How Leslie Meal Plans a Week of Lunches and Dinners During a Busy Week

Plus the exact amount she spent on a week of groceries.
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Sunday afternoon meal prepping

Sunday afternoon meal prepping

Last week, I asked Leslie to share the staples she keeps in her pantry and fridge, and the recipes she makes with them. This week, she's taking us along for a week of cooking—including her budget, recipes, and grocery store strategies. xEmily

For me, home is wherever dinner is served. Both Jonah and I were raised in families where dinner was cooked from scratch (or reheated from leftovers) every single night despite each having parents who worked full-time. As a result, we've made cooking a priority in our own lives—which is good not just for our health, but for our budgets! Yes, some weeks are full of one inspiring recipe after the next, but others are about getting something relatively balanced on the table. Last week looked like most—we each had plans nearly every night, so we packed lunch and dinner for the office and kept things really simple, but still delicious. While I do the majority of the recipe selecting and planning (I'm a planner at heart), we equally share the burden of grocery shopping and cooking, which is keyHere's what a week of meal planning and grocery shopping looks like for me, plus a tour of my kitchen:

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A fully prepped dinner in the upper right, full pie, and vegetables in the crisper to roast later in the week

A fully prepped dinner in the upper right, full pie, and vegetables in the crisper to roast later in the week

We do the vast majority of our meal planning (and chores) on Sunday. We'll work hard in the morning, running errands, then spend the afternoon leisurely cooking, reading, and hanging out (here's what my Sundays usually look like). Most Sundays, we tackle a larger recipe that serves as our base for the week, and often make a dessert as a treat. During the summer, that dessert's always pie and vanilla ice cream. :) Here's our Sunday shopping and cooking strategy: 

Before Heading Out: I go through any recipes I bookmarked online and thumb through cookbooks to choose a recipe, then make a list while I'm still at home, so we never have to ask "Do we have any..." and can avoid purchasing doubles. The list includes the staples we purchase every week, anything we need to replenish, and ingredients for a large recipe and dessert. I cross-check it with our calendars for the week to estimate how much time we'll have.

First Stop - Farmers Market: While we do the majority of our shopping at the grocery store, I always do a lap at the Atwater Village Farmers Market, where we drop our compost off each weekend. I select a recipe before I go, but I'll occasionally adjust my plan if something looks irresistible (like squash blossoms! or figs!). We'll also often buy our pie ingredients at the market. 

Second Stop - Big Grocery Run: We buy any pantry staples we're out of, plus our usual "fresh" staples (see here), and whatever ingredients we need for that evening's base recipe.

Return Home - Put Away Groceries: As soon as I get home, I put away the groceries and do some basic prep:

- I break-down the rotisserie chicken, taking the meat off the bone and into bite-sized pieces to store in an air-tight container
- I cut unsalted butter into tablespoons, so it's easily accessible for Bulletproof coffee and cooking 
- If Jonah's making a pie, he'll prep it as soon as we get home
- If I've purchased any vegetables, like cucumbers for snacks, I'll cut them and put them into tupperware as soon as we get home so I don't forget about them and allow them to go bad!

In the Evening - Prep Dinner: In the late afternoon, we'll make dinner so we have plenty of time to cook, eat early, and allow the leftovers to cool before packing them into tupperware for mid-week meals. We also pack lunch for the next day every single evening in these containers the night before so we can grab them and go in the morning!

Berry-Rhubarb Pie!

Berry-Rhubarb Pie!

I've been a bit obsessed with this chickpea dish lately... (used vegan sausage instead of chorizo)

I've been a bit obsessed with this chickpea dish lately... (used vegan sausage instead of chorizo)

Roasted the vegetables, moved avocados and a pluot into the fridge from the fruit bowl, and almost done with our pie!

Roasted the vegetables, moved avocados and a pluot into the fridge from the fruit bowl, and almost done with our pie!

In the middle of the week, I stop by the grocery store on my way home to grab any "fresh staples" we're out of (usually spinach and fruit), then...

If Our Main Recipe's Still Around: I'll buy a protein to go with it, to change things up a bit after eating the same thing for three days. Usually, I'll buy something like wild salmon, scallops, or chicken sausage depending on the recipe. I also usually cook some additional vegetables to add to it!

If We're Out of Food: This is where things get... um, creative with pantry staples. My goal is to make something entirely out of what's already in our fridge and pantry, plus spinach. Here are a few go-tos: Shakshuka (similar to this, minus the bell pepper), Sautéed Spinach and Garbanzo Beans Over Rice (exactly what it sounds like, no recipe needed), Ristotto with Frozen Peas and Spinach (which is great because it makes a ton - Emily's also a fan), Spiced Chickpea Stew (making substitutions based on what I have on hand).

A fairly normal lunch: My recipe "base" with a protein and some added vegetables

A fairly normal lunch: My recipe "base" with a protein and some added vegetables

A cleaned-out fridge before leaving town for the weekend! And a blank slate to start again on Sunday. 

A cleaned-out fridge before leaving town for the weekend! And a blank slate to start again on Sunday. 

Friday and Saturday are all about getting rid of leftovers so we can start Sunday morning with a fresh fridge. If we're going out of town (like we did this past weekend), we just make less mid-week to account for it. Otherwise, we're staying home Friday or Saturday night for dinner so no food goes to waste.

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I don't really maintain a set number for a grocery budget, and I often splurge on higher-quality ingredients, but I do try to stick to exactly the items on my list. Otherwise, those little impulse buys really add up. Here's what I spent on Jonah and my groceries this week—this number completely fluctuates (and can be twice as much depending on what we're buying and how much we're stocking up on), but this is a fairly average week:

Sunday: $22 at Farmers Market (we bought berries, spinach, and stone fruit) and $43 at the grocery store on staples
Wednesday: $4 on spinach
Total: $69 (roughly $35 per person for a week of groceries)

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At the beginning of every week, I'll look at Jonah and my schedules and plan accordingly. If we're busy three out of the five weeknights and need dinner before our plans, we'll make something that's easily re-heatable, like this rice dish. If we're home most nights, I'll cook recipes that lead into other recipes (as I did in this post), like a bunch of chicken thighs on Sunday night that we can mix and match with things like spiralized sweet potato, in an orzo pasta with baby tomatoes, or over salad. I'm always trying to find the sweet spot between convenience and boredom

always make dinners that have a carb, protein, and vegetable. If it doesn't have all three, it just doesn't feel like a satisfying meal to me. 

It's always my goal to minimize food waste, so I plan in advance to make sure I'm using every ingredient. For example, if a recipe calls for roasted carrots, I cut off the stems for carrot top pesto, and use that on a dish later in the week. If I'm using Greek yogurt for a dish, I'll whisk it with some paprika to garnish a shakshuka another night.

I find recipes in one of a few places: cookbooks (here are my favorites), Bon Appetit and Food52, at restaurants (happy to write more on this soon!), and at the farmers market, inspired by the fresh, seasonal ingredients I come across. I'll occasionally riff on the ingredients I find, making an enormous fresh pasta or ad hoc rice bowl, or search for an ingredient I'm not sure about. I'll type "squash blossom" into Food52 and go with whatever looks best—thank goodness for smart phones!

The best way to get out of a "cooking rut" is to cook something new! That simple! Jonah and I have recently been cooking our way through Food52's Genius Recipes cookbook as a way to challenge ourselves and try dishes we wouldn't have otherwise. Also, just visiting a farmers market will get your wheels spinning—it's impossible not to feel inspired when you're surrounded by fresh, seasonal produce.

Woo! That was a beast of a post—I hope it all made sense! Please let me know if you have any questions. I'm happy to answer them in the comments. 

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