As equestrians, we’re all mindful of what, when, and why our horse is eating. We seem to be way less mindful of what, when, and why we’re eating, though! If you’re nodding your head in agreement, trust me, I’m right there with you. I have eaten at Whataburger three times in one week. I have come home from work, thought whatever meal I’d planned sounded awful, and promptly ordered a pizza. Johnny’s out of town for work? Cool, I’m drinking wine and eating salami and cheese for dinner. With a side of baguette.
But most of the time, I’m a very diligent meal planner and cook. I enjoy cooking. I think it’s soothing to come home at the end of the day and spend an hour or so in the kitchen, preparing a meal from some new and exciting recipe. Meal planning can seem overwhelming, especially if you’re already busy with your horse and your job, or you’re inexperienced at cooking, or you read one too many blogs about someone who preps 764 freezer meals in 8 hours on a Sunday. It doesn’t have to be hard, though- you just have to find what works best for you. Here’s the process I use; when I don’t give in to honey BBQ chicken strip sandwich cravings, planning meals results in eating at home about 6 nights a week.
On Friday afternoon during my lunch break, I check out the weekly sales ads online for the grocery stores where I like to shop. I make a mental note of anything that seems like a good deal and start thinking about how it could be incorporated into a meal. I’m pretty flexible about this, though. Just because acorn squash is on sale for 88¢/lb doesn’t mean I’ll plan to eat one every night. I get serious food boredom, so I like to cook different things day to day (and week to week). If a lot of things are on sale (as is usually the case with produce in the summer), I sometimes make little notes on a sheet of paper.
I use a combination of Pinterest and Day Designer’s weekly meal planner sheet to keep track of what I want to cook. I create a Pinterest board titled “Meal Plan Week of MM/DD/YY” and pin recipes I’ll use to the board. This is the easiest way for me to keep track of recipes; I have a lot of cookbooks that I love, but unless I specifically note the book title and page number on the meal planner sheet, I lose track of where the recipe is. The last thing I want to do when I get home is flip through six cookbooks to figure out where I saw that recipe for Indian-spiced chicken thighs.
Recipes can come from all over the Internet. I use a lot from Williams-Sonoma, EatingWell and Martha Stewart. As I browse through recipes, I try to choose those which use a short list of easy-to-find ingredients and simple cooking methods. I like cooking, but that doesn’t mean I want to spend three hours waiting on short ribs to braise. When I find something that looks good, I pin it to the appropriate board and write its name in my meal planner sheet. The meal planner sheet includes a column for a grocery list; I write down ingredients I know I’ll need to buy as I go through each recipe. I don’t try to organize them at all- so if this means I write “chicken breasts (2)” three times, so be it.
When I’m done pinning and writing down meals and ingredients, I use the Out of Milk app/site to make my final grocery list. I typically use the website to do this, because the app syncs with the site. There are a LOT of apps for lists and grocery shopping out there, so use whatever you like best. I like Out of Milk because it does a good job of organizing the list by store section, which is very helpful. It also isn’t covered with ads for GROCERY COUPONS OMGZ.
The whole process takes me under an hour. It’s not difficult. The written plan gets tacked up on the fridge so I can reference it throughout the week and see what I’ve planned. When I get home from work, I look at the sheet, open up Pinterest to find the recipe, and start cooking.
A few other points:
- I don’t do a lot of pre-meal prep on weekends. I hard boil about a dozen eggs for use as quick breakfasts/snacks for Johnny and me, and that’s about it.
- I don’t try to find recipes for two people, because the ingredient quantities get too weird. Instead, I either plan to cook whatever the meal makes (e.g. 8 servings of soup) or I use the recipe as a guideline for cooking for two (e.g. cooking two chicken breasts in a similar method with similar seasonings instead of four).
- I don’t specifically plan breakfasts/lunches. If I am going to the barn or Johnny is going to the gym in the morning, we’ll eat a hard boiled egg on the way to our destination and pack a banana with nut butter for second breakfast once we’re at work. If I am at home in the morning, I cook myself breakfast (usually two eggs and half a sweet potato). Lunches are usually leftovers from the previous night’s dinner.
- Johnny went through a phase of prepping a week’s worth of lunches on Sundays, the same thing every week: half a cup of quinoa, 4 oz of chicken, and a cup of green beans (from a microwaveable freezer bag). I can’t handle that kind of repetition, but he really liked it. Including cooking time, those took about an hour to make, start to finish.
- I go to the barn in the morning, so getting home late is not an issue for me. I get home around 6:15 PM and we eat around 7:30 PM. If you’re an after-work barn person, I suggest investing in a slow cooker with a ‘keep warm’ feature and searching out recipes that will take a long time to cook (like 10-12 hours). Recipes that have a shorter cook time often end up overcooked or tasting super weird if they’re sitting in there for a long time. If that doesn’t appeal to you, cook things that are easy. Season a chicken breast with salt, pepper, and whatever else is available, and bake it at 400° for 15-20 minutes and microwave some frozen veggies. It doesn’t have to be hard or overwhelming!
- We do not have a hard and fast budget for groceries, but we average about $90/week. We eat about 16 meals apiece at home per week (5 breakfasts, 5 lunches, 6 dinners), so it works out to just under $3 per person per meal. You can certainly do it for less- we averaged about $40/week when I was unemployed, but that required more careful planning and shopping.
- I do not coupon. I check sales flyers, but I definitely do not coupon.
- Our diet is mostly meat and vegetables. We don’t eat much pasta, rice, or dairy or buy many packaged foods like sauces or nut butters. (I make sauces, broths, and nut butters.)
Cooking equipment you should invest in to make the process easier and more enjoyable:
- A non-slip cutting board
- A good knife
- An oven-safe pan
- A digital meat thermometer– if you are not confident in your ability to tell when meat is ‘done’, buy a digital thermometer like this one that features an oven-proof cord.
My dad always told me “If you can read, you can cook”, and I firmly believe he’s correct. You CAN meal plan and you CAN cook! Give it a try for a week or a month; with practice, both planning and cooking will become easier!