Learning to Cook Part II: Meal Planning

Previously, we provided a guide for beginner cooks on how to learn to cook. Now it’s time to get more specific with another aspect of cooking: meal planning!

In a country like America, street food is rarely a cheap or available option. Meal planning is an important part of a healthy diet and keeping one’s day running smoothly. With strategic planning, cooking during the week can be minimized. Time otherwise spent preparing ingredients or washing dishes can be saved in abundance. When you can get hot meals on the table quickly, your day can become a lot less stressful. Food becomes a pleasure rather than a chore.

Meal planning also promotes an overall healthier diet and lifestyle. Studies have even shown a correlation between meal planning and higher levels of variety in foods as well as higher nutrition within the meals.

With that, let’s get started with some key tips!

Cook staple items in bulk

Pasta and rice can be cooked in bulk, refrigerated in large containers, and portioned out as needed during the week. This can save up to 30 minutes to an hour a day that would otherwise be spent waiting for a pot of water to boil or for a rice cooker to finish cooking. Both of these carbohydrates (along with others) lend themselves to a variety of dishes. They soak up flavors easily and pair well with any vegetable or meat you might have in your fridge.

While rice and pasta are the obvious staples, this tip isn’t only applicable to carbs. A whole chicken roasted in the oven on a Sunday night (or rotisserie chicken you might pick up for as low as $5 in places like Costco) also makes an excellent staple that goes well in many dishes: salads, pastas, tacos, and more. 

Takeout once in a while is fine

Cooking more at home doesn't mean a stop to all restaurant food.

While striving to cook more is an admirable goal (and one we encourage!), cooking can become exhausting for anyone. Once in a while, ordering takeout to ease the burden of meal prep and washing dishes can help save energy for when you do have time to cook meals yourself.

An example day can go like this: homemade scrambled eggs for breakfast, a vegetable casserole prepped the previous day and baked the day of, and a takeout order of Chipotle for dinner. We all have our weak moments or busy times in our schedule. Leveraging the services available to make your day go by a little bit easier is perfectly acceptable and beneficial for your ease of mind.

Leave some room for spontaneity

The goal of meal prep is to make meals more smooth by removing spontaneity. On the other hand, it’s perfectly natural not to know what you’re going to eat for every meal in the coming week. What you can do is do some meal prep, and leave room for spontaneous preferences or urges.

For example, you can marinate meat without necessarily knowing what to pair it with. Last week, I marinated some pieces of beef in soy sauce and chili; in the end, I ate it with rice, with porridge, and as part of a stir-fry with veggies throughout the week. Without knowing ahead of time what to use it for, what I did know that flavorful meat pairs well with a lot of dishes. This gave me the benefit of meal prep, but also the freedom to decide on a day-to-day basis what I wanted to eat.

Make dishes halfway, then heat when ready to eat 

This is a classic trick that makes complicated dishes much faster when you do most of the work in advance. Meanwhile, you still get the benefit of a hot, fresh meal. If you have a complicated dish that you particularly enjoy, but fear the amount of time it takes to prepare, you can use this tip to enjoy it more often with what will feel like much less work.

In general, baked goods lend themselves particularly well to this tip. Casseroles, lasagna, potato gratins, or similar dishes with multiple components and layers can be prepared ahead of time, wrapped in plastic, and taken out to bake at the last minute. Similarly, you can make and roll cookie dough into balls, and bake it off when desired.

Making your favorite dishes doesn't have to be a hassle.

But baked goods are not the only ones. Any dish with many different components is applicable as well. For instance, you can reduce the time spent making stir-fries to merely minutes if you wash and chop all the components–vegetables, rice, meat, etc.– in advance. All that’s left is to throw them in a hot pan and enjoy dinner in less than 10 minutes.

Experiment with the frozen aisle

The bad reputation of frozen food isn’t always warranted. Their infamy probably stems from the connotation of frozen as artificial or processed, which is rarely true. If anything, it usually includes staples that can make your meals healthier. 

Frozen corn and peas make for easy veggie additions, and frozen dumplings or pizza can make a quick meal. Breakfast can get a boost from smoothies made from frozen berries, and frozen cauliflower rice has become a trendy, low-carb substitute for actual rice. Frozen puff pastry makes for quick pastries and croissants. Freezing meat keeps it fresh for months after their expiration date, saving many trips to the grocery store. Frozen fish and fish burgers are often cheaper than their fresh versions, and are usually perfectly unprocessed with no unhealthy additives.

Takeaways

To conclude, meal planning is not necessarily about a strictly regimented schedule of perfectly planned meals. It’s about making your life easier by breaking meals into manageable pieces, then quickly finishing them when you need something fresh.

As you settle into a more organized schedule facilitated by meal planning, you can retain many aspects of spontaneity and convenience that came with ordering takeout or with deciding what to eat on a day-to-day basis. With foresight, strategy, and a bit of planning, eating can transform from a tedious chore to a smooth pleasure you look forward to every day.

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