Meal Planning, A Love/Hate Roller Coaster

By , Alicia Capetillo, Staff Writer
Salads stacked in hip mason jars or a sea of matching Tupperware—it's the stuff of Instagram dreams and has the added benefit of ensuring you never having to stare into the depths of the frozen food freezer at your local 7-Eleven. To a novice, though, meal planning is terrifying. Not only do you want me to do math to double a recipe, but you expect me to organize my chaotic cooking thoughts and then spend hours in the grocery and kitchen prepping to feed myself for the week ahead? Like I'm some kind of Barefoot Contessa magician? Why don't I plan on prepping meals for my unicorn while I'm at it?
Much as it intimidated me to my very core, meal planning is one of those things that you can't avoid hearing about in this healthy living industry. Whether it's thanks to the rise in DIY everything or a really brilliant marketing scheme by the mason jar industry, you can't get through a two-minute scroll on Pinterest without running into at least one hot tip about planning your meals for the week.
Christopher McLaughlin, the brand and marketing director for the meal-planning app Plan to Eat, credits the rise in health awareness for the buzz surrounding meal planning. "As a culture we are coming to the realization that what we eat matters to our health and well-being. The shortcuts and fad diets that we have been taking for the past 50 years have left us with a society that is overweight and struggling with a ridiculous array of health issues," he says. "Meal planning is different. It's not a fad diet. It's about learning to be intentional about your food, building a sustainable system that fits into your lifestyle and realizing that the right foods can help you be the best you."
There was no avoiding it—this core cooking strategy had to be attempted. Like soldiers preparing for war, my boyfriend and I set ourselves up with a computer, two cookbooks, resolve and a dream.
"Wait, What's Triple 3/4 of a Cup?"
The plan was simple: Agree upon two meals to create in one whirlwind marathon session of cooking. As beginners, we didn't want to overextend ourselves by coming up with a plan for the entire week, but rather we would pick a recipe for five days of lunches and a dinner recipe that served four so we could enjoy it two nights of the week.
After perusing through a few websites and books, we landed on our picks for a rousing evening of meal planning: five Cooking Light shrimp salads and two nights of lime and coriander crusted tuna from "Healthy Speedy Suppers." The salad seemed like a solid option due to its simple base (pre-cut veggies and some frozen corn) topped with flavorful, but simple 15-minute, paprika-spiced shrimp. To keep our seafood addition safe to eat through the week, we opted to create the base salad, cook half of the shrimp for the first three days of the workweek, then spend a few minutes prepping and adding the shrimp to the last four salads on a Wednesday.* Keeping the dressing on the side would keep our lunches from getting soggy, plus we opted to add the recipe's required avocado on the day of, which we hoped would keep the flavor feeling fresh. We landed on our dinner choice based on the recipe's homemade salsa, which included several of the same veggies found in our salads. The less time we spent in the grocery, we knew, the better.
With the original recipe's serving size set at four, we needed to double and add a half to land on our 10 meals (five for me, five for boy). Slightly maddening as it was (journalism majors, holla), but we did at least have the foresight to figure out the numbers before we stepped foot in the store. Highly recommended to save your sanity. Both recipes required mostly fresh ingredients, meaning we rocked the approved shop-the-perimeter strategy. The biggest satisfaction of the night came when we bumped into some friends who remarked, "Look how much healthier your cart looks compared to ours!" Adulting win.
Back at the apartment, we got down to business. As with every recipe I try, the 15-minute prep time took closer to 45. Meal prep requires your brain to think ahead to the next step, so going back and forth between the recipe and my cutting board and over to the stove added some time to the running clock. A clean kitchen is key, too. Thanks to an overbooked day, we started late and were anxious to get cooking when we got to the kitchen. Clearing off a section of one countertop with all of our ingredients arranged in the right order would have prevented some headaches.
Another tip I learned is to pick recipes that allow for two steps to be attacked at the same time. Typically, I read recipes thinking that everyone who cooks must sprout extra limbs to manage chopping veggies while constantly stirring a roux and checking to be sure the chicken isn't already burning in the oven. With our meal planning approach, though, I was able to chop up our avocado salsa for dinner and portion out our vegetables into containers for lunch, while my boyfriend focused on cooking up the bacon and shrimp for lunch and baking the tuna for dinner. Having a singular focus for each of us prevented boredom and saved us some time.
Two and a half hours and one semi-severe burn later (truly, give yourself extra time and a lot of patience), we had five Instagram-worthy lunches ready for the week ahead. My Type-A-self found the careful measuring and portioning of each ingredient oddly satisfying and my foodie boyfriend loved the simplicity of adding a flavorful fish to otherwise uncomplicated dishes.

 Half of the prepped salads, literally made with the hands writing this blog. Really.

Learn from My Mistakes
Despite its mix of highs and lows, opening my refrigerator every morning and seeing those neatly organized rows of shrimp salad, no fuss, no hassle, was spectacular. Knowing that I didn't have to worry about making anything for lunch the following day made my evenings surprisingly relaxing. As novices, we made a few easy-to-avoid mistakes, though. Give these tips a try next time you dive into an afternoon of meal planning.
1. Start with what you know.

As a proud book nerd, I've spent some time perusing a book sale or 200. Every so often a cookbook grabs my attention and I think, "This is it. This is the year that I start cooking things. Delicious, drool-inducing things even." Then, those books sit on my overflowing book shelf because life gets in the way. When I decided to embark on this edible adventure, I immediately looked forward to cracking the spine on some of these cookbooks. With a little recipe understanding under my belt, I stuck to the salads and fish sections, in hopes that I wouldn't get sick of foods that I regularly order from local restaurants.

"To get started, make a list of five to 10 of your favorite meals for dinner. Then look at what they have in common. Do several use ground beef? Do most of them call for chopped onion? Do you eat more rice than you realized? Once you have found the common elements, choose five to six of those recipes that have the most items in common," is "Prep-Ahead Meals from Scratch" author Alea Milham's advice.  After selecting your recipes, choose a day to batch cook, prepping the common ingredients first. Milham recommends storing each cooked ingredient in usable portions, which allows you to grab, combine and eat without needing to measure every night.

2. These things take time.

Starting with two meals late on a Sunday was certainly the source of a lot of agitation for our first foray into batch cooking. Watching bedtime get pushed back and then back again effectively put me into panic mode—not a good look. Our fun experiment quickly became a tedious chore that was probably going to keep us up until 2:00 a.m. and probably wouldn't even taste good and, hey, who's dumb idea was this 30-day no takeout challenge again? Given enough time to create our meals, we surely would have avoided some frustration and the aforementioned burn.

McLaughlin says patience is key in getting started. "If you are just getting started, plan on spending at least one hour putting together the week's plan and grocery list," he says. "Once you figure out the nuances of what works in your household, and you build up your collection of meal-planning tools, you can go from nothing to on your way to the grocery store in 10 minutes."

3. Avoid the supermarket shuffle.

Heading to the grocery the first time, we thought we had our bases covered by having both recipes open in browser windows on my phone. Oh, how wrong we were. It took roughly two minutes in the vegetable section to recognize the error of our ways. One recipe required an avocado and two limes, while the other required five avocados and just one lime, which meant that we grabbed items for the first recipe, then had to circle back to grab the same ingredients for the second recipe. We huddled around the organic oranges to condense our two lists into just one checklist, which helped immensely.

Milham recommends going a step further and grouping items by category before you even step foot in the store. "I group my list by produce, dairy, meats, bulk food section, et cetera," she says. "This saves me time and reduces the chances that I have to run back to a section at the beginning of the store to pick up items I missed on my list."

4. Do your taste buds a favor by switching up your flavors.

Living life in the no-cooking lane means I'm pretty happy to eat the same thing over and over, assuming I didn't have to create it. However, while leftovers are my best friend, many people find themselves bored with eating the same meals day after day. The key is creating a base and then varying the details.

McLaughlin says the variations can be subtle. "I'm a big fan of mason jar salad. You can put any lettuces, vegetables, nuts, raisins—pretty much anything you want—into the salad, but simply by changing the dressing, you can have a different salad every day." Milham similarly uses different seasonings on a protein, plus a variety of sides to create new meals every night of the week.

5. Lose your stress to dance.

As with most things in life—the DMV, spin class, an especially sticky dive bar—music also has the power to make meal planning enjoyable. In our frenzied night, we talked about our recipes and the latest episode of "Better Call Saul," but were primarily focused on the task in front of us. Throwing on a solid Spotify playlist will surely be a priority on our next go.

"I have discovered that if I put on music in the kitchen, my family members will voluntarily come help with a meal prep-slash-dance party. Music really does have the ability to transform a chore into a fun activity," Milham, who started batch cooking in high school and perfected her technique feeding two kids when her husband was deployed, says. "I think meal prep is a wonderful time to focus not only on preparing meals, but a great time to reconnect and start conversations that then spill over to the dinner table." Tom Petty and spaghetti? Sounds like a win-win.

Consider me sold on the idea of meal planning, with the right time and proper planning, of course. Look for the final installment next week!

What is your stance on meal planning? Is it suited for real life or just fantasy? 

*Updated 4/28/16 to address food safety concerns.

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CECELW 4/19/2021
I don't usually plan ahead. I change my mind to often Report
LOSER05 2/21/2021
Thanks Report
NASFKAB 11/3/2020
Good Report
CD25385367 11/3/2020
I do a lot of meal planning as far as a menu each week. Sometimes I do all the prepping and precooking. Report
BONNIE1552 11/3/2020
Still not a fan but I can understand the why. Report
FERRETLOVER1 11/3/2020
Thanks. Report
Thank you Report
Thanks Report
I took the time to create a master list of grocery store items by aisle. Now I simply check off needed items and add numbers for multiples. Really fast and easy.

Grocery Store Shopping List

Beets, Brussels Sprouts
Carrots / Celery
Cabbage / Coleslaw
Cilantro / Parsley
Green / Red Pepper
Green Beans
Green Onions
Lettuce Iceberg Romaine
Onions/ Red Onion
Peas Snap
Potatoes White, Sweet, Red
Tomatoes / Cherry
Squash Acorn Zucchini

Apples, Bananas
Cantaloupe, Grapes
Lemon / Lime / Orange
Pear, Pineapple
Strawberries / Rasp / Black

Gr Beef
Turkey, Sausage, Bacon
Cod, Scallops, Calimari, Crab, Shrimp

18 Hispanic / Asian
Beans, Refried, Chili, Kidney
Tortillas, Rice
Herdez Carrots
Salsa, Soy Sauce
Tuna, Salmon, Clams, Broth
Artichoke Quarters, Baby Corn

17 Soup
Chicken Broth, Beef
Ketchup, BBQ, Chili Sauce
Baked Beans
Pickles, Olives, Peppercini
Vinegar Rice, Red Wine
Spices, Gravy Pkts.

15 Flour
Coffee, Tea, Flavors
Peanut Butter, Jam
Syrup, Cake Mix, Chips, Jello
Sugar, Brown, Honey, Spices, Salt
Oil, Pam

14 Cereal, Oatmeal, H2O

13 Coke, Juice, Root Beer, Ginger Ale

12 Chips
Popcorn, Nuts, Candy

11 TP, Paper Plates
Paper Towels, Tissues

7 Sundry / Rx
Vits, G. Closamine, CA+
Prilosec, Beano
Soap, Shampoo, Deodorant

6 Soap
Detergent, Dish, Dishwasher
Fabric Softener
AP Cleaners, Scrubbing Bubbles, Shower
Light Bulb, Trash Bags, Bar Tenders Friend

5 Milk, Dairy, Eggs
Cookies, Crackers
Butter, Rice Pudding
Sour Cream, Yogurt

3 & 4 Frozen, Veggies Peas, Corn
Ice Cream

Burger Buns
French Rolls, Ciabatta
Beer, Wine, Wht, Red

Rotisserie Chicken / Mashed Potatoes
Feta / Parm / Blue
Salsa, Hummus Report
Good tips. Report
To be totally honest I do not plan weeks ahead but I always have healthy food choices in my home so I can continue to eat healthy. Report
This is a great article with good ideas. But the journalistic style is incredibly annoying and immature. Report
I'm in the camp of shop smart like sales & ker0 a well stocked larder of basics on hand. Then cook extra, take leftovers for lunch & freeze the rest. I prep common ingredients (think onions, celery, carrots or peppers) & cook multiple entrees simultaneously. Soup, stew or chili in a crock pot; chicken or beef roasting in the oven, potatoes baking in there too; brown rice, quinoa or barley cooking in the microwave; ground beef browning in a large cast iron pan (Dutch oven) for burritos, tacos, enchilada casserole, & taco salad. I have a free standing freezer, side-by-side, & spare fridge w/ top freezer so storage isn't an issue. There's no pantry in the kitchen per se so I use extra cabinets in the garage. I make sure to label & date everything that's cooked. This naturally evolved over years while I worked cuz I wanted to make the most of my time. The cooking I enjoy, the cleanup not so much which is why doing it all at once helps w/ that too. Doing major meals once a month means dinners are done & there's leftovers for lunch. I then am supplementing with fresh produce for snacks (usually fruit) & taking some salads using bagged greens. Breakfast is alternated: hot cereal, egg burritos, smoothies, yogurt w/ mini bagel, omelette sandwich. Hubby often helped pack lunches or made breakfast but somedays I just grabbed a banana, a muffin & hard boiled egg. Weekends is the only time I make french toast, & not often. If we go out some morning, hubby gets his pancake fix then. Report
Thank You...………... Report
The title nails it. Report
Looks delicious! Report
Some great ideas Report
Have you ever tried couples cooking? It can be a lot of fun and a learning experience. We all come from different backgrounds. Things that anyone eating the meal (or at least that item) is allergic too will have have to be eliminated or made as a side too be added in later for those not sensitive. Items that anyone is intolerant too have to be limited. I like very small servings of ice cream, cheese cake or other high dairy dishes. Sometimes that can be an advantage to set a small serving pattern. Food "dislikes" can be learned patterns. I avoid things that cause major heartburn for example. List ingredients if you take a meal for an event so people can avoid eating that will cause them problems. For allergies even a small amount of an ingredient can cause serious problems. People with swallowing problems (dysphagia) also learn to avoid some food items since chokes are not a pleasant experience even though they will generally clear with time. Report
Great ideas! Report
I don't cook. My husband does it. He thinks he is better at it. Report
Thank you for these great tips! Report
The article has practical ideas. Report
I make all my salads in bunches. I love being able to just grab my lunch and go! I also make my soups, rice and bean meals in bunches and freeze the extra. Report
My stance on meal planning? I don't really do it. I just go to the grocery store and buy whatever produce, fish, and grains look fresh and intriguing. Occasionally, I will shop specifically for a particular recipe I want to try. I buy about as much as I believe my husband and I can consume in a two-week period, and have no trouble adjusting quantities of ingredients to make the desired number of portions. But then, I come from a different generation. I was encouraged to experiment with meal preparation from an early age, with my mother offering tips and suggestions as needed. In college, I would get together once or twice a week to cook meals with friends, each of us bringing one item. I do buy quite a few prepared items for lunch, but they are all healthy: fat free single-serve yogurt cups, McDougall's vegan soup cups, 100-calorie packs of nuts, and 3-oz cans of albacore tuna. That way, I can just grab 2 or 3 items to throw into my lunchbox to take to work. Report
When I make a meal like a chili, I make enough to freeze 3-4 more meals.
When I make a salad, I make 5, with the wetter veggies on the bottom, and lettuce on top! Report
great ideas Report
This article could not have had a more perfect title Report
I think it's great but someone posted a photo of her fruit snacks for the week. All of her fruit was cut. Oranges, strawberries, etc. I would worry that the nutrients would continue to decrease from day to day in cut up fruit. Am I right or wrong. I'd do this for veggie salads and lean meat entrees. Report
You mentioned your boyfriend helping you in the preps. I think I would be more encouraged to try something like this if I had a helper, which I don't. Also, in my own case I would need an extra refrigerator and more (I assume) freezer room than I presently have - all goals to plan for. And, let's face it, planning is the key motivator for action here! Report
Sounds pretty much as if they've never cooked anything from scratch or even shopped for cooking before! Even if all you've ever done was cooking pasta to add pre-made sauce it should be pretty common sense to combine shopping lists and read the recipes through thoroughly several times before starting.
That said I've been preparing vegetables for upcoming meals for a long time now. They keep for 3 to 5 days in the fridge if portioned out beforehand. Then I've only got to add proteins and healthy carbs as needed. Safes a lot of time on the day and it's not that much time used up on a Sunday (about half an hour plus cooking). It has saved me from frozen pizza any number of times.
Give it a try, it's really worth it if you are pressed for time during the week. Report
I don't consider myself over-organized, it meal planning is not as hard as this article makes it out to be. It sounds like she has never been to a grocery store! Don't be afraid of a little pre-planning to help you and your family start on the road to healthy meals. Give it a bit of thought before you start. And make lists, in your phone, on the fridge, whatever works for you. Meal planning is definitely worth the time you put into it. Report
planning meals really work Report
Meal planning and logging the day's calories in the morning are two most important weight management activities for me. If I plan well, I might end up with some calorie budget for a healthy dessert! Report
I have been doing meal planning for several years and weekly meal preps for nearly two years. I love doing the majority of the cooking at once. Not only are my meals planned, ready, and healthy, but there are substantially fewer dishes and kitchen clean-up during the week is much quicker.
I never worry about what I am going to eat for breakfast or lunch, and neither does my family. It is ready to go.
For some things, the freezer is a great help. I can make it at the beginning of the week, put it in the freezer and take it out during the last half of the week. Report
I've been doing something like this for the last 6 months or so. I plan my meals on Thursday (I have to calculate grams/portions for each macronutrient for each of my 5 meals), I go grocery shopping on Friday night and do all my cooking for the whole week between Saturday and Sunday, so I don't go crazy trying to prepare and measure and put in individual containers all my meals (between 25-35 meals, and some take several containers).
Every day I pack my lunch box with a morning snack, my lunch and an afternoon snack. I eat breakfast and dinner at home.
It sounds daunting, but once you get the hang of it, it's not that bad... and music does help. Report
I've done "marathon cooking" on a weekend when I have the crockpots and pots on the stove all going at once. However, that is not, repeat not, every weekend. My lunches for work are generally the same, sandwich, crunchy veggies, salad, or single serving chips, and fruit. Weekends are more flexible and I have time to make something. My schedule is really crazy right now, so I'm glad I have some things I can grab and go. Report
The salads in the "hip" mason jars made us all laugh, thanks for the amusement!! Filled up a lot of space with nothing really new. It all gets boring is the real issue, well intentions go down the drain........ Report
Lately, I've been doing 2 shopping trips per week, and making one or more recipes each time. I find that many items don't keep for a whole week, so just shopping on weekends wasn't cutting it. Breaking it into 2 trips makes the food prep easier because there's not so much to do at once. Report
I don't batch cook quite like this, and find my way is not stressful and accommodates sudden changes to schedules during the week. On the weekends, we have more slow and leisurely dinners together and I look for items that will create left overs that can be used to make lunches and meals during the week with the addition of a few simple other ingredients like bread for sandwich or lettuce for salad. We normally cook a whole fish (oven or grill depending on season) and I may throw on an extra one or two depending on size so I have left overs to make fish salad (think tuna salad but with whatever left over fish we have), roasts are another good option and forgo those dry tasteless boneless chicken breasts and cook a whole chicken - use it all (left over bones and chicken parts go into the freezer until I feel like making stock). I try to keep the seasonings half way neutral so I can use the proteins for other dishes (you can spice but avoid glaze or saucing, etc.). I always throw in more veggies when I cook my Sat. and Sunday night dinners so I have those to choose from during the week. Having a good selection of condiments and staples in your cupboard are always key for quick week day meals (think mustard, pasta, broths on hand at all times). I like to cook big batches of toasted quinoa in apple juice on Sunday mornings and store left overs in small containers ready to grab for a healthy breakfast when you are running late during the week. You get the picture. If I am going to dirty my kitchen on the weekend I am going to go large. Get a big heavy pot that can go from stove to oven, decent pressure cooker helps speed braises and cooked beans up. You are on the path of not only healthy eating but also being in control of your food spending and knowing where your food comes from, how it was made, etc. Kudos for the humor. By the way, I found the prep time over double when I have to follow a recipe and keep going back to check it and I have been cooking for years so don't feel so bad but know to always double this prep time until you feel comfortable enough to throw out the book and ride without the training wheels. Report
I've read 2 of your blogs on SP so far and both really spoke to me! I'm not a cook, nor a planner, but both of your blogs about cooking and your kitchen give me hope! Thank you and welcome to Spark! I've been missing the fresh, true style lately and you have it! Thank you again!! Report
Awesome ideas. Will look into this more.

CLICK50, the author clearly wrote, "To keep our seafood addition safe to eat through the week, we opted to create the base salad, cook half of the shrimp for the first three days of the workweek, then spend a few minutes prepping and adding the shrimp to the last four salads on a Wednesday. "

So, the shellfish issue was covered right off the bat. Report
I try so hard to make meals I can take with me for 5 days. I am finding it almost impossible. 2 days is about all I can do.
My biggest problems are hauling 10 containers and sometimes no refrigeration. It can be 6 - 12 hours between my refrigerator & the hotel. Last trip, no refrigerator in the room, so I filled the bathroom sink with ice. Which required me to wash hands & brush teeth at the bathtub - yuck. And several forays to the ice machine, to keep the sink full of ice. What is a traveler to do? Report
I love meal planning. We do it when the ads come on Tuesdays to plan based on what's on sale. We don't batch cook meals, but we do batch prep things like spinach to freeze in 1/2c increments.
We both make enough lunches for the week every Sunday and love not having to think about it each night. :) Report
I have found a huge time-saver to be an app called Paprika. It was the best $5 I've ever spent -- it saves recipes, and allows me to add the ingredients to a shopping list, and then when I'm cooking, I can set timers for multiple recipes within the app. Report
Wow!! That is an inspirational blog. Very informative. Great ideas too! Thank you for sharing! Now I have something I can try! :D Report
Thank you for the inspiration.I agree with other posters that you have a lovely, fresh and authentically personable writing style. I would like to point out, however, that shellfish isn't ideal for batch cooking because of its extremely short shelf life. You could have gotten food poisoning on day five. A better strategy would have been to add frozen cooked shrimp when you added the avocado each morning, and adding extra flavoring to the dressing to offset the fact that the seafood wasn't seasoned prior. You've inspired me to put more time into my blog, because spending this time with you was really pleasant. Well done. Report
Just popping in to say your writing style here was fresh and well written, attention grabbing. I am already a seasoned cook and food prepper so didn't need to use the advice tidbits, yet still loved the story, great job! Report
You are a great writer - this blog grabbed my attention in the 1st paragraph and never let go. I am a meal planner and I do all of my prep on Sunday afternoons (cook a large dinner that will last 3 -4 days and prep my fruit and veggies for salads during the week). Report
I rarely meal plan more than one day in advance! Now that I'm retired I plan my dinners each morning and shop in the afternoon. I do make sure that I have the fixings for lunch at home every day though and sort of decide what to do at the moment. I admire her spirit! Report
I have been menu planning for the last 14 years. I do not do the batch cooking though. Report