I’ve gone through several approaches to meal planning. I’ve stuck with some longer than others. Sometimes, a system will last me a couple years, sometimes only a month. The real problem with any of these systems is that they just don’t work when my lifestyle changes. I’ve gone from college, to internship, to office job, to teaching, to a summer off… and now I’m preparing to teach at a new school, which will be unpredictable in its own very unique ways. I’m starting back next week, and I’m trying to make sure I’m prepared to eat healthy, even when my schedule is a bit demanding. The beginning of the school year always requires a lot of time. A new school will require even more. And a new grade level, well… I’m prepared to disappear for a little bit.
So… eating healthy. Meal planning. How do I do this?
Step 1: Prepare.
We were given a stand alone freezer this year, which is a tad ridiculous for a home with only 2 people in it. Nonetheless, it’s enabled me to squirrel away all kinds of meals. I’ve made gluten free pizzas, butternut squash lasagna, gluten free meatloaf, and a couple chicken and broccoli casseroles. That’s 1-2 meals a day that all I have to do is pull out of the freezer and bake. Not everyone has a massive freezer sitting in their living room. I get it. But even if you do this on a much smaller scale (e.g., weekly vegetable prep), it can still be a lifesaver when it comes time to prepare dinner after a 12 hour work day.
Step 2: Stock the right groceries.
Know what you eat. Don’t buy things you don’t really like in the hopes that after a really hard work day, you’ll suddenly start stress-eating carrots. You won’t. Well… I guess you might. But more likely, you won’t. So keep those staples handy. Here’s a guide to our pantry, fridge, and freezer staples:
- Chicken stock
- Corn tortillas
- Canned beans
- Evaporated milk
- Corn starch (a gluten free girl’s best friend)
- Sauces: spaghetti sauce, barbecue sauce, and pretty much anything gluten free by San-J
- Cooked chicken strips (kept in the freezer)
- Sausage (I like to have cooked and uncooked both available)
- Chicken (I like to get whole cut chicken from the farmer’s market)
- Ground beef (I leave it uncooked so I have flexibility, but once thawed, it cooks up in a flash)
- Steak (I use bison steak more often than not, but it turns into tacos super fast)
- Bacon bits (typically I cook these up in a batch, but I’ve also purchased high quality bacon bits when in a pinch)
- Veg (I stock my favorites in large quantities in the freezer, and smaller portions in the fridge)
- Gluten free bread (udi’s multigrain from costco, flatbread from med deli, and the occasional gluten free biscuits
Step 3: Have a game plan.
Now that I’ve got all the right stuff, I can start cooking. Having a game plan in the past, always meant a day-by-day meal assignment. Monday this, Tuesday that. You know the drill. This never worked me before, because each day was completely unpredictable. So I’m throwing that out the window. I have a bunch of meals that I can make (or that my husband can make), and I’m keeping that list handy (along with the very abbreviated directions I might leave my husband on the fridge). Here goes:
- Chicken pot pie (veg, chicken, and chicken stock into an oven safe skillet; add cornstarch and cook until thickened; top with bisquick biscuits; bake)
- Cheesy rice (cook onions in large skillet; add rice and chicken broth; cook until almost all broth has been absorbed; add cheese, spices, protein, and veg of choice – some veg and protein will need to be added earlier in the process to ensure they’re cooked through)
- Creamy pasta (cook onions in large skillet; add pasta, evaporated milk, and chicken broth; cook until almost all broth has been absorbed; add cheese, spices, protein, and veg of choice – some veg and protein will need to be added earlier in the process to ensure they’re cooked through)
- BBQ chicken quesadillas (combine cooked chicken with bbq sauce; warm in toaster oven; build quesadillas and cook in nonstick skillet until slightly browned and cheese is melted)
- Salad (chop lettuce; top with whatever you’ve got on hand)
- Lettuce wraps (cook rice in rice cooker; cut lettuce into hand-sized cups; cook chicken in sauce of choice)
- Tomato caprese (slice tomatoes and mozzarella; add basil if you have it on hand; drizzle with balsamic reduction or vinaigrette)
- Roasted tomatoes with pasta (drizzle cherry tomatoes with olive oil and roast; top with italian sausage if desired; cook pasta)
- Steak tacos (grill steak along with chopped onions and peppers; warm beans and corn tortillas; slice steak)
Other Random Ideas:
- Honey lime chicken (mix honey and lime juice; pour over chicken and bake; cook rice in rice cooker; warm black beans)
- Grilled sandwiches (fill with cheese, protein, and veg of choice; grill until golden brown; flipping in the absence of a panini or sandwich maker)
- Grilled sausage and vegetables (grill sausages and vegetables; done)
There are definitely tastier versions of some of these recipes. But you can’t beat the simplicity of these ideas. All of these recipes keep my diet relatively well balanced. They’re not necessarily the healthiest, but they’re certainly better than the popcorn I had for dinner multiple times this past school year.
Although some might take 30 minutes to an hour to cook, this time is largely unsupervised. I like to stick around the kitchen and finish up my evening chores while they cook, since my recipes don’t include cooking times. But in 30 minutes to an hour, I can wash breakfast and lunch dishes , feed our pets, get some laundry started, and maybe do a quick sweep of the house.