(Almost) A Week in Meal Planning

January 17, 2018

We’re changing the way we cook over here at Food52—with articles and recipes and eight weeks of newsletters. (You’ve signed up, right?) I just finished working my way through the first installment on meal planning and decided to give it a whirl myself. Would following these steps really help me get to dinner faster? Here's what I learned.

“Start by choosing just one recipe that you’ll look forward to eating. Say, Garlic Lime Oven-Baked Salmon,” our newsletter leader Sarah Jampel writes. “Pick one recipe for dinner and buy supplemental ingredients that will help you repurpose those leftovers.”

And who doesn’t look forward to salmon? Except, I just had salmon the night before. When in doubt, do as Ina would do: roast chicken. A 4-pound bird can feed a family of four for dinner, or it can feed one person for four meals.

Saturday Dinner

Salt-and-pepper roast chicken. Does it get any better than this? I love chicken so much, I wish I was a chicken (except egg-laying sounds scary). I roast vegetables in the same oven—but on a separate sheet tray, so my chicken has some personal space to get colorful and crispy. After I transfer the chicken to a cutting board, I transfer those vegetables to the chickeny tray and toss them in the fat. I make a vinegary salad to go with everyone. I have all the wine. I love chicken! I love this assignment. I love my life.

Sunday Dinner

Chicken fajitas. Another when-in-doubt moment: make fajitas. There is nothing that can't be improved by caramelized peppers and onions bundled in a warm tortilla. I make my own whole-wheat flour tortillas (something like these) because I find it soothing, and after you make them once, you really can’t go back to store-bought (it goes quicker than you’d think). Anyway, the stack seems excessive next to my two chicken fajitas but these tortillas, too, are all part of the plan. The leftovers go into the freezer for what our Staff Writer Valerio Farris calls "anytime tacos": scrambled eggs, thick yogurt, and salsa for breakfast, or tofu and avocado for lunch.

Monday Dinner

Pesto pasta with chicken and green beans. Not going to lie—chicken wouldn’t be my first call here. I’d be fine with just green beans. I boil them in the salty, pre-pasta water because no one needs to clean an extra pot on a weeknight. I bet replacing the chicken with hunks of mozzarella would be great. But there is still leftover chicken and we are still eating it. Our newsletter tip highlights green sauce as a way to use up any extra fellows in your fridge. My answer to this is always pesto: any green, any nut, any cheese, all fair game. Just make sure you thin it with enough pasta water to turn it into an emulsified, creamy sauce—that's key.

Tuesday Lunch

Chicken salad with Triscuits. I riffed on this potato salad recipe—punchy and bright with mustard and olive oil, celery and capers, pepperoncini and jalapeño pickles. I wish the chicken chunks were tiny Yukon potatoes. Or boiled eggs. Really, anything but chicken.

Shop the Story

Sorry, chicken. It's not you—it's me. Because if anyone eats anything enough, it gets old fast. Which brings us to the crux of meal–planning success: space it out! Hence, my revised, should’ve-would’ve-could’ve, week-long meal plan below. Mix up your proteins if you can, or repurpose some (but not all) components of a dish from the night before. You've worked hard to get ahead of your plan, now let your meal plan work for you.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“I like to look through my recipe database for things I'm really in the mood to cook (and that are possible in that particular budget fortnight), and then from one choice I try and pick other things that mean I can capitalise on what ingredients I need to buy and not waste things, and it helps to solve the 'too many choices' thing too - and going by shared ingredients like a bunch of basil, or kale, etc still gives me the chance to pick things that mix up the flavours a little and not run into the 'chicken every night' problem. ”
— Transcendancing

Suggested revised meal plan:

  • Saturday dinner: salt-and-pepper roast chicken and schmaltzy root vegetables
  • Sunday dinner: rice bowl with schmaltzy root vegetables, crispy fried egg, and yogurt
  • Monday dinner: chicken fajitas with caramelized peppers and onions and yogurt
  • Tuesday dinner: fried rice with bacon, green beans, (frozen!) peas, and scrambled eggs
  • Wednesday dinner: kale pesto pasta with chicken and green beans
  • Thursday dinner: quesadillas with kale and caramelized peppers and onions
  • Friday dinner: open-faced chicken salad sandwich on thick challah toast with giant salad

What are your best meal planning tricks? Spill the beans in the comments section below!

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • girlwithaknife
  • Alexandra Mannino
    Alexandra Mannino
  • Transcendancing
  • allie
  • Rachelwrites
Emma was the food editor at Food52. She created the award-winning column, Big Little Recipes, and turned it into a cookbook in 2021. These days, she's a senior editor at Bon Appétit, leading digital cooking coverage. Say hello on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.


girlwithaknife May 22, 2018
Thanks for this article! I would love to see more like it, because who doesn't plan meals more than a day at a time? So much more efficient to plan and prep for multiple meals using the same base ingredients. Helps solve the "what's for dinner" problem!
Alexandra M. January 28, 2018
mis en place small prep to throw things together. and creating one dinner our of another's leftovers. case in point: smoky pulled pork with apples on Sunday. Carnita nachos on Monday with all the fixins'.
Transcendancing January 23, 2018
I like to look through my recipe database for things I'm really in the mood to cook (and that are possible in that particular budget fortnight), and then from one choice I try and pick other things that mean I can capitalise on what ingredients I need to buy and not waste things, and it helps to solve the 'too many choices' thing too - and going by shared ingredients like a bunch of basil, or kale, etc still gives me the chance to pick things that mix up the flavours a little and not run into the 'chicken every night' problem.
allie January 17, 2018
Re: chicken, I find that my family doesn't like bone-in chicken for more than one night (it just sits in fridge, sadly), but I often make a saucy dark-meat roast chicken (with thighs and drumsticks), stick leftovers in freezer and voila it's a happy dinner the following week or in 2 weeks when everyone has forgotten about the first batch.

My other - huge - success is making a batch of soup and freezing 2-3 portions for lunch, for another dinner, etc.
Rachelwrites January 17, 2018
We typically plan by the month, marking off in advance days we will be eating out, We do a big monthly grocery shop at Aldi for staples and the beginning fresh produce dairy and anything than can be frozen. Doing things by the month helps me to space proteins/cuisines so we don't get bored as well as make good use of the freezer.
AntoniaJames January 17, 2018
Hear, hear! A lot of people find that monthly planning is too restrictive. Quite to the contrary, it gives you more freedom and peace of mind than ever you could imagine. Nothing says you absolutely have to make every meal planned on exactly the day you put it on the calendar. In fact, planning and cooking and freezing (especially components/ingredients, and not whole meals) makes it so easy to find a "Plan B" when something goes awry -- you get sick, a meeting or flight runs very late, or you find a wonderful new recipe you can't wait to try, or there's a great sale at your butcher shop, etc. Thanks for weighing in on this, Rachel. ;o)
Rachelwrites January 17, 2018
I learned from you! I still use the templates you sent me.
cookinginvictoria January 18, 2018
Thanks to AJ, I am a big convert to monthly menu planning too. And keeping a freezer inventory has been life changing for us.
girlwithaknife May 22, 2018
What kinds of meal components do you keep in the freezer?
Cari W. January 17, 2018
I have four kids, but only two of them eat chicken. Even still, we eat a whole chicken in one dinner. Are you roasting three or four chickens that first night? I make stock with our carcass, but I don't at all see how you could have that much meat for those chicken meals from one bird.
Cari W. January 17, 2018
Nevermind. Missed that it was just you!
Pisanella January 29, 2018
I did , too! I was wondering how big the chicken was!
Jennifer January 17, 2018
Why not use/pull from the freezer? Roast a chicken, and sure, eat leftovers, but also freeze some for later use. Vary what's on offer by pulling from meals you've frozen in previous weeks. No more work, lots more variety.
AntoniaJames January 17, 2018
Yes, Jennifer is right. Even chicken every other night (and not *every* night) is tedious, no matter what you do to create variety. It's so much easier to plan meals with bulk / batch cooking, or at least double batches, freezing half and repurposing later. Keeping a freezer inventory in a Google Doc or other easily accessed format makes this so easy.
Here's an example of how I plan / execute multiple use dishes and components, relying extensively on my freezer (and frequently updated freezer inventory):

As for the chicken . . . . I recommend freezing the dark meat, which tends to do better than the breast when thawed and used later. I deglaze with hot water the pan juices sticking to the skillet to add to the meat, to prevent freezer burn. Some recommend freezing on the bone, but I find that takes up more space, plus I want those bones for making stock.

Emma L. January 18, 2018
Hi Jennifer, we love freezers, too! Hope you'll stay tuned on our series.
Emma L. January 18, 2018
Hi Antonia—intrigued by the freezing dark versus white meat!
girlwithaknife May 22, 2018
Impressive! though I got tired just reading your weekend to-do list :-p (I have a toddler) I also suspect you have a chest freezer; I have a smaller upright one.