Planning meals for a week
January 2, 2014 4:24 PM   Subscribe

What are some tips and techniques for weekly meal planning?

I always plan my meals ahead, but usually by a day (or two). I am a mid-twenties single woman who lives at home, but I mainly just cook for myself. I'd like to plan for a week instead to cut down on costs and also to cut down on the stress of having to plan when I'm tired after my full-time, somewhat physical job. I eat out only once every month or two. I love to cook (5-6 nights a week are meals I cook from scratch) and don't like leftovers unless I can repurpose. I try to limit convenience foods to once a week or less but it does happen, how do you plan for these variables when making your shopping list?

I already eat healthy, and don't eat much meat. I know what cheap foods are. But planning for a week is a little overwhelming. Any advice is welcome. I tend to overbuy, and either it's produce that goes bad because I bought too much or stuff that sits in the pantry for months.
posted by Aranquis to Food & Drink (11 answers total) 72 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Have a look at Judith Jones' The Pleasures Of Cooking For One. She's actually really good at sort of tricking you into meal planning almost by accident, just because of the way the first part of the book is designed - they're sort of like, recipe groupings, for lack of a better word. She starts with one recipe involving something like, say, a small pork tenderloin. But for the first recipe, she tells you to chop two bits off the tenderloin and save them for the second and third recipes. Then she goes on to give you the first recipe itself. Or, she'll have you cook one thing for the first recipe, and points out that there will probably be leftovers - and then the second recipe starts with "take the leftovers from the first recipe, and...." The rest of the book has a lot of advice about lighter meals that can also use up weird random leftovers in the fridge.

So in theory, you could do a beef stew the first night, use some the leftovers from the beef stew in a pasta sauce the second night, and then make quiche or soup stir-fries with any leftover beef stew the next couple nights. It's not necessarily something you planned, it's more like, she trains you to have a prepared kitchen so you can walk in and poke your head in the fridge and think, "hmmm, what have I got left from Monday's dinner....oh, I know, I can do [foo] and add that [baz] and that'd make a good [schmeh]."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:38 PM on January 2, 2014 [11 favorites]

Best answer: Components! Basically, prep a bunch of things so that they can be mixed together in different ways. So, for this week, I made:

- a batch of polenta, which I let set and then cut into patties
- a pot of black beans
- a mushroom/tomato saute with lots of garlic
- a small batch of chili
- half a butternut squash in small cubes, roasted

So my lunches were all chili + another thing (cheese, an egg, toast, whatever.) Breakfast was oatmeal and peanut butter, every day. And here are my dinners:

- polenta with the mushroom/tomato saute plus a poached egg
- black beans and butternut squash with cheese in a tortilla
- polenta with the mushroom/tomato saute and tuna
- black bean/squash burger (I mashed them together until mushy, made it into a burger-like thing, and then broiled that)

So: grab a couple grains or bases, make a sauce or topping or two, and mix and match throughout the week.

I've also mostly given up on fresh produce unless I have a 100% chance of using it that day; I got for frozen otherwise.
posted by punchtothehead at 4:49 PM on January 2, 2014 [12 favorites]

Best answer: I'm you. I would end up either eating out or eating processed food or standing in front of the fridge hating the world.

So I created a weekly planner in Word - it was actually based on something I saw at the Container Store but was too cheap to spend $15 on. It basically creates a shopping list next to your weekly meal planner so that you can plan your 3 daily meals in advance AND it also has a to-do list for every day and you can note if you need to be somewhere or do something in advance. Each page has 2 weeks on it so you can see what you made the week before and not repeat the same meals too much. It has made my life so much simpler. MeMail me if you want me to email you this template.
posted by HeyAllie at 4:54 PM on January 2, 2014

Best answer: I am a weekly planner, some times better than others. This past year I have been faithfully sticking to it, more or less, and partially because I went to basically a rotating menu. The general routine was:

Monday- did the shopping. Dinner was a big salad with protein (for instance, green salad with peppers, carrots, radicchio, a sprinkle of blue cheese and some grilled chicken). The big advantage to having the salad the night you shop, or the night after, is that you immediately use most of the produce you bought and then you can prep the rest at the same time, making it more likely you'll use it the rest of the week. I find I have the greens washed and some stuff already sliced, I'm way more likely to throw together side salads the rest of the week.
Tuesday - pizza. I premake pizza dough in the breadmachine about every other week. A 2-lb dough recipe makes enough for 4 different dinners. The dough can be stored in the freezer and thawed the day of use. Toppings can vary with seasonal produce and mood.
Wednesday - wild card - this is a night we might eat out, or succumb to the lure of pasta. IT was my busiest night of the week over the past year, so generally I just got something out.
Thursday - tacos, fajitas, taco salad, or some other Tex-Mex type combo that uses basically the same set of ingredients (beans, tortillas, chicken/beef/pork, veggies, grated cheese, salsa)
Friday - loaded baked potatoes
Saturday - slow cooker or stew type of thing, like lentil soup, or kale with tomatoes and white beans (maybe with Italian sausage)
Sunday - a big "sunday dinner" type thing that's fussier than the rest of the week. Enchiladas, manicotti, lasagna

So it seems like it would be dull, but because all these things can be varied and toppings/flavorings can change, there was actually a lot of variety and it's pretty veggie-centric. You can swap out days if you're not in the mood for what you had planned. And leaving wiggle room within a structure (one "wild card" night, flexibility as to what the soup/stew is and what the Sunday dinner is and what the pizza toppings are and what the salad protein and spicing is) makes it feel both comfortingly structured and exciting.

One nice thing about this is that I only go shopping once a week, too. Less time fussing around aimlessly in the grocery store is a huge gain and makes life more relaxing. Before going shopping for next week, see what you still have in the fridge and plan the next couple of meals around that, getting any additions you need to turn them into meals. That way nothing ever goes bad by escaping your notice. If something is starting to get old, chuck it in the freezer. If it seems like something you can't chuck in the freezer (fresh produce, herbs), a lot of the time you can cook and/or puree them and then they freeze just fine.

Also, check out this question I asked a long time ago about how to use the same ingredient in different ways for several days.

Another big tip/trick is to stock your pantry. Here's a pantry list I made a few years ago about things to keep around. With this stuff on hand, you can make a million things. A great book for this is the wonderful Arthur Schwartz' What to Cook When You Think There's Nothing in the House to Eat.

I have a chalkboard in the kitchen that I write the week's meal plan on. It's just a nice reminder and I don't forget what the plan was.

Throughout the week, when I run out of stuff, I write it on the magnetic notepad that lives on the fridge. That's the basis of the shopping list.

Then I sit down - not the same night I'm going shopping because if you're rushed you can't focus, look up recipes, etc. - and sketch out the following week. I actually check out the store circular that comes in our mailbox for this, in case anything good is on sale. Then I make the week's choices within my prescribed range, and add the ingredients I need for that stuff to my list.

This is a process that has its own rewards and I'm really happy I've been keeping to the system. The big gains are: 1)more time, fewer evenings wasted wandering the grocery aisles looking for something appealing; 2) more space in the brain that normally spends the last few hours of the workday thinking about what to cook for dinner; 3) much less money spent because I just get too tired and go out or buy some expensive, nondelicious processed food; 4) a better diet overall. Good luck.
posted by Miko at 4:55 PM on January 2, 2014 [17 favorites]

Notecards!! A few months ago I made a set of notecards with menus (based on the list here with some extras). I tried to go for a variety of cuisines. Now for menu planning I just choose 4 cards or so at a time and buy the groceries (we eat out at least once per week and get leftovers out of some of the meals).

I like it because there are a variety of meals so I don't get bored. They are also all fairly easy & flexible. They are more like meal ideas than strict recipe cards which keeps me from getting bored (I'm the type of person that doesn't cook the same thing twice). Plus with a whole menu on the card I don't have to think much about sides which can be the most annoying part of menu planning to me.

I've tried most other methods of menu planning but this is the only one that has stuck for a few months. When I think of a new idea I just add another card to the deck. For example, I just added sushi bowls + miso + salad with carrot-ginger dressing.
posted by newsomz at 5:27 PM on January 2, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I plan a menu each week and do grocery shopping on Sundays. My routine is this, more or less:

1. Review grocery store sales paper midweek and add all needed on-sale pantry items to the grocery list so we can stock up. Take mental note of whatever interesting sounding fresh foods are in season/on sale.
2. Look in the refrigerator and take stock of what needs to be used ASAP before it goes bad, and figure out a recipe for it (half a jar of ricotta and a wrinkling green pepper? Baked ziti on Sunday with leftovers Monday. Some random beans? Make some rice and eat it for lunch. 1 sad looking apple in the fridge? Shred it up and make apple pancakes for brunch. etc.)
3. If I can't use up whatever is in the fridge with stuff in my own pantry, then I figure out some way to combine the fridge stuff with the on-sale stuff from the grocery store. Random beans might get combined with the on-sale ground beef to make tacos for Tuesday night. Add needed ingredients to the grocery list.
4. Figure out something new and yummy to make; that is Wednesday. Add ingredients to list.
5. Pizza, home-made or storebought. Thursday.
6. Eat out on Friday.
7. Saturday is a floating day. If I had a fuck-it day and ate out on one of the days I'd originally planned to cook, then everything bumps and I'll cook it on Saturday. Sometimes we eat random freezer food. Sometimes we eat out. Sometimes I might go grocery shopping early and make something new, it just depends.

So, the leftover ingredients I buy in steps 3 and 4 end up rolling into the next week's step 2. Every few weeks I'll go through the freezer and use up whatever I've tucked in there and forgotten about. I'll also make sure I haven't let my pantry stashes of any ingredients get out of control. If so then I'll make lasagna to use up extra sauce, or chili to use up extra beans, etc.
posted by gatorae at 8:48 PM on January 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

I follow the same principle as EmpressCallipygos and punchtothehead suggest above; I find menu planning for an entire week too rigid, but find that cooking four to five interchangeable staples on Sunday or Monday evening when I get home from work will feed me for an entire week and use up all leftovers. I usually shop on Saturday, and prep all the produce when I get home (more likely to use it that way). Then cooking on Sunday. My main components tend to be really veg-heavy, and supplemented with pantry or freezer protein in the form of eggs, frozen grilled chicken strips or meatballs, or beans.

So this week, I made braised cabbage, ratatouille, spaghetti squash, and a pot of beans. So, for example, I can eat the beans over a sweet potato with some avocado, or with instant rice; I can eat the braised cabbage with the beans or with poached eggs. Ratatouille can go on pasta, in scrambled eggs, with pesto or tomato sauce, or with meatballs. You get the idea. Having components definitely makes it easier to accommodate those nights when you stay late at work, or meet friends for happy hour and don't get home in time to cook a full meal from scratch.

The other thing I did that helped was make an actual printed list, tacked on the inside of my cupboard, of "Easy Favorites", which consists of things that I always have in the house but sometimes forget about if I'm really tired and staring at what looks like an empty fridge, or if I'm tired of whatever components I made that week. Things like breakfast for dinner, black beans and salsa in a tortilla, tuna melt, etc. It seems to help keep me on track of not ordering takeout, and prevents me from falling off the menu-planning wagon.
posted by stellaluna at 8:52 PM on January 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

I am a weekly planner. I have a list of all of the meals I like to cook and my family likes to eat. Everything from quick hot dogs and French fries to time intensive Risotto. Every Sunday morning I sit down with that list over breakfast and I select 6 meals to make for the week. The 7th day is usually leftovers.

I do this with my calendar, so I know which nights would best serve a quick meal and which nights I'll feel like taking my time. I also take into consideration what ingredients I have that need to be used soon before spoiling. And which ingredients can be used in multiple meals.

I don't assign meals to days when I make out my list; as the week progresses I pick something from the list that sounds good. The list tells me what meals I have available for making and limits the amount of decision making and prep work I have to do after a long day of work.

So this week my list looks like:
Turkey rice soup
Chicken burgers and French fries
Chicken in peanut sauce
Noodle nonsense

After I have the meal list set, then I create the grocery shopping list and do my shopping. Everything is done before 11am Sundays. During the week I may pick up a fresh loaf of bread or any ingredients I had assumed was at home but wasn't, but a week day stop at the grocery store is rare.
posted by rhapsodie at 9:38 PM on January 2, 2014

Lots of good ideas in this thread, some of which I will probably borrow. Here's what I do. I write everything down as I go.

1. Take stock of what's in the fridge and needs to be used up.
2. Take stock of the household calendar so I can know any nights where meals will be eaten out or where there won't be enough time to cook, etc. Write down each day with events, leaving room for meals to fill in.
3. Start brainstorming things I would want to eat, keeping in mind the stuff that needs to be used up. Fill in the calendar. My meal plan isn't rigid however. If on Tuesday it says quiche and I'm not feeling it, I may swap Tuesday and Wednesday around if that works with my time constraints. The point is that you've got plans and ingredients for 5 meals. (For lunches, I don't mind eating the same thing over and over so I do the "components" method posttothehead describes above.) Post the meal list on your fridge door.
4. Make your grocery list.
5. Go shopping. Ideally I'd do this on Sunday but it usually happens on Monday after work because I get those Sunday blahs and just can't deal with the fact that it means my weekend is over. Sunday I often prep food for my lunches however--cooking up a batch of rice and draining a can of beans, that kind of thing.

How do you feel about reheating frozen meals you made? It seems like when cooking for one that would be a good way to use up leftovers another week, and maybe the time passing would make them seem less like "leftovers" and more like "frozen dinner I actually like."

To use up leftovers in creative ways, I rely a lot on: salads, scrambles, tacos/burritoes and stir fries. You can put leftover beans/rice/veg in any of these things and have it be pretty delicious. You could also take your planning next level: rice cooked to go with chicken on Monday gets made into stir fried rice on Tuesday and put into a scramble with veg on Wednesday...
posted by purple_bird at 8:59 AM on January 3, 2014

I find planning ahead for an entire week hard to do as well. I have two approaches. One is to have about 5-6 simple recipes that are pretty regularly in my repertoire, so that buying ingredients for them becomes a habit that I don't have to think about. Things like others have mentioned upthread, like chilli, burritos or enchiladas, bean soup. I cook these regular recipes roughly every other week, so that I don't get too tired of them. But when I'm pushing the cart up the supermarket aisle, I also don't have to think too hard about what to grab.

The second approach is to keep certain core ingredients in my pantry at all times, so that I always have a few things on hand that allow me to throw together a meal based on my energy level. Canned tomatoes and beans, eggs, pasta and rice, onions and potatoes. You can keep bread items in the freezer and thaw/toast them as needed. If I'm really tired, I'll just make eggs and toast. I keep things like bacon and chicken breasts individually wrapped in the freezer so that I can use them when inspired.

I impulse-buy produce based on what's on special or what inspires me that week. I know it's really hard, though, when you're cooking for one. Frozen veggies can be a good compromise.
posted by amusebuche at 11:41 AM on January 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

I was thinking some more about how you said you tend to overbuy. Gretchen Rubin had some thoughts on this which might be helpful. Are you very far from a grocery store? Would it be okay to have to go out to the store occasionally to get something before you make dinner? Just something to consider.
posted by purple_bird at 2:00 PM on January 3, 2014

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