campus all day. I also like to spend extra time in the kitchen on weekends to distract myself from school.
- How late do I have class?
This semester, I have class until 630 two nights a week, which is very late for me. I kind of panicked at first, but found a way around it: slow-cookers! I have two: a big one and a little 1.5 qt one, that's perfect for breakfast. Luckily I do have about 4 hours in between classes on these days, but I don't have to worry at all with a slow-cooker. So I plan on using slow-cooker recipes on these days in order to have dinner done when I get home. Alternatively, if you have class late, you can cook something in that 4 hour time slot in between classes, and just reheat it later.
- What am I in the mood for?
I don't get too many food cravings, but when I do, I have to cook it. When Mike is away on business, I tend to cook nutritional yeast heavy dishes or dishes packed with mushrooms, since he doesn't eat either of them. There are so many dishes that I cook at certain times of the year, so that is another factor to consider. Also be sure to include ingredients that need to be used up soon, like vegetables or pantry items that are expiring soon!
- What's my budget?
If you are on a tight budget, this should be one of your main things to consider when meal planning. Are you sticking to a food budget for each month? Do you want to go from spending $200 a month, to less, for example? Pick recipes with minimal ingredients, use dried beans, make vegetable broth from scratch, etc. Pinching pennies is easier than you think!
So how do you meal plan?
What You Need:
- Sources: cookbooks, blogs, family recipes, or just make recipes up!
- Calendar/Schedule: factor in your school/work schedule, appointments, vacations, etc.
- Budget: calculate your budget for the month
- Shopping List: make a shopping list (note: I don't shop at one place because they don't tend to have the best prices on everything. I make separate lists for different stores or the farmer's market)
- Food Goals to Initiate (optional): are you trying to eat more greens? eat less meat (ex: meatless mondays)? try a new food a week? factor this into your meal plan, and any other food goals you set for yourself
How to Start:
- Length: decide how much time you are planning: a month, a week, etc.
- Calendar: either write out on paper or type up the days of the week. I split my shopping lists by week so my perishables don't go bad. Note any nights that you are working/going to class late, appointments, travel, or any nights that you don't have a lot of time
- Choose sources: what are you cooking from? what looks most interesting to you from these sources? how long does the recipe take? is it very difficult? will other people I live with like it? remember these factors when choosing sources for recipes.
- Select recipes: choose recipes accordingly for each day. I only plan dinners, because we have always have leftovers the next day and breakfasts vary for us. Feel free to plan all three meals, however! I also like to split ingredients up so we aren't having beans 4 nights a week, or tofu for two days straight.
- Make your list: for each month, I have been making a dry ingredient list, which allows me to stock up on non-perishables without doing it every week. That way, we only have to buy perishables (separate list) for each week. This saves money and time, overall. Remember that dried beans and bulk grains will save you money! Canning your own diced tomatoes, making homemade broth, and other frequently used items are also great ways to save.
- Make a prep sheet (optional): now that you've made your lists, feel free to go one step further: make a prep sheet for each week. For example: since I am cooking dried beans, I note how much of each bean I need to cook for the week, and freeze the leftovers. Anything else I can do in advance I try to do on the weekend before. This will you save you so much time during the actual week ahead! See my last post about food goals where I talk about dried beans. Put them in the slow-cooker on saturday while you're out, and they're done when you get home! It's that easy. Make this list for anything you can prep in advance: dressings, purees, beans, even grains!
I hope this helps you all meal plan! I can't tell you how much better it's made my cooking schedule in general. Please feel free to leave any additional questions in the comments!