Changing for the better, one bite and (deep) breath at a time.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Menu Planning and Grocery Shopping

My friends and clients always ask me how I manage to make time for cooking. Having a full-time job, a few part-time jobs, a husband, two dogs, and a desire to exercise 1-2 hours per day really does make it hard to fit it all in. To be honest, some days I really don't get everything done, and sometimes I just don't want to cook. But I know that I save money, feel healthier, and really enjoy the meals I spend time to prepare myself. The key is preparation.

I wanted to share with you how I plan for my week and grocery shop so I can make sure to have healthy foods on hand. I chose this past week as the week I photographed because it was insanely busy, with a client every night after work, suggesting that even the busiest person can do this if they put their mind to it. Here are the steps I take when planning my week.

1. Do some research.

Pick a few recipes (or maybe just one!) that you want to try. I comb through websites and sometimes cookbooks, and I pick things that sound good, are relatively simple, and don't cost a fortune. Sometimes what I choose to make is something I know how to make without a recipe, such as BBQ chicken, egg salad, or even breakfast for dinner. The most important thing is that you come up with some ideas so you don't wander blindly through the store. My favorite websites are Eating Well, Whole Living, and Cooking Light. Don't forget to check out the recipes on this blog!

This image of my computer shows my research of an authentic Caesar salad dressing on

2. Take inventory.

After you've picked a few things to make, check what you have on hand. Maybe you have some frozen chicken you want to use up, or perhaps you already have black beans or quinoa and don't need to buy it for a recipe you're interested in. I sometimes start with this step first, especially if I'm trying to save money. For example, if I have frozen gnocchi from a recipe I made a few weeks ago, I will decide what I want to eat with it (salad, anyone?).

3. Be realistic.

How many nights a week do you actually want to cook? Most people don't like going all out 7 nights every week. I try to make something from home Sunday through Thursday for dinner and Monday through Thursday for lunch, which I bring to work. This doesn't mean, however, that I make an elaborate recipe every time I make dinner.

If I'm especially busy, my weekly meals might look like this:

Sunday - BBQ chicken with peanut slaw
Tuesday - chicken salad (using leftover chicken)
Wednesday - vegetable omelettes
Thursday - planned dinner out with friends
Friday - date night
Saturday - football game (eat at restaurant)

Pretty simple, no? I don't always plan out my lunches, but I make sure to have lots of salad greens and fresh vegetables, lean protein, avocado, and salad dressings available for lunch. Hopefully I will have leftovers from a prepared dinner to take the next day, too.

4. Make a list.

This is the most important step of the whole process. If you go to a grocery store blindly, you will either buy everything or nothing at all, and when you get home you'll realize you won't have the spice or special ingredient you need. I absolutely detest going to the grocery store for 1 or 2 items, so the list is super important. I usually write mine on Friday or Saturday morning, before I go to the North Scottsdale Farmers' Market, so I know just what to buy. This also really helps save money!

For the week featured in these photos, I had a client every night and didn't get home until 6:30 (or later). Here is what I had planned:

Sunday: dinner out with my parents at Goldie's - ate delicious salmon with steamed veggies and sauteed red cabbage

Monday: leftover frozen Skillet Gnocchi with Swiss Chard and White Beans (reheated in the toaster oven - had my husband put it in while I was still working!), plus a side salad

Tuesday: homemade Caesar salad with hard boiled eggs on top (sounds weird, but it's good!)

Wednesday: BBQ'd chicken, peanut coleslaw, and grilled veggies

Thursday: dinner at my mom's CAbi event (Greg had leftovers to choose from)

Friday: friend's birthday dinner

Saturday: UA football! Dinner at Blue 32 (portobello veggie sandwich with baked beans)

When I made my list, I actually wrote down each night and what I planned on doing. This week was somewhat unusual because I had so many events and busy nights planned. I like making one more elaborate meal, but there was simply no time this week.

Sometimes planning each night doesn't work, as things come up that are unavoidable, but having food for at least 3 dinners in ensures that I will have enough to cook something 3+ nights a week. I always have eggs, tuna, salad greens, onions, Ezekiel bread, raw organic cheese, and canned and dried beans available to make a quick dinner for a 4th or 5th option for the week. With this I can do salad with beans, omelettes, grilled cheese, tuna or egg salad sandwiches, etc., so I always have options and don't have to rely on buying something outside of the house.

5. Shop!

Making grocery shopping a ritual is important. I personally do it on either Saturday or Sunday so I don't have to worry about it during the week. I usually go to the farmers' market and Trader Joes. I will also go to Sprouts, Whole Foods, and Sunflower Market, depending on what I need. If you make one big trip (don't forget reusable, insulated bags and ice packs if needed!), it's not so painful. Take your list, and don't forget a pen.

Cross off items from your list as you go:

6. Cook ahead.

If you're really pressed for time, make a few things on Sunday night. This might mean cooking up hard boiled eggs or chicken breasts, or perhaps you make brown rice or quinoa so it's in the fridge. Wash lettuce, cut up vegetables and fruits, and put together easy dishes like bean salad. I also like prepping for the next day after I've had dinner during the week. This is especially important when making a crock pot meal. The next morning, take the crock pot dish out of the fridge, pop it in its place, and turn on the crock pot. I also prepare my lunches the night before so I don't have to worry about doing it in the morning. It makes for an easy way to put away leftovers, too!

During the week featured, I made hard boiled eggs on Sunday night. On Monday after dinner I whipped up a quick 3-bean salad using garbanzo, kidney, and cannellini beans; onions; celery; dirty salt and pepper; red wine vinegar; olive oil; stevia; and garlic powder. The hard boiled eggs and beans each became parts or my lunch and snacks for myself and for Greg.

7. Ask for help.

Perhaps your spouse, significant other, or roommate can help you shop, cook, or just clean up afterwards. Greg and I have a rule: whomever doesn't cook has to clean. This doesn't mean he always does it cheerfully, but he knows that it's only fair. Additionally, if I'm working with a client or taking a Karve class after work, I sometimes ask him to pop something in the toaster oven, preheat the oven, or start marinating meat or veggies.

8. Find a way to enjoy the process.

Light a candle, pour a glass of wine, or turn on some music while you cook. If you don't enjoy it, cooking will become like any other chore. Additionally, if you're absolutely starving while you start cooking, you will pick and nibble through the whole process. Have a small snack, such as a piece of fruit, some nuts, or some carrots and hummus, before you start. Cooking while ravenous will cause you to rush and not really enjoy making a homemade meal.

9. Go easy on yourself.

If you can't seem to get to the store or make anything at home, don't worry! Each week is different and has its own challenge, and you can try again next week. Even making one recipe at home during the week should be celebrated as a success. If you try to cook at home for every meal after not having done so before, you will likely become overwhelmed quickly. Start small and slowly, and be proud of the changes you're making for yourself and your family.



  1. Great post, Megan! Have you ever tried cooking software though? You can just add your recipes to a calendar, and it will automatically generate grocery lists and nutritional info for you. I like Living Cookbook, but there's a lot out there that do the same.

  2. Thank you! I should check it out...great idea!