6 Meals, 2 Hours: Stocking the Freezer

My sweet and very pregnant friend and I spent a couple hours in her kitchen Saturday prepping freezer meals for after the baby comes. It was quick and easy, and many of you said that you wanted to hear how we did it. So here we gooooooooo!

Gathering Recipes

A few days before our planned cooking day, we brainstormed and gathered the recipes we wanted to make. Ideas for meals that freeze well: chili, soup, baked pasta, chicken and rice bakes, daal, lasagna, shredded meat, pasta sauce, enchiladas. We chose lasagna; cheesy, spicy tuna noodle casserole; shredded pulled pork; shredded chicken; and ground beef and turkey.

My friend loves this lasagna recipe from the Newlyweds cookbook and this tuna casserole recipe from Chrissy Teigen’s cookbook. (Normally, I wouldn’t recommend freezing something with a creamy sauce like the casserole, but since the base is cream of mushroom soup and not a homemade white sauce, I think it will be ok!)

I suggested the meats. They were easy to prep, but will be perfect for her husband to heat up quickly with easy sides (buns for the pork, tortillas for the chicken, jarred red sauce and pasta for the ground meat, or whatever really).

For more ideas, check out my FREEZER Pinterest board here.

Grocery List Collaboration and Shopping

You could totally follow this plan independently, but if you’re collaborating with a friend, you’ve got to have a shared grocery list. If you both have iPhones, I highly recommend the Notes app. You can share a Note, and both of you can see the changes made in a native app on the phone. Google Docs works, as well!

While watching The Bachelor last week (#MonsterArie #NotPeter), I made our grocery list. I listed everything we could possibly need for each recipe in a Note, and shared the Note with my friend. She crossed off things that she already had (changing three cans of cream of mushroom to just one, for example) and added the ingredients for a recipe I didn’t have.

A side note about making your grocery list: if you aren’t making your grocery list by aisle, GET ON IT! Once you know your store well (Aldi for life!), you can make your grocery list according to items in each aisle, in order of the aisles. It makes grocery shopping SO QUICK, and it makes it easier to avoid impulse Cheez-It purchases.

Another note about Aldi: If you have access to an Aldi, shop there, please. We got everything for these recipes, minus maybe $10 worth of stuff that was already in either of our pantries, for $70. She and her husband agreed that the same grocery haul would have been at least $120 at their Price Chopper or Hyvee. If you grew up on Aldi, it has changed, believe me. I do almost all of my grocery shopping there, and we eat really, really well.

We met Saturday morning at the Aldi near my friend’s house, quickly shopped, and got to #work.

Our Grocery List (click to expand!)

Jalapeno kettle chips

Whole milk 1.5 c

Whole milk cottage cheese 16 oz

Eggs

Cheddar (3 c shredded)

Parmesan

Fresh mozzarella

Shredded mozzarella

2 onions

Celery

Jalapeno

Chipotle peppers in adobo 11 oz

Rotel 1 can

Cream of mushroom 3 cans

Tuna 3 cans

Pork shoulder 3 lbs

Chicken thighs

Ground turkey 2 lbs

Ground beef 1 lb

Frozen peas

Jarred red sauce, 1

Rotini 1 lb

No boil lasagna noodles

Dr. Pepper, 2 cans

Foil 9×13 pans, 2

Gallon freezer bags

Prepping to Make Multiple Recipes at Once

When we got the groceries home, I cleared off the kitchen island, and sorted the groceries by recipe. So I stuck all of the lasagna ingredients together in a little group, then the tuna casserole ingredients, etc. This was SO helpful. As I was cooking, I could glance around and quickly see what was left that needed to be made. 

Before you get started, read through each recipe that you’re going to make. This means that you can get a jump on any weird steps that need extra time: marinating, draining, thawing.

Reading the recipes first also means that there won’t be any surprises later: like the pulled pork needs to cook for 7 hours or you should have been boiling water 30 minutes ago.

The EXACT Plan We Followed (Plus a Few Improvements I Would Have Made)

I should have spent a few minutes before Saturday figuring out the order of operations for these recipes. I think we could have saved 30 minutes or so if I’d done so. What follows is the best-ish, most efficient order for making these recipes. We did this, approximately. I made the chicken last, which was silly, as it could have baked while everything else was cooking. Lesson learned!

In order to make multiple recipes in one chunk of time, you have to work on multiple recipes at once. It will take so. much. longer. if you finish each recipe start-to-done before you work on the next one. I’m thinking that this could feel really intimidating if you’re not as comfy in the kitchen. Just take a deep breath and know that it may take you a little bit longer to get this done. You’ve got it!!! Done is better than perfect.

These steps can easily be completed by one person, but splitting the duties between two people makes it super, super quick.

  1. Preheat the oven to 375. We’ll bake the chicken thighs in there.
  2. Put a pasta pot on to boil for the rotini. Salt that water, don’t forget.
  3. Trim chicken thighs, season with salt and pepper, and place in a greased 8×8 pan.
  4. Pop the pork shoulder in the crockpot with the can of chiles in adobo sauce and 2 cans of Dr. Pepper. Cook on low for 7 hours. Pulled pork done!
  5. Put the chicken in the oven. Set a timer for 20 minutes. When that timer goes off, flip the chicken and set the timer for 10 more mins.
  6. Brown all the ground meat. Combine the ground turkey and beef in a large, large pan with a chopped onion. Season with salt and pepper, brown, and drain. Ground turkey and beef done! Set aside ⅓ of the mixture for the lasagna. The other ⅔ is for freezing plain. We divided it into two freezer bags.
  7. Chop the jalapeno and celery for the tuna casserole. Chop another ½ onion for the shredded chicken.
  8. Sautee the onion from Step 7 in a small pan. Set aside.
  9. Once the chicken is out of the oven, shred with two forks. Add the sauteed onion from Step 8. Drain a can of Rotel, and mix it in. Chicken is done!
  10. Water should be boiling. Add the rotini and cook until very al dente. (The pasta will be cooked again when you bake the casserole.)
  11. Add all of the tuna casserole ingredients, minus pasta, to an enormous bowl. Seriously, your biggest one. Cream of mushroom soup, tuna, cheddar, whole milk, peas, celery, jalapenos, salt, and pepper. Mix really well!
  12. Once the pasta is done, drain and add to the bowl. Mix it all together, taste for seasoning,  and pour into a greased 9×13 foil pan. Tuna casserole done!
    1. The recipe calls for a spicy potato chip and cheese topping. We didn’t freeze that, and they’ll add it before baking.
  13. Lasagna time! Combine the cottage cheese, eggs, and parmesan. Season with pepper (it’s already plenty salty from the parm). Slice the fresh mozzarella.
  14. Layers! Follow the instructions in the recipe to layer your lasagna. (We used no-boil noodles and my friend’s special marinara. A jar of sauce would work, as well, and it’s what I put on the grocery list above.) Lasagna done!

Not so bad, right?! Like I said, doubling up the steps makes it even easier. One person can be chopping the veggies and another can be browning the meat, or one can handle the pulled pork while another moves on to the next step.

We made the shredded chicken with Rotel so they could use it in tacos or enchiladas, and the ground meat is really simply seasoned so it can be used for whatever. It would thaw very quickly in a pot of jarred pasta sauce on the stove!

Tips for Freezing

It is very important that the meals are totally cooled before you stick them in the freezer. Several reasons why: if you put a lid or foil on top of a still-warm dish, condensation gathers on the underside of the lid, which drips into the food and makes it mushy. Also, if you put hot food in the fridge or freezer, it raises the temp of all the other food in there, which is dangerous from a food safety perspective.

I always, always set a timer when I leave food on the counter to cool. I have learned the hard way that if I don’t do this, I will forget about it, and it will sit on the counter overnight to rot. Don’t be me! Set a timer! Note: the longest that food can sit out is FOUR HOURS. After that, it will grow the kind of bacteria that gives you food poisoning.

We froze the lasagna and casserole in disposable foil 9×13 pans, and the meat in gallon freezer bags. For the casseroles: label them clearly with Sharpie, and make sure that you add the baking instructions. You can thaw them in the fridge overnight and bake them according to the recipe, or just add 45 minutes or so and bake them from frozen. Make sure you test the center before serving if you bake from frozen! It should be warm and the edges should be bubbly. 


Ok, one million words later, I think that’s it! I’d love to do more of these freezer prep posts if you guys dig this one. Let me know 🙂

And feel free to ask questions! I’m always available on Instagram, or you can leave a comment here.

What are your tips for freezer cooking?

2018 Intention Check-in: PANTRY COOKING

I’m checking in on the progress of my 2018 intentions. Read all about my fruitful year here.

When I first started planning meals for my little family, Pinterest was making its debut. I was in college, I had a lot of free time (sigh. Remember that?), and I would watch endless hours of television while pinning recipes and cute sweaters and inspirational quotes. Grant and I both lived in small apartments, and neither of us really made the most of our limited pantry space. So, on the weekends, I would shop for basically all of the ingredients to make several recipes that sounded good from my Pinterest boards.

I was still learning, obviously, but it is so cringeworthy to think about how much money I wasted (and the FOOD WASTE! 😢). And, until recently, I was still planning meals in much the same way. Sure, I had more pantry space, and I keep a lot more staple ingredients on-hand. But my grocery cart was always overflowing with new things to try and full ingredient lists for new recipes.

When I saw this video and blog post about “shelf cooking,” a.k.a. cooking from the food you’ve already got on hand, I seriously felt like I’d been smacked. What was I doing? Why was I wasting so much money? 

Some of it was totally learning to deal with our new semi-vegan diet. I made a bunch of new purchases to try new recipes and techniques. But some of it is just overpurchasing. I love grocery shopping, and things that I don’t need often make it into my cart. Which just leads to an maxed-out pantry and a busted budget.

We don’t have a real pantry in our kitchen, just a very skinny closet w/ shallow shelves. I use a few kitchen cabinets for food storage, and they are overflowing with dry goods. It’s my mission to use up my stores, relying on tried-and-true recipes and a little inventiveness.

HOW TO CREATE A STOCK OF INGREDIENTS

If you’re anything like me, you’ve got plenty of random odds and ends to work with for this pantry challenge. But you may not! I follow two guidelines to ensure that a quick and cheap meal is never too far away.

    1. Buy double sometimes. This may seem counterintuitive to my goal of saving money while grocery shopping, but it’s really not. A couple of times a month, I’ll buy double amounts of the canned and frozen goods on my shopping list. Four cans of diced tomatoes, six cans of chickpeas, two bags of frozen peas. You can add those items to your cart for just a few dollars, and they will be there waiting for you when you’re building a pantry-based meal plan the next week.

      I do not double-up on grains purchases because I am currently working through a pasta and rice stash like you wouldn’t believe. Why did I keep buying grain blends? But once that stash is depleted, buying two boxes of macaroni or two bags of rice is hardly more expensive than buying one.
    2. Double freezable recipes. This has SAVED MY LIFE! You may think I’m exaggerating, but having some frozen chili to defrost when you’ve got to feed unexpected guests on a Friday evening?! LIFE SAVING!!!!

      Often, when I make a soup, chili, stew, curry, etc., I double it and freeze half. We have a deep freeze, so this is super-easy for me, but you could totally make it work with a regular freezer, too. I let the meal cool to room temperature, ladle it into freezer-safe gallon bags, and then lay the bag flat in the freezer. Once the bag is frozen, it can be stacked horizontally (like books on a shelf) or vertically, and that takes up barely any space at all. When it comes time to eat these frozen meals, I let them defrost in the fridge for ~12 hours (always wrapped in an absorbent dish towel in case the bag is invisibly ripped) and then reheat on the stove, OR, if I’m really in a hurry, the frozen contents of the bag can go in an enormous pot on the stove with a splash of water.

      Having these frozen meals (which I keep a list of on my phone) means that I can incorporate one of them into my meal plan each week. I usually defrost a soup or chili that becomes my lunches, but they are also perfect for nights when I need to write after work.

MAKING A PANTRY-BASED MEAL PLAN

This is where creativity comes in. The goal is to buy as few new groceries as possible, so planning meals starts with assessment. Towards the end of the week, usually Friday or Saturday morning, I check out the contents of my fridge. I start there because refrigerated stuff has a shorter shelf life than pantry and freezer items, so it needs to be used up first. I usually have veggies, hummus, various non-dairy milks, and leftovers.

For example, if I have bell peppers, I come up with a plan to use them. That can be sliced for hummus dipping, or added to soup, or making fajita peppers.

Let’s say I decide to go with fajitas. Next I move to the pantry, where I’m hoping I’ll find black or pinto beans. I don’t see either, but I do have brown lentils. Check! I also have a ton of brown rice and an unopened jar of salsa. I add lettuce and cilantro to my grocery list, and now I have the makings of burrito bowls with bell peppers, lentils, and brown rice!

While I’m looking for the black beans, I find a ton of red lentils, and I know I’ve got a box of spaghetti. If I buy marinara sauce and some mushrooms, I’ll have all the makings for my vegan Million Dollar spaghetti (recipe coming soon!).

This process flips the order of how I used to make a meal plan. I used to choose recipes first and check my pantry second. NOPE. Now I check for ingredients and choose meals around that. Last week, I noticed that I had two bags of frozen edamame, and that inspired the rice bowls I made the other night. I used this recipe, but I customized it to fit the veggies I had on hand. I bought a package of tofu to substitute for the eggs, but everything else was in my pantry, fridge, or freezer.

The more comfortable you are winging it in the kitchen, the easier pantry cooking is. It’s easy to make the most of your pantry if you can cook without a recipe. This is a skill that comes with time and practice, BUT anyone can do it. The easiest way to make a cheap AF meal with what you’ve got on hand: soup, pasta, or stir fry. All three will use up any veggie or protein, all have really flexible recipes that have easy ingredient swaps, and they’re pretty foolproof! Chop and saute veggies, add sauce or broth, simmer until tender, add cooked protein, and serve over a grain. You did it!

If you want an example of an easy, make-it-up-as-you-go-along type of “recipe,” see this Instagram post:

View this post on Instagram

Quick and easy and DELICIOUS “chicken” noodle soup 🐥🐥🐥 Sauté chopped onion in olive oil. Add salt and pepper. Add chopped carrot and celery. Sauté for 5-7 mins, until it gets soft-ish. Add 8 c broth (or water + Better Than Bullion Not-Chicken base, which is what I did!), and bring to a boil. Add two cans of chickpeas, drained and rinsed. Simmer for ~20 mins. Bring back to boil, and add 1/2 lb angel hair pasta, broken in half, and frozen green peas. Boil for 5 or so mins, just short of pasta being ready. Turn off heat, and let sit for 10 mins. ✨✨✨ This has @traderjoes everything bagel seasoning on top, but @franksredhot is delish, too. ❄️❄️❄️ Perfect for an icy, snowy day.

A post shared by Caitlin Wallace (@caitlinmwallace) on

I love answering your recipe questions on Insta or in the comments here, so don’t hesitate to reach out ♥️

RESULTS

I’ve gone grocery shopping twice this year. I spent $30 the first week (making the most of leftover Christmas and New Year’s food) and $60 the second. That feeds Grant and I for 21 meals/week EACH, plus snacks. (We rarely eat out — just a few times each month, usually with friends.) That’s less than $1.50/person/meal.

It could be lower, but I buy a lot of fresh produce, like salad stuff. That adds up quickly. I think it’s worth it.

I know that this way of meal planning isn’t revolutionary. But it is a real way that I can be more intentional about spending, cut down on food waste, and flex my culinary muscles (which are bigger than my actual muscles).

What budgeting tricks do you use in the kitchen? I could always use the help!

Dinner drop-off: Sweet potato, coconut, and red lentil daal

I’m in the season of life where everyone is having babies. The season where happy hours often include holding a friend’s baby in one hand and a cocktail in the other. The season where multiple friends at a time are down for the count with morning sickness.

While it feels a tiny bit bittersweet for the spontaneity of childless years to be leaving my friend circle, it mostly feels exciting. I love babies, and I love seeing the strong, awesome women I hold so dearly with their little ones.

Today, I want to share with you my favorite way to support the new mamas in my life: bring them a meal! This idea isn’t innovative or difficult or expensive, but it’s something I wish we all did more of. When a friend is in need, whether that’s because they’re struggling or celebrating, feed them!

Honestly, you don’t even have to enjoy cooking for this to work. Bringing your friend’s favorite takeout is probably just as welcome as a homemade meal. When you bring them food, any food at all, that means they don’t have to worry about the chore of making dinner, even if it’s just for the night.

When you bring a new mom dinner, sometimes you have to carry strange bags into the office. 

I’ll be sharing a series of these recipes that work well for the dinner drop-off in the coming months. These meals have to fit several criteria: 1. Cozy and simple, 2. Store and reheat well, 3. Walk the line between healthy and indulgent.

My best tips and tricks for meal delivery success:

  • All-disposable everything. When you’re bringing a friend a meal, it’s likely because the rest of their life feels overwhelming. Don’t give them the additional task of remembering to return your casserole dish. I am usually a stickler for glass storage and reusable containers, but this is an exception. I have a few Rubbermaids that I am not attached to, and I just tell the recipient to pass that container along as needed. If a gallon ziplock will do the job, use one.
  • Check in about food preferences. If you’re not sure if your friend has any allergies or aversions, just ask. Especially if you’re making food for a newly pregnant and possibly nauseated friend or a nursing mom. I usually send a text or email like this: “I want to bring you dinner Wednesday evening. Are there any specific foods you’re avoiding?”
  • Give a heads-up. Since the idea of this good deed is to take the weight off your friend’s shoulders, let her know a day or two ahead of time what you’re thinking. That way she doesn’t spend any time stressing about what’s for dinner that night — she knows she has a delivery from you on the way.

The meal I’m sharing today, a simple lentil daal with sweet potatoes and green peas, is a favorite at my house. It’s spiced and flavorful, but not spicy; it’s hearty, but not heavy. It freezes well in case your friend can’t use the meal right away. I brought it to a friend and her husband earlier this week with brown rice, garlic naan, and chewy blondies with chocolate, coconut, and pecans.

Sweet potato, coconut, and red lentil daal

Serves 2 hungry adults for 2 meals

I know that this dish isn’t authentic. But it’s wholesome, hearty, and has all the coziness of chicken noodle soup.

Ingredients:

Medium yellow onion, diced

Coconut or olive oil

Four cloves of garlic, minced

Tbsp fresh ginger, minced

 

Tbsp yellow curry powder

½ tbsp turmeric

1 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp cardamom

1 tsp salt (more to taste)

 

3 medium sweet potatoes, chopped into small cubes

1 c red lentils

1 can full-fat coconut milk

1 cup water (more to add if daal gets dry)

 

1 c frozen green peas

  1. Heat a large pan over medium-high heat (I use my cast iron skillet). Once hot, add a couple tablespoons of your chosen oil. I use a combination of coconut and olive. When the oil is melted/hot, add the onions. Sautee until golden brown, up to ten minutes.
  2. Add garlic and ginger. Sautee for 30 seconds, or until very fragrant. Lower heat to medium.
  3. Add spices, and — stirring constantly — toast for one minute. I add more coconut oil at this step if the pan looks dry.
  4. Add sweet potatoes, lentils, coconut milk, salt, and water. Stir to combine. Bring to a boil, and then simmer for 30-40 minutes. Stir occasionally, ensuring that the lentils don’t stick to the bottom of the pan. If the lentils or sweet potatoes need more liquid to cook, add about a cup of water halfway into the cooking time.
  5. Once the potatoes are fork-tender, stir in the green peas. Allow to simmer for five more minutes to warm the peas through.
  6. Serve with brown rice, naan, or both if you need extra comfort. Sriracha and cilantro are welcome compliments.

Heavily adapted from this recipe.

Note on rice: for the best reheating experience, spread still-hot, freshly cooked rice in a flat layer (like on a big baking sheet) until completely cool. Then store and refrigerate. The rice will reheat in individual grains, not as a big clump.

One Month Vegan: What I’m Eating and What I’ve Learned

As of Tuesday, my husband will have been eating vegan and gluten-free for a whole month. The reasons why are complicated and health-related and none of your business 😝, so let’s get to the real question: WHAT THE HELL DOES HE EAT?

Lots of chickpeas, really. Also, did you know brown rice pasta tastes basically the same as regular pasta? I’m finally figuring out tofu, so that’s been fun.

Even if this diet doesn’t end up doing the trick for Grant’s allergy problems (which I alluded to here), I’m really enjoying learning new techniques and trying new things. Once it’s consistently warm outside, I can’t wait to check out some vegan grilling options. (Not sure what those will be. Eggplant? Tofu planks? Hit me up if you have ideas!)

Once we decided to give vegan a try, I started reading. Before, when I had served G meatless meals, he had a hard time getting full. I think some of that may be psychological and based on expectations of what a meal should be, but I was legitimately concerned about getting enough protein into his diet.

Well, guess what? Vegan diets are, like, super full of protein. Lentils and quinoa and nuts, oh my.

My initial research was fueled by this cookbook ⬇⬇⬇, which I’ve had for a long time, but hadn’t done a whole lot of cooking out of. Isa has stews, pastas, sandwiches, salads, everything.

Meal planning in bed.

I read the whole thing like a novel, earmarked a bunch of the recipes, and I’ve been aiming to make one each week. Our very favorite so far has been lentilroni (another blogger made it here). It’s kind of like canned beefaroni (I always preferred the ravioli). But instead of weirdly textured “ground beef,” there are lentils, and pureed cashews make the sauce creamy and delicious. (I also forgot to soak the cashews the first time I made this, and it didn’t matter at all. I ground them to a powder in my food processor, and they incorporated with the vegetable broth perfectly.)

Minimalist Baker is another plant-based inspiration. Her roasted garlic mac and cheese is incredible.

One cannot live on peanut butter sandwiches on super-expensive gluten-free bread alone, so here’s a by-protein breakdown of what we’ve been eating (and really enjoying (mostly)).

PINTO OR BLACK BEANS

I made a big batch of pintos in my slow cooker, stuck most of them in the freezer, and now they’re ready to pull out for burrito bowls or taco salads at any time. Beans and rice is also an easy, simple meal, especially so with avocado and hot sauce.

TOFU

Whenever I’m at an Asian restaurant, I almost always order tofu as my protein. The crispy on the outside, fluffy on the inside texture is so delicious, and I know that texture is accomplished with lots of oil.

A good runner-up tofu prep – and one that’s healthier and easier to make at home – is baked in a hot, hot oven. I press extra-firm tofu for at least 90 minutes to get excess water out, cube it, toss it in cornstarch, soy sauce, and olive oil, and bake it for 25 minutes at 425, tossing the tofu halfway through.

Crispy tofu, broccoli and tomatoes, and this creamy coconut turmeric rice. We topped it with bottled carrot-ginger salad dressing.

This method is easy, quick, and the resulting crispy tofu soaks up any sauce you drizzle on it. I’m partial to a homemade teriyaki or a citrus vinaigrette.

LENTILS

I’ve taken to making a batch of green lentils over the weekend to have on hand when we need a protein. I’ll stir them into salads or serve them with leftover grains and roasted vegetables.

CHICKPEAS

Hummus is a regular in our house, vegan diet or no, but I’ve learned some new ideas. Hummus pasta is my new Friday night too-tired-to-read-a-recipe meal. Boil pasta in well-salted water. Saute onions, garlic, and big handfuls of fresh spinach. Reserve a mugful of the pasta water and drain. Add half a container of hummus to the saute pan. Heat until creamy, adding splashes of pasta water as needed. Add drained pasta and stir. It will be so creamy, and it really scratches that mac and cheese itch. I add lots of red pepper flakes to serve.

We’ve also been eating chickpea scrambles a lot. Saute onions, garlic, and whatever veggies you’d like, add drained chickpeas. Smash them up a little and let them sizzle for 5 or so minutes, adding paprika, salt, and pepper to taste. Serve with salsa and roasted potatoes on the side.


What’s true regardless of which vegan protein you pick: there is little flavor in these plant-based options on their own. They all can take a lot of salt and a lot of hot sauce. They’ll also meld super well with whatever sauce you choose. On my list for this week is tofu cubes in BBQ sauce with corn, sweet potatoes, and broccoli. Maybe some fresh pineapple for a “Hawaiian” vibe?

I don’t think we’ll be eating vegan forever. G really likes and misses chicken, and you all know how I feel about a whole roasted bird. But I think we will stick to the routine of more meatless meals. It’s heart-healthy and planet-healthy, and a bag of lentils is a hell of a lot cheaper than a package of chicken.

What are your favorite plant-based meals?

Meal Planning 101

Here it is, guys: a crash course in meal planning. This is what saves me time, money, and extra pounds every week.

Healthy eating means something different to everyone. To me, it means vegetables at most of my meals, grains at just a few of them, and plenty of protein. Convenience foods and restaurant meals — especially in the Midwest, where there are just fewer options — don’t easily facilitate this.

Time and expense are big, totally valid barriers to eating healthfully. Learning to plan meals and prep food ahead of time? Game changer.


BARRIERS

Eating nutrient-dense meals is important, and the cheapest way to do that is to make the meals yourself. While swinging through the McDollar menu drive-thru on the way home may be cheaper than grocery shopping and cooking, the calories you’re consuming are totally empty. Buying a kale and romaine salad with chicken, chickpeas, bell peppers, and avocado could easily be $8-12. You can make it at home for WAY less money. You just may have to eat it for a few days in a row to use up all the ingredients.

Eating healthfully is more expensive. It just is. I talk about this issue here, but processed food is full of sugars and starches because those ingredients are dirt cheap. Leafy greens and lean proteins are costly, especially when compared to the $1 frozen T.V. dinner.

I am so fortunate to be able to afford nutrient-dense food. This does not escape me. Not everyone can budget for seven salads a week, because seven sandwiches will be cheaper.

Making a thoughtful grocery list can save money, as can shopping around to find the cheapest place for your staples. I rely on Aldi, a bargain grocery store, and have saved so much money shopping there.

Classic Caitlin meal prep: a big batch of chili or soup that will only taste better as it sits in the fridge. (This is sweet potato, black bean, and quinoa chili from What's Gaby Cooking.)
Classic Caitlin meal prep: a big batch of chili or soup that will only taste better as it sits in the fridge. (This is sweet potato, black bean, and quinoa chili from What’s Gaby Cooking. All ingredients from Aldi.)

Time is another factor in eating healthfully. It takes longer to grocery shop and cook than it does to eat in the cafeteria at work or hit Chipotle on the way home. I choose to spend multiple hours on the weekend planning, shopping, and prepping food for the upcoming week. I enjoy this, so it doesn’t often feel like work (although sometimes it does).

By carefully planning my meals, making an intentional grocery list, and keeping essentials on hand, I’m able to make (mainly) wholesome meals for G and I for the whole week.


SOLUTION

Meal planning can be overwhelming and intense the first few times. It’s full of a dozen little mental calculations: how much rice do I need? Do we have eggs? What about bananas? Which nights am I working late?

I was terrible at first: buying too much, planning to make dinner every night of the week (ha!), forgetting to plan something for breakfasts or snacks.

What follows are the details of how I meal plan. Everyone does this process differently, and a million little factors determine what will work best for you. How many people are you cooking for? How many times do you eat out each week? Do you mind leftovers?

To help you answer those questions, I’ve made a meal planning worksheet. The instructions for use are at the bottom of the post, and you can download the worksheet here.

meal-planning


MY MEAL PLANNING ROADMAP

Friday: Over lunch, I plan meals for the upcoming week, Saturday-Friday. I save complicated or time-consuming recipes for the weekend and rely on old faithfuls and no-recipe meals during the week.

I also give thought to lunches and breakfasts. Grant leaves for work very early, so I pack breakfast and lunch for him every day. If I don’t plan ahead, it’s easy to run out of food mid-week.

By Friday, I typically have a pretty good idea of what our calendar looks like for the upcoming week (happy hours, doctor’s appointments, whatever), so I can plan around that.

Saturday: I review the meal plan I made the day before, check my fridge and pantry for the ingredients I need, and add what’s missing to my grocery list. I use this app. I don’t 100% love it, but it gets the job done. Similar items, like freezer and produce, sort by color-coding, and you can create different lists for different stores (Aldi, Hyvee, Trader Joe’s).

Quantities are one thing that really screwed me up when I first started meal planning. I never bought the right amount of produce — always too much or too little. Now, I have it down. Since I know that I eat one romaine heart for lunch every day, and Aldi sells romaine hearts in packs of three, I should buy two packs. Easy peasy.

I go shopping at Aldi first, getting as much as I can there. I follow up at Hyvee, which is on the way home, and grab the one or two things I can’t get at Aldi. This varies from week to week, but is usually a specialty item, like Larabars or kombucha.

When I get home, I immediately do some prep. I open packages of meat and divide them into fridge and freezer packs. If I need one pound of ground turkey for the coming week, but bought a three-pound pack, I’ll freeze two pounds and put the remaining pound in a container in the fridge.

Other examples of quick prep that I do at some point before Sunday evening: make big batches of rice or quinoa, freeze brown bananas for smoothies, chop squashes and other hearty vegetables, roast and shred chicken, make soup in the crockpot, and mix dry ingredients for oatmeal.

Prepped ingredients smiling at me.
Prepped ingredients smiling at me.

I put everything in glass containers (I have these), so I can see what’s in the fridge when I open it.

Planning our meals and prepping food on the weekend is the only way I can make meals after work while also leaving plenty of time for after-work plans, T.V. time, and more.

My commute takes about 45 minutes, and knowing what I’ll be making for dinner once I get home calms my mind and allows me to unwind more quickly. My non-office time is sacred, and I want to get the most out of the hours before bed. 

This may seem like a lot of work at first, but it runs like clockwork once you’ve practiced a few times. Some of you probably think I’m crazy for devoting this much time/energy/thought to meal planning, but to each their own, dudes!


MEAL PLANNING WORKSHEET

The worksheet has three sections: planning notes, days of the week, and extras. They can be used any way you please, but I’ve listed some ideas below.

Planning Notes:

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I thought about making my handwriting *perfect*, but that’s just not realistic.

I use this space to map out what makes the week unique. Some questions I think about:

How many people am I feeding at each meal? My answer is almost always two, but sometimes we’ll have family over or Grant will be away for a meal.

Which meals am I packing to eat away from home? Lunches for work? Breakfast to eat after an early-morning exercise class? Healthy dinner before a cocktail party?

What do I want to snack on?

Which nights will I rely on leftovers? If I’m getting home late, or if there’s a T.V. show on I do NOT want to miss the beginning of, I’ll often plan to eat leftovers. That may mean that I double a recipe I’m making the night before, or I’ll plan on eating hummus, crackers, and veggies for dinner.

What’s the weather going to be like? Do you want to grill or eat soup?

Are there ingredients I need to use up? Leftover veggies from the week before? Meat that’s almost been in the freezer for too long?

What are my nutritional goals for the week? If the week before has been full of wine and cheese, I’ll plan a very veggie-heavy week of meals.

Days of the week:

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Link to the Cheez It-flavored roasted chickpeas here. 👅

I note what’s for dinner each night, accompanied by any relevant notes or reminders.

Extras:

extras

Here’s where I note which snacks are easy to grab and what quick lunch and breakfast options there are. Some examples: cans of tuna and garbanzo beans for topping salads, hummus and rice crackers, nuts, smoothie packs in the freezer, and baked sweet potatoes.

Happy planning! Comment below or tweet/snap/email me if you have questions or comments! My contact info is here.