A working mom’s weekly meal plan needs to be organized, flexible, and quick. We turned to food writer Raquel Pelzel, who has written about food and cooking for many years (her writing has appeared in Cook’s Illustrated, The Wall Street Journal, Saveur, and Fine Cooking), to find out how she manages her weekly meal plan. Even with that impressive resume, her approach to meal planning is refreshingly simple and combines what we consistently talk about: a little organization, list-making, and strategic grocery shopping.
How Raquel Organizes Her Weekly Meal Plan
Even though she works from home, Raquel often finds herself in the predicament that other working moms do: It's 5:00, what's for dinner? Thankfully she plans out most of the meals over the weekend.
Rachel says that everyone needs to give themselves some flexibility to allow for creativity or to satisfy a craving. She doesn't like planning meals out more than a few days ahead. "Food goes bad and cravings change," she says, and she's also flexible in her shopping habits. "If I see a great deal on a pork shoulder or boneless chicken thighs, I’ll buy them and freeze to use another time."
Planning Starts on Thursday or Friday
Usually, on Thursday or Friday night, Raquel gives her fridge a once-over. The key here is to know what she is going to do with leftovers before hitting the store over the weekend to do the week's shopping.
"I like starting a week fresh with a beautiful canvas of fresh veggies and meat to choose from," she says. "Weekends are a perfect time for throwing together leftover chicken, beef, and veggies into a breakfast hash, pasta, an omelet, savory crêpe, quesadillas, enchiladas, breakfast burritos, and rice or noodle stir-fries."
Raquel plans for the week over the weekend. After she knows where all the leftovers are going, she'll sit down to make a list for the upcoming week. Instead of just writing down meats, veggies, and more, she'll think about what she really wants to eat.
"Am I craving fried chicken, smothered pork chops, or green beans?" she'Il ask herself in addition to considering what is happening this week with her and her family's schedule. "Am I involved in events at night, will my husband be home for dinner, or at a screening (he runs the indie DVD and vinyl company, Factory 25), and does my son have a dinner play date with a friend? These all influence what I’ll be making during the week." Once she has an overview of the week, she'll sit down and sketch out the week's menu.
For example, her menu might read like this for Monday: broiled drumsticks/wild rice/brown buttered green beans with almonds.
So Raquel will add to her meal plan and shopping list the following items that she needs:
- For chicken drumsticks: spices, aluminum foil, and oil
- For wild rice: shallots, chicken broth, and olive oil
- For green beans: kosher salt, butter, and sliced almonds
Her Detailed Shopping List
Raquel keeps the daily rundown of what she plans to serve on the left side of the shopping list. She then expands what she needs to buy for each dish on the right side of the list.
"For broiled drumsticks, I will think about what I need. Do I have chicken in the freezer? Do I have a spice mix I want to use or am I making my own? Do I have wild rice?" She will go through this mental process for three or four days of the week. "I’ll also include any pantry items I might need to make the meal—such as olive oil or salt, or if I ran out of flour."
She suggests rewriting the list into categories as you please. Use dairy at the top followed by produce, meat, or dry goods, for example.
More of Raquel’s Tips
Over time, Raquel learned to streamline her planning, shopping, and cooking basics. She also shares her top three tips, including a few ways to serve lentils for a soul-satisfying dinner.
Use Fresh Items First
Raquel suggests using up fresh produce and meat early in the week as well as fragile vegetables. She saves the hardy vegetables that keep better for later in the week.
She'll use green beans and fresh spinach up first. Later in the week, Raquel will roast cauliflower and sweet potatoes, for example. The same rule of thumb goes for protein. Save a meat-free meal for later in the week when you might not have optimally fresh protein in the fridge.
Stay Flexible for Creative Urges
Raquel usually plans out three to four of the week’s meals, but saves one to two meals for “inspired” creations, or those times when she's passing a farmer’s market and feels romanced by a gorgeous head of broccoli or pristine day-boat wild bass.
She also typically hits a green market or food store once mid-week. Raquel likes to replenish milk or mini bagels for the kids. Sometimes, she's lured in by a display of fresh spices or tempted by a gorgeous piece of meat. That's when she'll plan an impromptu supper.
Keep a Stocked Pantry
Sometimes Raquel decides to hit the pantry instead of making her planned meal. For example, she'll keep lentils, onion, and the spice cumin stocked in her pantry for any one of the following hearty, cheap, and delicious meals:
- Lentils mixed with chicken or sausage
- Lentils served with pita chips or baguette
- Lentils tossed with pasta and Parmigiano cheese
- Lentils spooned over rice with a quick topping of plain yogurt and chopped scallions
A squeeze of lime, a pinch of salt, and a dash of cumin over any of these creations results in a wonderful, super tasty meal.