“What’s for dinner?” is that incessant question that never seems to go away, kind of like those piles of dishes and laundry that keep reappearing. Plus, we’ve got breakfast and lunch to contend with as well, now that we’re spending more time at home than ever.
While there are still plenty of takeout and delivery options in Winnipeg, home cooking is less expensive and – usually – a healthier choice (plus, the less contact with other people the better!). But what are you making??
Preparing for three meals a day, seven days a week – plus snacks! Don’t forget the snacks! – can be pretty daunting, but meal planning isn’t about picking out 12 new recipes you’ve never tried before and forcing them into your week. It’s about forming your food schedule around your lifestyle.
You might think that meal planning is only for busy soccer moms, but regardless of whether you’ve got a family at home or it’s just you and your tchotchkes, a little prep can save you time, money, and more importantly, the anguish of having to choose what’s for dinner.
I do a lot of cooking to support my eating habit and I’ve picked up a few strategies over the years. Here are my tips for creating a manageable meal plan:
1 – Plan around your schedule.
When you’re thinking about meals for the upcoming week, consider what else you’ve got going on and how they will affect your time and energy for food prep.
Slotting in a crock-pot recipe if you’ll be at the (home) gym late, or you’re planning that Zoom cocktail get-together with your friends, lets you quickly throw together a completed meal. Or, when the whole evening is wide open, that’s the perfect opportunity for something more elaborate you’ve been wanting to try!
One thing to keep in mind (as if we could forget) – Mondays are hard. Whatever day your Monday actually is, plan for something delicious and relatively easy (think pasta night with salad for lunch). A quick win at the beginning of your week starts you off on the right foot and makes the rest of the week seem easier!
2 – Consider what’s in your refrigerator.
If those bell peppers are on their last legs or your milk is about to expire, pick recipes that will use them up!
Try writing a master ingredient list for everything you want to make in the coming week. Before you go to the store, go through your fridge, freezer, cupboards, secret food stash in the ceiling and mark off all the things you already have – Ta-da! Whatever is left is your grocery list!
3 – Build your basics.
A well-stocked pantry is the key to successful home cooking. These are your building blocks for many recipes and are enough on their own to throw together a Plan B meal in a pinch. At minimum, I’m talking about:
Salt & pepper
Soup stock (chicken or veggie are the most versatile),
Your favorite vinegar (mine is balsamic but if you’re only going to pick one, white wine vinegar is my recommendation – it’s mild, gives the acidity you want and gives a little wine-y flavor to your recipes).
And don’t forget a sweetener – honey, agave or even maple syrup!
Other good things to keep around are: garlic, ginger, onions, beans (canned for spontaneous beans or dried if you’re really planning ahead), canned tomatoes and some canned soups. There are so many things you can do with a can of mushroom soup! I’ll share my recipe for mushroom “Alfredo” sauce below.
Once you get an idea of what your go-to recipes take, you’ll know what else you want to keep on hand. You probably want a selection of your cherished condiments and sauces – ever since I discovered Hoisin sauce, there is never not some in my fridge! And it never hurts to keep an emergency box of KD around, just in case!
4 – Anticipate leftovers.
I love leftovers! Not only do I get more of the delicious things I already made, but I also get to skip cooking something else. If I make up a big batch of meatballs, that’s three or four meals worth of protein that I can either eat with leftover rice, throw in with other ingredients, or if I don’t want to eat the same thing all week, freeze for later. Which reminds me of…
5 – Batch cook meals to freeze (so when you don’t want to cook, you don’t have to!).
While you’re cooking up big meals, why not go the extra kilometer and make some things that are freezer friendly? This can be leftovers (if your recipe freezes well), a batch of freezer burritos (don’t worry, I’ve got a recipe for you) or breakfast muffins (regular muffins, or egg “muffins”, or even donut muffins. I couldn’t choose my favorite, but there are many recipes online).
The best part – if you spend a little time creating these freezer meals, you have several options to grab, nuke, and go for those days when you don’t have the time or energy to get in the kitchen.
6 – Try a Theme Day!
For an easy jumping off point in your meal planning, slot in a Theme Day (the term for this is actually Meal Templates, but that is not as fun as a Theme Day). We always think of Taco Tuesday, but you could do Mexican Monday or Curry Thursday. Your Theme can be whatever you like – it doesn’t even have to start with the same letter as the day! Pick a couple of categories you like and plan on them once a week. Fun!
This kind of focal point is helpful when you’re meal planning. You’re basically narrowing down the field from all the recipes to a specific category of recipes to choose from. If you know that you’re having pasta on Friday you only need to decide whether you’re making that decadent carbonara or a lasagna that could feed you through the weekend (or freezes really well).
7- Rely on your tried-and-true recipes.
We all have our go-to meals, the ones we keep coming back to again and again. Well, they’re popular for a reason! It’s not necessary to get a roster of brand-new recipes every week. On nights when you’re busy with other things or you just want something easy or familiar, rely on those recipes that you know will not fail you.
My current easy, throw-together meal is a cucumber and tomato salad (and yes, you can have this recipe too). It’s super versatile and as simple as chopping up some veg, throwing that into a bowl and eating!
8 – Try new things.
With the internet, we no longer need to rely on our mothers’ hand-me-down cookbook for recipes (though do keep that close by). It’s easy to search for a recipe for almost anything and find it.
There are even websites where you plug in the ingredients you want to use, and it will return a list of options for you! (Reverse lookup for recipes? Yes, please!). Personally, I’m a big fan of All Recipes where people share their own recipes and others can review them. You can see pictures, read about how it turned out, and what you might want to change.
One sneaky little trick (a favorite of my mother’s) is to regularly patrol the send-you-meal-ingredients-in-a-box service websites. There is often a cache of recipes that rotates with what they’re currently offering. You can snag those tasty recipes and then buy your own ingredients.
9 – Prep ingredients in advance.
The advantage of knowing what you’ll be making is figuring out what ingredients you need ahead of time. This makes it easy to chop up a bunch of vegetables whenever you have a spare 10 minutes, and have them ready to go. If you can’t imagine where you’d get a spare 10 minutes, set aside a dedicated half hour at some point in the week instead.
If all your onions, peppers and garlic are already chopped, you can throw them straight into the pan without worrying about the prep work. Trust me, you’ll thank your past self for your forethought.
Meal planning seems like a lot of work. And don’t get me wrong, it is still work. But the amount of time you put into it easily pays itself back and then some when you no longer need to waffle (mmm… waffles) over what you are going to make for breakfast, lunch and dinner each and every day.
Cooking is creative – have fun with it! I like to use versatile recipes that can be catered to my own tastes. Don’t be afraid to experiment – adjust the seasonings to your preference. If you hate bell peppers but love carrots, swap them out. Not all your experiments will turn out to be amazing, but some of them will.
I’ve got a few recipes to get you started. These are my favorite versions of these recipes, and I can tell you that I love them, but make your own adjustments as you see fit. Have fun!
Mushroom “Alfredo” – 4 servings
Not exactly traditional, but tasty and with less fat than a true Alfredo
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 small yellow onion, chopped
2-3 cloves of garlic, chopped (this is being conservative, but you measure garlic with your heart)
1 cup sliced mushrooms (optional)
1 can of condensed mushroom soup
1 cup (about 1 soup can full) half & half cream
½ cup grated parmesan cheese
Heat olive oil over medium heat in a non-stick skillet. Add chopped onions to heated pan and sauté until starting to soften.
Put on a pot of water to boil for your pasta. You want the sauce to be complete before the pasta is cooked, but they should be done about the same time. Cook the pasta to package directions.
Add garlic and mushrooms (if using) and cook until onions are clear, and mushrooms have shrunk down. If your mushrooms are too dry, add a bit more olive oil.
Open the can of condensed mushroom soup into the pan, breaking it up with a wooden spoon. Slowly start to add the cream, a couple of tablespoons at a time, stirring it completely into the soup mixture before adding more. This should end with a smooth, liquid sauce
Add parmesan cheese and stir in completely. It should still be thin enough to run off a spoon but to coat the back of it. If the sauce is too thick, add more cream. If it is too liquid, add more cheese.
Let simmer over low heat until pasta is cooked. Drain pasta and toss in the sauce.
Serve and garnish with parsley!
Roasted Chickpeas – Snack of choice and a great salad topper
1 can of chickpeas (or dried chickpeas rehydrated overnight) **If you’re using a can of chickpeas, drain the liquid and keep it for the last recipe!
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons paprika
2 teaspoons cumin
1 teaspoon chili powder
½ teaspoon salt
Preheat oven to 275°F. Line a baking sheet with foil.
In a large bowl (or I like to use a sieve to get rid of any excess oil) toss the chickpeas with olive oil and seasonings until thoroughly coated.
Spread the chickpeas onto the baking sheet Bake at 275°F for 3 hours (this gives a nice crunchy chickpea without being too hard. If you want them slightly chewier, reduce heat to 225°F
Tomato Cucumber Salad – Fast and Easy – 1 serving (Lettuce is overrated!)
½ English cucumber
1 large tomato or a generous handful of cherry tomatoes
3-4 leaves of fresh basil
2 tablespoons of roasted chickpeas (these add protein and a crunch!)
2 tablespoons balsamic vinaigrette or your preferred dressing
Pinch each of salt and pepper
Chop cucumber, tomato and avocado into smally chunky pieces and toss together in bowl
Tear basil leaves and add to bowl
Sprinkle with chickpeas
Add dressing, salt and pepper and toss everything together
Freezer Burritos – 8-10 servings (The best freezer meal!)
1 lb ground beef
2 tsp each cumin, chili powder, chopped garlic
2 bell peppers, chopped
1 jar of salsa (you could chop up the onions, tomatoes and peppers but they’re already in this super convenient jar!)
1 cup cheddar cheese, shredded
1 can black beans, drained
1 cup uncooked rice
¼ c cilantro, chopped
8-10 large flour tortillas
Set a large skillet to medium heat to warm up; start cooking the rice.
Cook ground beef in heated pan until no longer pink, drain excess fat. Add cumin, chili powder and chopped garlic and sauté a few more minutes until fragrant. Remove from heat and set aside.
In a large bowl (or the skillet if it’s big enough) combine the beef, rice, peppers, salsa, beans, cheese and cilantro and mix until ingredients are evenly distributed.
Set oven to 350°F to preheat.
Scoop ~¾ cup of filling onto a tortilla (you want it to be well-filled but still closeable), fold the tortilla in a burrito-ish style and place seam side down in 9×13” pan. Repeat until all filling is used.
Place in heated oven for 20 minutes. Let cool then wrap each burrito in tinfoil. Store in large ziploc or container in your freezer.
To reheat, remove tinfoil and microwave for 3-5 minutes
Bonus Recipe! – Aquafaba Meringues
If you saved the liquid from your can of chickpeas above, use it to make this fluffy dessert that “tastes like Lucky Charms marshmallows”!
¾ cup aquafaba (liquid from chickpeas) (about 1 can’s worth of liquid)
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 cup white sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
Preheat oven to 210°F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
In a large bowl, combine aquafaba and cream of tartar. Whip with an electric mixer until soft peaks form, add vanilla, then begin adding the sugar 1 tablespoon at a time, beating until mixture is glossy with stiff peaks.
Spoon into a piping bag (or a large ziploc with the bottom corner cut off) and pipe onto the baking sheet in 1-inch circles
Bake in preheated oven until meringues are firm and come away from the baking sheet easily, about 90 minutes. Let cool completely.