Two years ago, I was 20, nearing the end of my Undergraduate degree. I was living with my wonderful friend Carla right off of Duluth, and my group of friends had recently discovered that we can potluck at a pretty outstanding level. We were taking advantage of this communal way of eating as often as possible, but that mostly covered up to one dinner per week. I was also cooking a lot, trying out new recipes, and playing informal Chopped with whatever was in my fridge. However, I don’t think I packed a lunch for school more than five times in the four years I was in university. EMBARRASSING.
I would tell myself that I was too busy (HAAAA- I look at my schedule now vs then and laugh in my own lazy face), and it’s fiiiiiine, there’s a Tim Hortons right by campus and I really do love their turkey bacon sandwich, and oooh maybe I can get a beignet au pommes for dessert. Or I could get a slice from the questionable but somehow still delicious Pizza Navona or abandon all sanity and get Thai Express. Sometimes I didn’t have classes in the morning so I’d eat at home, and other times I would just eat a snack on campus to tide me over from breakfast until dinner.
Fast forward to present day. I’m 22, I have a boring desk job from 9-5 M-F so I can do this writing stuff on the side, and I’m paying for everything myself. All this means that I’ve had no choice but to become a Queen of Packed Lunches. If you want to eat very well and not spend literally hundreds of dollars per month on fast-food lunches, it’s the only way.
I look at Young(er) Me and want to shake her for throwing so much money at mediocre food establishments over four years- not to mention that my grocery shops were unfocused, cravings-based, and all over the place, and I was no stranger to food going bad in the fridge. All in all, I was cheating my food-loving self out of really great lunches, and throwing money straight into The Void.
I don’t really blame myself (or anyone else who finds themselves in the same mindset as I did). It does seem impossibly daunting to get one’s shit together enough to plan for packing lunches when there are so many reasons for not doing so. Meal planning and lunch-packing is a skill like any other. It takes a bunch of practice to get right, and it’s not always going to go well at first. If you work at it, though, and see what works for you and what doesn’t, you’ll save $$$SO much money and actually look forward to eating your meal all morning.
A few months ago, I started doing the famous Sunday Meal Prep method, where you grocery shop and then cook large batches of a few meals, throw everything into Tupperware, and be more or less set for the week. While this worked ok for me at first, I quickly realized a few things about this method:
- It doesn’t account for cravings/food moods.
- The food doesn’t always stay as tasty over several days in the fridge.
- It’s easy to get sick of a dish if you eat it more than three times in a week.
- It eats up your whole Sunday- between grocery shopping, putting everything away, prepping, cooking, cooling, Tupperwaring- I’m sure you can think of things you’d rather be doing on one of your precious two weekend days.
After a Very Indulgent Summer, where it was even harder than usual to stick to the Sunday meal prep method, it was time to reel it in and get back to eating reasonably healthy. I looked to the Bon Appetit Food Lover’s Cleanse (which isn’t actually a cleanse because cleanses are garbage- it’s more of a meal plan that eliminates most dairy, white carbs, and refined sugar for 2 weeks and replaces it with really excellent meals based around veggies and protein, lots of fruit, and creative grains and plenty of sauces). The only downside of this plan is that it’s definitely drawn up with a HEFTY food budget in mind- there’s no way I can afford to eat lamb, mahi mahi, chicken, AND fancy black rice all in one week.
I selected one protein to keep and turned every other dish vegetarian, and in doing so, ended up making up my own healthy meal plan for the two weeks.
The most crucial piece of advice that I learned while doing this meal plan was the following:
COOK A DOUBLE PORTION OF DINNER SO LUNCH IS ALREADY MADE FOR TOMORROW.
This seems, and is, kind of obvious, and I have no idea how it didn’t occur to me sooner. It’s changed my whole perspective on meal planning. It’s even easier than doing a Sunday cook!
I still shop on Sundays and do some light prep- like making Ziplocs full of pre-cut fruit and veggies for smoothies- but I don’t have to dedicate 3 hours to cooking food for the week that’s going to lose its lustre.
A few disclaimers and notes before I show you a sample meal plan.
- This meal plan is for two people, Aaron and myself, so we share the cost of groceries and the labour of cooking/cleanup. This does make things a bit easier and cheaper, but if you adjust to one dinner dish providing lunch for the next day AND either dinner for the next day or lunch for the day after, it’s all good and you don’t have to shop for so many ingredients.
- This week, on Wednesday there’s a dinner that I’m going to, so I built it into the week’s plan. The beauty of this method is that it’s so flexible. If I have plans to get dinner out, I plan for the next day’s lunch to be very simple (see Thursday, below)- something you can throw together when you get home, right before bed. You can also always swap meals around based on what you’re in the mood for, or who feels like cooking.
- I draw up a weekly meal plan like the one below every week right before shopping. To save money, I take into account what’s already lying around in the cabinet, fridge and pantry and work from there.
- After I make the meal plan, I scan through it slowly and make a detailed shopping list organized by section of the supermarket to ~streamline~ the shopping process and help keep extra spending at bay.
- Junk food is allowed when the mood really strikes (I’m so benevolent), but I like planning a semi-healthy dessert to try to avoid going down the Whole Sleeve of Chips Ahoy route.
Without further ado,
This Week’s Meal Plan
Dinner: cilantro zucchini soup and tortillas with pico de gallo
Dessert: supremed grapefruit with brown sugar
Snack: apple and peanut butter
Lunch: leftover cilantro soup and pico de gallo
Dinner: mushroom tofu and eggplant stir fry with brown rice
Dessert: microwaved apples with cinnamon
Snack: 1 hardboiled egg
Lunch: leftover stir fry
Dinner: potatoes with armenian string cheese and harissa, garlic wilted greens, cucumber and pickled pineapple salad
Dessert: microwaved apples with cinnamon
Lunch: leftover potatoes, greens, cucumber pineapple salad
Dinner: Mongolian Hot Pot outing for David’s bday
Snack: apple and pear
Lunch: peanut butter and jelly sandwich, cucumber salad with black vinegar and sesame oil
Dinner: chicken thighs with spicy chimichurri with broccoli
Dessert: orange ginger popsicles
Snack: sliced pear with cheese
Lunch: leftover chicken thighs and broccoli
Dinner: chickpea stew with leeks, harissa, spinach and brown rice
Dessert: orange ginger popsicles
Lunch: leftover chickpeas and brown rice
There you have it! So, what do you think? Let me know if you want the recipe for any of these dishes in the comments, and tell me your meal planning secrets!