Archive for the ‘Epic Meal Planning’ Category


Making my own extracts? Yes. Making my own chili paste? Don’t be ridiculous.

I have a picture in my head of the life I want to have someday, and it looks a little different from the life that I do have. I love my life now, but I also have plans for the future.

In this future life, I have a real pantry and a large freezer. I use storage space so well that I perpetually have enough food in the house that I could eat for two months without going to the store for anything other than the occasional egg or coffee run. And really, if I’m describing the life I want, it’s more likely that I’ll be trading produce from my garden for eggs from the neighbor’s chickens. In this life, I’m making a decent living as a writer so that I have a more flexible schedule, allowing me to plan some other time than my precious, heavily guarded weekends to break out the canning equipment to squirrel away enough tomato sauce, jam, and beans to last the whole year long.

Back in my current reality, however, this is not (yet) feasible.

I can store a few things. I use the space I have efficiently by buying mostly real food instead of processed foods. I can freeze pesto in cubes for a quick sauce because a little goes a long way, and a little is what I have room to store. But tomato sauce is something I have to make every time I want it, because it doesn’t store so compactly.

I have time to make some things from scratch. Vanilla and other extracts are better when you make them yourself, and they’re super easy. You basically pop a vanilla bean in a bottle of vodka and wait a few weeks. Limoncello – almost as easy. But as often as I eat roasted peppers, I don’t have the time to keep up with it roasting them on my own. I always end up buying the jars (or the paste in tubes).

I love baking my own bread. It’s way less expensive and so much tastier than anything I can buy at the grocery store. But I also live in Texas, which means at least half the year, an hour of bread-baking is followed by either three hours of sweating while I wait for the apartment to cool back down or keeping the apartment so tundra-esque that I have to take out a personal loan to pay my electric bill. So I compromise and splurge a little on bakery bread (and bonus – support a local business in the process) during those months.

Part of planning well is self-awareness. It’s recognizing that while you may want to milk your own goat and make your own cheese, you live in an apartment. Recognize your limits. Look for ways to stretch them, but accept those you can’t.


I’m sharing my Epic Meal Planning strategies for Write 31 Days – click here to see the master list.

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I love farmers markets that hand out “what the heck to do with this thing you just bought” instructions.

Hello. My name is Suzanne, and I’m a recipe hoarder.

In addition to my trusty meal staples box, I have a little over a hundred cookbooks. I have many food-centric Pinterest boards, and I have a file of recipes that I’ve torn out of magazines, scribbled down at potlucks, or printed from an email. In fact, some of my meal staple cards just have a list of ingredients (for shopping purposes) and where to find the instructions – a website, the specific Pinterest board, or a book name and page number. It used to be the author’s name and page number, but “Nigella” doesn’t help you when you own every cookbook she’s written.

My favorite recipes – many of which you will ultimately find in the Epic Meal Planning book – are my own. They fall into two categories that I call old flames and new loves.

The old flames are mostly family recipes that I have tweaked (and in some cases, altered so completely that the only thing they have in common with the original is the name) to fit my tastes. They generally involve more vegetables, less meat, less (or different) dairy, and more spice.

The new loves are recipes that were born out of an excess of an ingredient. For example, one Thanksgiving, I bought tons of coconut for candy-making and then arrived at the farm to discover that Mom had also bought tons of coconut. So I had a lot left over. Unlike the pickle incident, however, this was a happy accident, because I love coconut. That December was full of coconut waffles and curry. I’m not generally a fan of rice pudding, but when it’s made with homemade coconut milk, you will need to get your own, because that whole pan is mine. Coconut (two kinds – sweetened and unsweetened) is now on my staples list.

But as much as I hoard recipes and as much as I like to sit down and read a cookbook like it’s a novel, I don’t actually use recipes in my day-to-day cooking. I might make something I need a recipe for once or twice a month, and I seldom follow the recipe exactly. Part of the reason for this is because I have made my favorites enough that I could make them in my sleep. But mainly it’s because I learned to cook before I learned to use cooking instructions, and I think this gave me a better understanding of how food chemistry actually works, which ultimately allows me to try new things and still feed myself whether I have specific guidelines or not.

If you are just learning to cook or are unsure of yourself in the kitchen, this is the process I recommend. Ignore the recipes and start out learning basic skills. If you can’t bring yourself to ignore recipes altogether, get some giant like Bittman’s How to Cook Everything or Lopez-Alt’s The Food Lab, the likes of which don’t just have recipes but also teach you what all those ingredients and instructions mean and why they work together in that particular way.

For those of you who are more seasoned cooks, your task for the day is to experiment. Take a recipe and swap an ingredient out for something comparable. You may discover a new favorite.

Whether you’re finding new loves or rekindling old flames, learning to be flexible in the kitchen can infuse new life into your meal plan. Even better – it will ensure that you are never at the mercy of an ingredient list.


I’m sharing my Epic Meal Planning Strategies for Write 31 Days – click to see the master list.


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Evidence of successful meal-times

[We interrupt this series to inform you that, due to an overdue vacation and the subsequent earned laziness that requires, the last five days of Epic Meal Planning will be finished this week.]

For some of you, a meal planning system that is as detailed as this one probably seems unnecessary. Some of you might tend to operate better in broad themes rather than itemized, color-coded minutiae.

Today is for you.

If I decide to throw a wrench in my plan by making six dozen cookies on Sunday to share with the office on Monday, I need a plan I can reference to decide quickly if that means I need to make extra time to go to the store that week for more supplies. Otherwise, I get stuck that next Saturday wanting to make biscuits without any butter or flour. Another reason I need a daily plan? When I just eat whatever sounds good, my diet looks like cookies and biscuits (and onion rings…and patty melts…), and that’s how we gain a hundred pounds, which I’m not interested in doing. To make healthy choices on a day-to-day basis, I need to be more intentionally mindful.

You, however, might already have going to the market as part of your weekly schedule. You might enjoy the freedom of eating whatever sounds good that day. You might have picky eaters whose palates refuse to follow a calendar. You might have lots of storage space and a well-honed staples list, and that’s really all that you need to feed yourself and your family well.

At its core, all meal planning is about anticipating needs. There is no best way to do this. Clarification – the best way to meal plan varies wildly from person to person. The best way to plan is the way that works. And that might look different for you than it does for me.

My hope for this month is not that you will try to fit your life into my plan. My hope is that you will take what is helpful and leave the rest behind. If you get discouraged while you are trying this plan, it is likely that you are trying to force something that doesn’t work for you and your needs.

If this happens, go back to the basics. Go back to your staples, and live by that list for a while. This series is presented in a 31-day time frame, but as I have mentioned before, it takes most people longer to create a system that is helpful to them. Take your time.


I’m sharing my Epic Meal Planning strategies for Write 31 days – click to see the master list.

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This year, I threw my first annual Hemingway party. The food was simple and good – like Hemingway’s prose – and the party was alcohol-laden – like Hemingway himself.

Yesterday, we talked about the benefits of planning ahead when you have traditions that you like to celebrate every year. Today, we are going to talk about the importance of having a way to find, share, and save ideas that will make your planning easier.

For me, that way is Pinterest.

I wrote a miniature love note to Pinterest last month, but I want to talk more about it this month. It’s one of my favorite planning tools. I currently have 97 boards, and many of them are categories of recipes that I have tried or that I want to try. This is what keeps my recipe cards down to one box instead of twenty. It also is what helps me plan a party months before it happens.

Some of my traditions have their own boards. I like to have at least one theme party a year, and the Let Me Entertain You board has some great ideas about simple ways to do that. After I finish editing Epic Meal Planning, I’m going to revisit Feast, which will be about Easter specifically, but also celebrations and party planning tips (and three course meals with champagne cocktails) in general. The day after Thanksgiving, my family makes candy, and every once in a while I like to throw something new in the mix.  The year that Maggie and I had a cookie weekend and a pie weekend, both followed by omg-come-eat-all-these-things parties, I collected a lot of recipes that I still use and will revive the next time said parties happen.

Epic Meal Planning also has its own specific board, and I pin recipes and tips to it (as well as all this month’s posts). So if you like what you have been reading here and want to read deeper  or want to see alternatives to the various steps we’ve covered, I try to find at least one alternative method for everything we’ve done. I like to create my own spice list and pantry list, for example, but I’ve been cooking for 20+ years. If you haven’t, that may have been overwhelming to you, so there are pins on this board that give you solid starting lists.

What are your favorite ways to organize your planning tips and ideas?

I’m sharing my Epic Meal Planning strategies for Write 31 Days – click to see the master list.

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My traditions involve rampant serving platter usage.

When I get my new calendar every year, the first thing I do is mark off my personal traditions. Any time I can foresee feeding or planning food outings for a group of people starts getting dreamed about in January. The parties go on the calendar, and I start planning menus.

Planning menus this far in advance, particularly if you are short of budget, can be a lifesaver. You can start buying things in January for a party in July (assuming they won’t go bad before then *cough*tequila*cough*) so that the party isn’t a burden on your pocketbook and you can enjoy it without eating Ramen noodles the rest of the month (unless you want to. Live your life.).

You can also plan your timeline better if you go ahead and get it on the calendar before everything sneaks up on you. For meals that tend to be big productions, it’s not enough to have the meal itself on the calendar; you also need to plan time to cook. You can even start weeks in advance to make the portions of the menu that can keep for that long. Cookie weekend (tl;dr version – we made multiple dozens of 13 different cookies and then had people come over to eat them and to bring buckets to take some of their favorites to go) would have been less exhausting if we had made some basic doughs – like the shortbread – in advance. I’ve got cookie weekend on the calendar already this year, though, so I’m going to shoot for 20 different cookies. Because I can.

The task for today is to start shopping for next year’s calendar/food planner. If you already have next year’s calendar (my people!), go ahead and plot party days and traditions. You can plot in pencil if you want. But get them on there.

I’m sharing my Epic Meal Planning strategies for Write 31 Days – click to see the master list.

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Clementines are like candy. This is the kind of happiness that comes with putting a generic intention to buy fruit on your grocery list.

 You know how to shop for groceries. Grab your lists and coupons (if applicable). Steel your resolve. Go forth and shop.

During this shopping trip (and all trips hereafter), you can be a little freer. If you see something you want or something that’s on sale that doesn’t exactly fit into your plan, go ahead and pick it up. I am eyeballing a new ice cream I want to try (Halo Top – have you tried it? Thoughts?), so I will probably browse that section in my next trip. I put fruit on the list and then just pick up what looks the best. You can be less specific with a few things now that you are shopping more mindfully, and it will still lower your grocery bills in the long run.

Other things that can lower your grocery bills are paying attention to weekly ads and shopping circulars. For example, I don’t need ten bags of frozen vegetables this week, but I know I will use them eventually, and they’re on sale 10 for $10 at Kroger with my card, so why not go ahead and stock up this Friday during my scheduled trip? Stores also often have their own coupons that they send out to their regular customers, so make sure you have signed up for the loyalty programs at places you frequent.

What are some other ways that you save money on groceries?

I’m sharing my Epic Meal Planning strategies for Write 31 Days – click to see the master list.

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Empty wine rack is sad. Guess I know what needs to go on the grocery list.

Your meals are planned, and after today, your grocery lists – for all of November – will be, too. As long as you keep up with this system, this is how you will make your lists from now on.

For demonstration purposes, we are going to presume three shopping days for the month – two regular and one holiday. Adjust as necessary

  1. Print out three staples lists. Put the dates of your shopping days on the top of the pages. On the first one, put a check next to all the staples you currently need to replenish. On the second one, put a check next to the staples that you will use during the first round of meals (between the first and second shopping days). On the third, put a check next to the staples you will use in the second round of meals and that you will need for your holiday meals.

    Of course, if you use a handwritten system for your grocery list, you will need to list the staples rather than place a check mark next to them.

  2. Next, you’ll make the list of all the non-staples you will need for each upcoming round of meals. If you store your recipes electronically, just copy, paste into a new document, and print. If you store your recipes on cards, make sure you get all of them on your written lists.

And that’s it! You are ready to shop (practically, if not mentally) with the confidence that you are not forgetting anything you will need, thus eliminating the annoying rush back to the store at the last minute.


I’m sharing my Epic Meal Planning strategies for Write 31 Days – click to see the master list.

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It takes a full 24 hours to prepare my heart and mind for the supermarket.

Today’s task is simple – setting yourself up for success.

It doesn’t matter how awesome and detailed your plan is if you don’t remember to follow it. A plan without action does you no good.

Who in the world would do all this work and forget to follow it?

*raises hand*

When I went through these steps the first time to make a meal plan, I hardly ever got past the calendar stage. I would put all my meals on it, proudly display it on my kitchen wall, and then proceed with my life as if it didn’t exist.

There are many reasons why this happened. I was so relieved to have a plan, but I had already worked so hard at creating it (oh, gosh – all those recipe cards) that I lost steam when it came to implementing it. Thus, I fell into my common habits. I liked to go through the drive-through on the way home, and I often chose that instead of going to the store. I made huge portions of my first two meals, and those lasted much longer than anticipated. I planned meals that I thought I should eat rather than meals I knew I actually would eat. I tried to resolve too many bad habits at once.

This went on for a good six months. Ridiculous – I know. I expect that almost everyone in the world will have faster success than I did, if for no other reason than they have the benefit of learning from my mistakes.

The main thing that finally got me on track was putting an alert reminder for shopping and cooking days in my phone. My phone let me know a full day in advance so that I a) remembered to do it and b) didn’t feel like I was being rushed into it. This was especially helpful with cooking days, because after changing my meals to things that I enjoyed cooking and eating, the alert meant that I spent the whole day looking forward to them.

Meal planning is not a new phenomenon. And you have not survived thus far in your life without eating. If this is the first system you have ever used, there’s a reason for that. Your tasks today are to list your heel drags – the obstacles that might keep you from making the work you’ve done so far actually work – and to list what you need in order to overcome them.

I’m sharing my Epic Meal Planning strategies for Write 31 Days – click to see the master list.

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The cutest insulated grocery bag that ever was. 

Take a minute to gaze lovingly at your calendar. You did it! You have a plan! For every night next month, you already have an answer to “What’s for dinner?”

Be prepared to hold this plan lightly, however, especially for the first few months. If you decide you want to order pizza on a night that you originally planned to cook, that’s okay. This plan is to help you, not to tie you down and remove all fun and freedom from your life. You can shift your calendar schedule to allow for it (another plus in the pro column for electronic calendars, as shifting makes my written calendar look messy). You can have your plan and your pizza, too.

If your life is anything like mine, however, you can’t just shift with wild abandon.

Your event evenings are probably not shiftable (WordPress says this is not a word. Of course, WordPress also says “WordPress” is not a word, so I’m keeping it. I do what I want, Internet.). They stay where they are.

You start with your shopping days. Shopping days drive your meals, not the other way around. One delayed meal is probably not enough to warrant shifting your shopping day. Three or four delayed meals, however, will probably mean you need to consider it. Are there perishables on your list that will go bad before you get to them? If so, you will either need to move the shopping day or keep those meals where they are.

This may also affect your coupon usage. If a coupon is near its expiration date, decide whether it is really worth an extra trip to the store just to use it.

After you get your shopping days reestablished, you can move the meals that go with them around if you need to do so. Then, your plan is back on track.

Tomorrow, we set you up for success by keeping you on track.

I’m sharing my Epic Meal Planning strategies for Write 31 Days – click to see the master list.

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Tabula Rasa *rubs hands together maniacally*

Everyone, grab your calendar.

Your calendar can be a traditional wall calendar, like mine, that you hang in your kitchen. You can use a planner, which would be nifty for also storing coupons and shopping lists. You can use a digital calendar, which would be convenient if you cook every day and have a desk job where you can access it every afternoon before you leave. Whatever your choice, it needs to have enough space to list 2-3 meals a day (depending on whether you actively plan breakfast and whether you follow the 3-meal-a-day habit).

You also need to decide how often you will plan. I plan monthly, but if you would rather plan weekly or seasonally, there’s no reason that won’t work just as well. You will need to adjust your meal count from yesterday to reflect your new timeline.

The first thing you need to plot on your calendar are the plans that affect your meal production. For example, I note the days/evenings that I have dinner with friends (or are cooking dinner for friends). I note nights that involve choir practice, book club, writers group, and committee meetings. And I definitely write down days that I will be out of town, because there’s no need to plan anything there.

Next, you will need to choose shopping days. Personally, I eyeball my open Friday nights or any days that I have planned to take a personal day from work, because I would rather eat a bug than deal with the grocery store when everyone else in the world is there. I choose two or three days, depending on how many of my listed meals have gone renegade from my staples list. Find shopping days; write them on the calendar.

Now all you have left to do is fill in your meals. When I plot meals that can stretch into two (or four), I list them with their serving number on each subsequent day beside it. You can see an example of this in the picture on the master list post:


Most of my leftovers are lunches, but some of them end up on the nights I have something planned that does not involve eating (such as choir practice).

I have started leaving a few days blank at the end of the month for when I inevitably have more servings than I expected or when I spontaneously decided to go out with people for lunch/dinner or saw a new recipe to try in the middle of the month. Experience has shown me that I do these things frequently enough that I hardly ever end up having to come up with something to eat for those final few days because they shift the meal plan. If you already know this will likely be the case for you then feel free to leave them blank as well, but there’s no real harm in planning something for every day until you see how that works for you.

We will talk tomorrow about how to shift your calendar efficiently if such a need arises.

I’m sharing my Epic Meal Planning strategies for Write 31 Days – click to see the master list.

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