I really believe that meal planning is one of the keys to success of participating in a vegetable subscription program, or with any sort of farm shopping. Meal planning doesn’t necessarily mean picking out a recipe for each night of the week, so if that’s not your style, it’s okay. Planning can just mean that you have a simple, easy way to organize your thinking about mealtime. The upfront thinking does take time and effort, but it will help you to stay consistent, reduce your food waste, save money, and save time. Here are 12 of the best tips I’ve learned about meal planning that have made my experience with eating seasonally more enjoyable.
1. Make a categorized list of staples.
I got this idea from my mom, when she developed it after years of asking us for input when it came to meal planning. Each of us was given the chance to pick something from her all-inclusive list so that we weren’t drawing a blank every time. I like to keep my list digital so that I can add to it. Basically it consists of my favorite recipes in different categories: crock pot, breakfast, sandwiches, soups, side dishes, casseroles, salads, etc. Over the years I’ve learned to reference this list often to remind myself of the dishes I’ve made and loved with different veggies, so that when the eggplant comes into season, ideas are fresh in my mind.
2. Make sure you have pantry staples on hand for those days when your meal plan goes awry.
Instead of planning for each day of the week, I’m lucky to be able to draw from inspiration on a whim and grab what I want from the farm. I like it this way during the summer because I never know when we are going to eat. This is why I always have pantry and fridge staples on hand so that I can cook something basic but classic quickly. I would recommend sitting down and writing out your list of staples to make sure you always have a supply. For me, these are oil, bread crumbs, onions, garlic, pasta, rice, salsa, and seasonings. My fridge always has mozzarella and cheddar, sour cream, lemons, and limes, my freezer always has sauce, and I always have tortillas and rolls on hand.
3. Make weekly rotations based on themes.
Meal planning doesn’t have to be as specific as knowing what meal you’re going to eat every day for the next week. It can be as simple as having a loose outline: breakfast on Fridays, taco Tuesday, meatless Monday, pasta night, etc. You can assign a theme to the days when you regularly have more or less time to cook. This will help you to stay consistently guided if it’s hard for you to think of 7 totally different dishes each week.
4. Consider the amount of time you have to cook and prep accordingly.
All-star member Nancy sets aside more time for involved dishes on the weekends, when she’s not working. When you’re making your plan for the week, consider looking over a list of 1-2 new recipes that you’ve been meaning to try, so that if you have consistent days off, you can build those in when you have more time to set yourself up for success.
5. Build in leftovers night.
Right around the time when I know I’m going to go shopping again, I leave a day intentionally blank for leftovers. This helps us to clean out the fridge and reduce our food waste. If you don’t have much built up in your fridge, this can be a day to pull from your freezer or pantry for inspiration, or take the opportunity to order out. Steff S. makes Leftover Bowls a staple in her rotation, which goes something like this:
“I'll change the base from week to week, so sometimes it's pasta-based (penne or shells), grains (quinoa, rice, farrow), or other veggies (this week, I used spaghetti squash). Usually everything is just sauteed or baked together. I'll change the dressing based on what we haven't had most recently (red sauce, cheese sauce, soy sauce, vinaigrettes...)”
6. Shop your pantry and fridge first, before making your grocery list.
Sometimes I’ll buy a special ingredient for a recipe and then realize I’ve still got more of it. Maybe I only used half of a red pepper for an omelet, and the other half is still in my fridge. It can be helpful for your wallet and for reducing your food waste if you look to see what you’ve got on hand, find a recipe you can make with it, and carry that over to the coming week.
7. Make a list of versatile recipes that can be adapted no matter the ingredients.
Omelets, soups, pasta or grain bowls, stir fry, roasted or grilled veggies: there are certain recipe ideas that you can adapt on the fly and will still come out delicious no matter what add-ins you have on hand.
8. Consider ways to repurpose leftovers in multiple dishes.
If you’ve just eaten tacos, you might have extra tortillas on hand. Plan for an additional meal that you can make with that item in a new way: breakfast wraps, for example. Or, if you’re planning to roast a chicken, shred it up the next day, put buffalo sauce on it, and turn it into a salad. Repurposing leftovers is cost-effective, can be a time-saver, and allows you to keep things fun and fresh so that you’re not sick of eating the same item in the same way across a few days.
9. Plan to use items with a shorter shelf life early on in your week.
If you know you’re going to receive kale and bok choy in your veggie share, plan to use those earlier in the week, and save the carrots for later on, once you’ve removed the tops. This will ensure that certain items are more nutritious when you eat them and are used before they go bad. All-star Whitney recommends looking at the weekly newsletter, assigning a vegetable to a certain night of the week depending on its shelf life, and choosing a meal that matches the ingredient and the amount of time you’ll have on that day. If you know you won’t be able to use it right away, freeze it.
10. Use an app for inspiration or organization.
Many of our members say that they receive updates from apps like the Food Network or Tasty to give them new ideas to file away. All-star Kate recommends using a meal planning app like MealBoard, which aggregates all of your recipes for the week into one shopping list!
11. Figure out when you’re going to cook and prep.
In addition to planning out when you’re going to eat certain meals, it helps to consider when you’re going to prep for them. Will it be easier for you to cook a couple of big meals in advance for the week? Or can you chop an extra veggie and store it away for another dish you’re making later in the week? Sometimes it helps to be realistic about when certain aspects of meal prep will actually occur in order to plan dishes that make sense for the time you have. There’s nothing worse than realizing you planned to make chicken breasts tonight, but the package of chicken is still in the freezer. Thinking about what you’re cooking a day or two in advance ensures that you’re ready to make it happen when the time comes.
12. Grocery shop off of a template.
I got this great idea from my mom, too, which should help with always having items on hand. She typed up a list of her most frequently purchased items and uses that to start her grocery list. Instead of trying to remember to write bread crumbs down on your list, you can give it a quick scan to jog your memory and remind you what to check for. There are tons of digital apps that will help with this, too.
The last thing we want is for farm shopping or having a subscription to be a hassle, adding additional stress and time to your busy days. We genuinely think anyone can enjoy it with the right systems, routines, and forethought in place. What’s your best meal planning tip? Share it with us in the comments!