I’ve had a few of my coworkers ask me how I manage to bring a lunch from home every day instead of going out to buy lunch, and the short answer is… leftovers. But the long answer is that I don’t want to spend $200 a month on lunches when I like the taste of my own food more. There you have it, folks: the key to lunchtime is being stingy and snobby. ;)
But for real, the easiest way to get enough leftovers for lunches is to cook meals at home for dinner. I feel like I’ve become pretty adept at meal-planning, so I thought I’d share some tips. You don’t have to have an excel spreadsheet with 356 (and counting) recipes on it in order to become a meal-planning pro. But you do need a little time and energy, and a commitment to home cooking.
I recently started paying a little extra to use the meal-planning function on my favorite grocery list app (AnyList*) but you don’t need a fancy app to get started. Any place you want to write down your plan for the week is fine. So here are my tips:
- Organize your recipes. It’s helpful to have a catalog of recipes you’ve tried and loved. This could be an excel spreadsheet, a Pinterest board, or an old-fashioned recipe box. (Or if you’re me, all three.) It’s also nice to keep track of recipes you want to try in the future; I keep a Pinterest board as well as a list in my phone. If I’m browsing through cookbooks and spot something that looks tasty, I type it in my phone along with the cookbook name and page number. That way, when I’m really stumped and can’t think of anything to make, I have a bunch of new recipes at my fingertips that will inspire me to cook again.
- Constraints can be liberating. There are millions of recipes in cookbooks and millions more on the internet. Sitting down on a Sunday afternoon and knowing you can cook anything in the week ahead is a little overwhelming. Constraints are key. We get a box of vegetables and fruit each week from our CSA, so I start there. If I’m getting zucchini, Swiss chard, potatoes, and spinach, I look for recipes that use those ingredients. You can also focus on what’s on sale at the grocery store, or ingredients you need to use up that are already in your fridge or pantry. Either way, limiting your options can actually help you plan more quickly.
- Look to the calendar. After knowing what recipes I want to make, I look over the activities and events that are coming up in the week ahead. Dinner with the in-laws on Sunday? No need to cook! The hubby has to work late on Thursday? Then I’ll have cheese and crackers for dinner. (Real life, right?)
- Pay attention to recipe yields. Since there are only two of us, I expect to eat leftovers for lunch and sometimes dinner. So I space meals out based on how much food they make. If a recipe only makes enough servings for dinner and lunch the next day, then I know I’ll have to cook the following night. But if a recipe makes a ton of servings, I can work those leftovers into the dinner plan as well.
- Make a plan and write it down. Like I said, I use AnyList to plan my meals for the week. I love it because I can easily save recipes from the web or manually enter them into the app from my cookbooks. From there, I assign recipes to a certain day on the calendar and then seamlessly add the ingredients I need to my grocery list. But I also go old-school and write the weekly plan on a chalkboard on the fridge, so both of us know what’s for dinner each night. (Pro tip: The wonderful thing about using an app or calendar to meal-plan is that I can always answer the age-old question, “How long has this been in the fridge?”)
- Be flexible. The other night I got home and realized that the root vegetable gratin I had planned to make for dinner required two hours in the oven. Oops. (I guess another tip is read recipes all the way through first…) So I decided to switch it up and make the pasta dish that I had planned for a different night instead. Sometimes I have to work late, or coworkers want to go out for a spontaneous happy hour. Just relax and go with the flow.
- Make meal-planning part of your routine. I plan our weekly meals every Sunday morning. It can take 30 minutes, or close to an hour, but I still carve out the time. Sometimes even I grumble about this task, but I have to admit that a little advance planning makes our week a whole lot smoother. And more delicious too.
* This post is not sponsored in any way. I’ve just had a really great experience with AnyList and wanted to share that with you!