One of the most common themes I hear from people trying to change their food habits is, “I don’t know where to start.” This is more true with meal planning and batch cooking than with almost anything else. Simple though it sounds, many people find it intimidating if they’ve never done it before. Some of you are naturals and love browsing Pinterest, clipping coupons, and never repeating a recipe (yes, you. You know who you are). For the rest of us with brains that like patterns and routines, it’s just a big ball of UGH. Either way, I had to force myself back into the habit.
Eating healthy isn’t something I’m trying to do, it’s a priority to me. I only have room for a few big priorities and that one comes in above almost everything else. That’s why I’m not writing a blog post about how I got my 6-pack abs, earned my PhD, or redid my whole house in DIY projects! We choose what is important with the time we have after the “must-dos” have taken their share. For me, eating real food is non-negotiable. Yes, we eat junk food, occasionally. Yes, we eat out, rarely. But on a day-to-day basis real food is the only option. Frozen dinners and drive-thrus are not part of the routine anymore. We eat real food, cooked at home, most of the days. Sometimes that food is just eggs scrambled with whatever veggie scraps I can find, but you get the point.
That is a big commitment, I get that. I am absolutely not content with staying home with my cutesy little apron cooking* ALL. THE. TIME. That’s not me. I have a gypsy spirit and am always on the go. I said real food was a top priority, not the only one! So I got a little excited when Spring arrived. I went a little overboard and scheduled the crap out of April. I didn’t leave myself any time for grocery shopping and meal prepping on the weekends. With my son in track and field I didn’t leave myself any time for cooking on the weekdays. Oops.
(*I actually just ordered a cutesy little apron from Flirty Aprons. I’ll show you guys when it arrives!)
So I planned to plan. I talked about it, I kinda scheduled it in, I planned to do it. I procrastinated. I talked about it more and I whined about it. Finally, out of time, I enlisted the help of a friend, logged into Pinterest, and started collecting recipes.
Let me back up, so you can see my process and use what you will to make yours. I do a lot of mental prep and planning. Then I sit down and write out the calendar (mine looks pretty rough, but if you’re all artsy and want to draw out boxes, do your thing!). I write the days, and then next to them I write the activity we have going on that evening. That allows me to count up how many meals I need, which days must be crockpot days, etc. THEN I hit up Pinterest and just start pinning everything that looks promising to a board (or you can break out your favorite cookbooks, or both). Once I have a good amount, I look through again and make a list of ones I want to make. Then I just start plugging them into days. I look to make sure I have crockpot meals on the days I need them. I check to make sure I’m not having all chicken one week and all beef the next. I try to add fish in at least once or twice a week because it’s good for us, even though I don’t really like it. Basically, I make sure I’m balancing things out.
Now I have a list of days in the month with dinners assigned to them. The next step I take is to write out each week on its own page so that I can add a more detailed menu. I again include the activities on each day, but write in breakfast, lunch, and dinner. If I plan any special snacks that require being made (not just fruit or trail mix) I add them at the bottom of the day or week. At this point I can also think about what fresh produce I will need each week, what things will need to be taken care of that week rather than early, and fill in any blanks. I don’t often make special meals for breakfast, we usually have some variation of eggs, so unless I found a fun recipe or we will be extra rushed and I feel like making a fritatta, breakfast isn’t an issue. We usually do leftovers for lunch. Most recipes are for 4 servings and there are only 2 of us, so that works out well. However, some recipes are only per serving so I need to plan ahead to have lunch the days following those. Basically, this is the fill-in-the-missing-spots step, tailor it to fit your family. No surprises. Surprises lead to bad choices. We don’t like those in this scenario.
Finally, I make a list of ingredients. You can do this in one step or two, but the end result should be a total list of things you need to buy for cooking day, grouped by food for shopping convenience. So, all the meat in one column, produce in another, etc. I do it like this as I go through each recipe; chicken thighs 1, 1, 2, 1, 1.5 etc. At the end of this process you should have a concise shopping list. Mine usually gives me anxiety attacks, but I take deep breaths, grab my shopping bags and head out. If you are a couponer or a sale ad watcher now would be when you decide which stores to hit for what. I usually just go to Whole Foods for animal products and things Kroger won’t have, and then Kroger for the rest.
When you get back from the store, if you want to advance prep some produce (like washing or even chopping) to make cooking day easier, more power to you. I usually am accomplishing something just by getting everything into the fridge until cooking day (which should be the next day, ideally). I did 5 weeks worth of dinners, so I planned for a solid 8 hours of cooking. Give yourself the whole day, if possible. If you are starting with just a few meals to supplement throughout the month, it won’t take as long. Being prepared is the best favor you can do for yourself. Also, enlist help if you’ve got it. Those you will be feeding are the most obvious, or a friend that may come over and spend some time with you. Clear off your countertops, make sure you have plenty of space to put the things you’ve prepped. Clear out the dishwasher and sink. Put on your best Pandora station, we’re going to be here awhile.
This turned out much longer than I anticipated, so I will leave you here with the recipe we are having tonight to hold you over until Part 2 – “Cooking Day!”
Stuffed Collard Greens – My son loves when I wrap things in collard greens (see my recipe post here), and these were no exception. I looked up how to make Ras-el-Hanout Morrocan spice blend and had the spices on hand to do so. It added a lovely flavor. Next time I make them I will grind the nuts more and maybe cook the finished wraps just a tad less. I doubled this recipe but somehow got three batches out of it.