Meal Planning for a Crazy Busy Life

How to cook at home, during the work week, without losing your mind

Photo by Dane Deaner on Unsplash

Do you walk in the door after work and have no clue what’s for dinner?

Do you want to get better at planning ahead but have no idea where to start?

Do you like to cook but feel like you simply don’t have time?

You’re not alone. I’m here to help!

I’m admittedly a bit obsessed with meal planning.

It probably dates back to my years in the restaurant industry, reading cookbooks like novels to inspire my dinner specials, but this obsession with creating weekly menus truly came to fruition when I moved in with my husband and suddenly had another person to feed. He doesn’t really dig cereal for dinner.

(Side note: No diatribes about traditional gender roles, please — I love to cook, he doesn’t. I hate to clean, he doesn’t. It works.)

At that time, I also worked 60 hours a week and commuted by train to the Merchandise Mart in downtown Chicago each day. To say I was exhausted by the time I schlepped up the three flights of stairs to our dusty Pilsen raw loft would be the understatement of the year.

As I quickly learned, even people without kids have a hard time getting tasty, nutritious meals on the table during the work week.

By the end of the day, my brain is fried like the egg in the anti-drug commercials of the 1980s. (This is your brain. This is your brain on Corporate America.)

So I’d like to share the tactics that help me regularly cook at home, even during the week, without completely losing my mind.

Build a recipe library

I have a lot of cookbooks and subscribe to numerous food blogs. If you don’t like reading cookbooks as much as I do, blogs are a great way to regularly receive recipe inspiration delivered right to your inbox, and there are superb food writers focusing on most lifestyles and dietary needs.

But the tricky thing about recipes is that you have to remember you wanted to make them.

Have you ever tried to map out a meal plan and ended up staring at the wall waiting for inspiration to strike? Nobody has time for that!

I’m sure there are apps for this task, but my favorite method is a good old Excel spreadsheet.

I have one specifically for online recipes and one for cookbook recipes. Each spreadsheet has two tabs — recipes I’ve tried and want to make again, and recipes I haven’t tried yet. The columns can be filtered, making it easy to see all the soups at once or all the meals I’ve flagged as “weeknight appropriate”.

Here’s how I structured my spreadsheet, but you could easily tailor this to your preferences and needs.

Author’s image — online recipe spreadsheet format

Whenever I get an email from one of my food blogs, and I like the look of a recipe, I add it to the online recipe spreadsheet immediately so it doesn’t get lost in the vortex of my inbox.

(It’s scary in there.)

When I make one of the “to try” recipes and we enjoyed it enough to eat it again, I transfer it to the “keepers” tab.

I keep the spreadsheets in the Cloud so I can access them anywhere, even on my phone.

It’s all about the plan

Planning ahead is crucial when it comes to getting food on the table.

If I came home after a normal workday and had to figure out on the fly what we were having for dinner, we’d eat a lot more takeout and PBJs.

Meal planning is easier when you set basic parameters, and the spreadsheets help with that.

Think about the foods you like, and then imagine them as a rotation. Mine might look something like one pasta meal, one soup, one main dish salad, one chicken dish. Another week might include a sandwich or quesadilla, or fish. In the winter, there may be more than one soup on the docket, because hello cold weather!

To choose the specific dishes, I filter on each category in my recipe spreadsheet, then filter on “weeknight”, and pick something that looks good.

Make sure to document your meal plan in a place where it will be accessible when you need it (calendar, notebook, spreadsheet or app), and then use it to create your grocery list.

Pre-prep and/or keep it simple

Weeknights aren’t typically for elaborate meals. Weeknights are for heating up that soup you made in the crockpot over the weekend, or for quick skillet dishes like quesadillas or stir-fry (provided you’ve chopped the veggies in advance because if you’re like me, you don’t always trust yourself anywhere near a knife when you get home from work).

If you can carve out a couple of hours over the weekend to pre-prep, you’ll be golden for the week.

We were craving vegetables, so on Saturday I prepped cauliflower and carrots (roasted separately), cooked farro and lentils, and chopped other veggies in preparation for hearty main-dish salads.

If you cook chicken breasts or thighs in the crockpot on Sunday, you can shred them to use in meals throughout the week — chicken salad, wraps, tacos, enchiladas, soups, sloppy joes, etc.

Quick-cooking fish is another terrific weeknight option. Dredge it in flour and throw it in a hot skillet with some melted butter and olive oil, and it’s done in a few minutes. Squeeze in some fresh lemon juice and add a few capers for an easy pan sauce.

One of my favorite easy vegetarian dishes is tofu “eggless” salad. It’s basically mashed tofu mixed with all your favorite egg salad fixings. Talk about simple — it’s a lot quicker than boiling and peeling eggs (unless, of course, you pre-cooked the eggs over the weekend). Serve the tofu over greens as a salad, or make a sandwich on a nice crusty bun.

Always make extra — and don’t expect to cook every day

I learned quickly that it’s not feasible for me to cook six or seven days a week. It’s just not going to happen. What WILL happen is rotting vegetables in the crisper, and listening to a husband who hates to waste food complain about it.

Making extra food when I’m already cooking is the epitome of efficient because it requires little additional effort for the value.

We’re a family of two. I usually end up with leftovers by default, but I double recipes that are freezer-friendly and store the extra in individual portions so I can grab what I need later. This is a lifesaver (and a money-saver) for work lunches or zero-effort dinners.

Realistically, cooking four to five days a week is all I can handle. By making enough to have leftovers, and keeping individual portions of homemade meals in the freezer, it’s easy to fill in the blanks on the days cooking is out of the question.

Recognize your limitations

If you’re currently ordering takeout most weeknights, it’s simply unrealistic to think you can suddenly start putting a four-course meal on the table every night.

Do what you can. There’s nothing wrong with taking baby steps — you’ll be less likely to get frustrated and retreat to your takeout menus.

Look ahead at what your week entails. Do you have a lot of errands to run after work or events in the evening? You’ll want to keep things extra-simple on those nights.

My current week is downright crazy: dance class Monday, baseball game Tuesday, two grocery stops plus two other errands Wednesday (I refuse to spend my weekends grocery shopping so I suck it up and go during the week, even though I never feel like it), baseball game Thursday, haircut Friday plus happy hour planning session for a neighborhood block party. Yikes!

We’ll eat at the ballpark on Tuesday and Thursday. I prepped most of Monday’s dinner over the weekend, so I only had to make the dressing and mix everything together when I got home. Wednesday’s meal comes together in minutes so I won’t mind making it when I get home from the store.

I loathe cooking on Friday nights — I’m worn out from the week, and would much rather enjoy a martini in a comfy chair with a cat on my lap than head into the kitchen for an hour. Friday meals are always extremely simple, and often involve what we lovingly refer to as “snack dinner”. Treats like hummus and veggies and shrimp cocktail make regular appearances.

And finally, the counterpoint to planning — stay flexible

All of this gets easier with time. It’s almost second-nature to me now, though some weeks flow more easily than others. That’s natural.

You should know, for full disclosure, that I still serve my husband tater tots and frozen pizza for dinner on occasion. Sometimes we’re too burned out to even call for takeout, and I’ve depleted our homemade freezer stash.

Don’t judge. I’m long past beating myself up over that.

Life happens. You don’t sleep well one night and are too tired to cook when you get home the next day because you barely made it through that last meeting. Your best friend comes into town unexpectedly and wants to go out for drinks. Your kid forgot to tell you about the soccer game on Tuesday. The baseball game got rained out.

Be gentle with yourself and accept that the best-laid plans are flexible enough to turn on a dime if life gets in the way.

Keep something in the freezer or cupboard that can easily be pulled out in situations like this, and go live your best life. The groceries will still be there when you get home.