How to Plan and Cook a Week’s Worth of Healthy, Tasty Meals
The two biggest objections I hear to eating healthier, whether it be paleo, primal, or whatever you want to call it, are that it’s too expensive and it’s hard to cook interesting meals. The truth is, neither of those things have to be the case. My fiance and I – who both eat a lot of food, by the way – spend between $150-200 each week on food. That money covers all our meals, as we eat out only once at the most. I cook meals every weeknight that are as various as they are nutritious. And preparing them is surprisingly uncomplicated once you get the hang of things.
It’s not that eating healthy is actually complicated and expensive; it’s that you don’t have a system for making it easier and more affordable. I’ve put a great deal of thought into creating this system for our household, and now I’m going to share it with you.
Step 1: Invest in Cookbooks
The first step meal planning is having good sources for your recipes. This means having cookbooks. There are plenty of websites out there with delicious recipes that you can access for free. Personally I like having a hard copy in the kitchen with me and I like the thematic aspects of a whole cookbook.
Some of my favorites are Paleo Slow Cooking, Paleo Comfort Foods, Well Fed, Practical Paleo, Weeknight Paleo, and Make It Paleo. I like each of them for different reasons. Paleo Slow Cooking has great, simple recipes. Well Fed has spicy, sassy recipes. Practical Paleo has great vegetable sides. And Make It Paleo has my favorite dessert recipes of any cookbook. Whatever your sources, make sure you’ve got the recipes from which to start your meal planning.
Step 2: Inventory Your Kitchen
When planning your meals you need to know your possible cooking mediums. Look around your kitchen at the tools you have. I have a new slow cooker, an old slow cooker, two microwaves, an oven, and a stovetop. I have discovered, through trial and error, that I’m a stressed out mess when I try to cook multiple things on the stovetop. I’m a chronic recipe-double-checker, so the timing of constantly checking the recipe and working my way through the steps of multiple dishes overloads my brain.
My solution is to never plan a meal that has more than one dish per cooking medium. So, if I have a main entrée and two side dishes, I have one each in the slow cooker, oven, and stovetop. As my multitasking abilities (and comprehension of how to adjust disparate recipe temperatures) in the kitchen are growing, I sometimes make a small amendment to this rule and allow two items in the oven.
My Personal Tip: A few years back I had no idea how to do anything in the kitchen. If you're where I was, sign up for some cooking classes. If you wanted to get better at Olympic lifting, you'd take lessons. So, consider doing the same if you want to get better at feeding yourself.
Step 3: Sit Down With Your Homework
Every Sunday I sit down in the living room with a notepad and a pile of cookbooks. I tell my fiance it’s time to do my “homework.” I spent thirty to sixty minutes going through my cookbooks, selecting my recipes, and creating the menu for the week. (See photo below for menu example.) From this menu I then generate my shopping list. Once I finish my homework, I head to the grocery store. All in, it’s at most a two-hour process that saves me time and money throughout the week.
Choose Your Meals Wisely
I plan meals for Monday through Friday nights. We eat leftovers every day for lunch. We cook a simple breakfast of eggs and sometimes sausage or veggies in the mornings. If I have time, some weeks I make a crustless quiche on Sundays to eat for breakfast throughout the week. On weekends we eat leftovers or something from the freezer, or we might go out for one meal. Every Sunday night we treat ourselves to a home-cooked steak dinner. As I mentioned, our grocery bill is consistently under $200 per week.
When I create the weekly menu I’m thinking about a number of things:
- Is there enough variety in the protein sources?
- Do we have green vegetables with every meal?
- Is there a source of starchy carbohydrates for my fiance?
- Is there a variety in color and type of vegetables over the week?
- Will there be enough left over for lunch?
- What vegetables are in season?
- What is on sale at the grocery store?
- Can my personal schedule handle this workload of recipes?
I often check the website of my grocery store to see what’s on sale in the meat department before I plan my weekly menu. We’ve had some great cuts of meat for dinner we wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t done this, and we saved money. I also try to stock up our freezer when I come across great sales and ease my work in the future.
The last question on that list - my personal schedule and workload - goes a long way toward alleviating stress. I have longer days on Tuesdays and Thursday because of my train commute to work. I always make sure to plan simpler recipes that require less preparation on those days. There’s no reason to make it harder on yourself if you’re planning things out ahead of time. Alternately, you can always chop all your veggies in advance to make things easier on busier days.
The key is to plan ahead and keep it simple. Cooking can feel overwhelming if you’re new to the kitchen, so start small – don’t start with extravagant meals. If I decide to try a new recipe, I make sure all the other recipes that evening are tried-and-true. So, if you’re new to cooking a certain entrée, then just steam some veggies for your side dish.
My Personal Tip: When I create my menu I also write the cookbook name and page number to the right of the recipe (see photo). This helps me not aimlessly page through cookbooks all week. Instead I can quickly pull out the right book and open to the correct page.
Once I have my menu planned for the week, I create my shopping list:
- First - I go to each recipe and write down all the ingredients I don’t have in my kitchen. I don’t worry about organizing them at first. Just write them all down so you can put your cookbooks away.
- Second – I get a blank piece of paper and rewrite the ingredients in a more organized fashion. I group them similarly to how the grocery store is organized – meat, vegetables/fruit, canned goods – so that I can quickly move through the store and not go in circles. (See the two versions in the photo below.)
Now, all I have to do is follow my own instructions. I go to the store and buy exactly what’s on the list. Each night I make the meals I’ve already planned out. If I have extra time I prep the vegetables for meals later in the week. It takes a lot less brainpower and a lot less time this way. We also never waste food anymore because everything is accounted for.
As your comfort in the kitchen grows, your ability as a cook will also evolve. I handle much more complicated meals now than I did a few months ago, and I’ve begun adding desserts to the weekly menu, too. You’ll find as you experiment each week that there are recipes you revisit and they become easier each time you make them. I keep track of these easily by putting stars next to them in my menu notebook. I keep all my meal plans in one notebook for easy reference and for looking back on previous weeks, as to what went well and what did not. I also make notes right in my cookbooks if I change the recipes so that I don't have to try to remember little details in the future. Remember, the goal is to use planning to make things easier.
So, it’s not that healthy cooking is necessarily complicated or expensive. It can be, but it doesn’t have to be. All you need is a system for moving forward. Once you create that system, before long you’ll be eating better with less work and for less money.