Life, Automated: No Plan Meal Planning

While I would love to meal-plan, it doesn’t really work with the way I buy my groceries. During the summer months, we get our CSA surprises every week and I buy almost everything I need at the farmer’s market. During winter, I work out of my farmer’s market freezes and fill in the gaps at the grocery store with what looks good.

My food has to be fresh. I don’t want to buy things just because they’re on my list.


It’s hard to do any kind of meal planning this way. Meal planning would look like this: gather what’s fresh for the week, go home and find recipes around the ingredients, then go back to the store and get the additional ingredients from the recipes that I didn’t buy the first time.

It’s just not practical for me to hit the grocery store more than I absolutely have to, especially with the kiddos in tow. Borrow three vervet monkeys and try to keep them from tearing apart the grocery shelves while you try to remember everything…it’s kind of like that.

So, I’ve come up with a way to semi-automate my meals. The idea is, spend a little time getting things ready all at once, so you save a lot of time once it’s time to throw together dinner.

And no need to do all of these! You’d probably end up with way too much food. Just pick a few.

Note: the {time quotes} are active prep times, not actual cook times.

  • {2 minutes} Make ready packs of shredded chicken. Throw a couple pounds of chicken breast with salt, pepper and garlic and a little olive oil into the slow cooker with about two inches of water or broth and let it cook all day. Later on, I make freezer packages of shredded chicken, ready for sandwiches, salads, tacos, wraps…anything. Quart-sized zip-top freezer bags are the perfect meal size for my troop. This also works with pot roast cuts for shredded beef.
  • {10 minutes} Brown a few pounds of ground beef in olive oil with salt, pepper, garlic and onions. Just as with the chicken, you can make freezer packages of your cooked ground beef. Now you have a heat-and-serve base for sloppy joes or tacos, you can add beans and rice for burritos, add lentils and greens, or mix it with your homemade marinara for a heartier sauce.
  • {5 minutes} Roast a whole chicken or turkey. That’s not a typo. I did just quote you 5 minutes of prep to roast a turkey. It doesn’t take as long as you think, and you’re going to get a few meals out of it. Pull the offal out (they’re usually bagged), rinse, and fill the cavity with garlic, onions, orange, lemons and herbs. Sprinkle the skin with olive oil, salt and pepper and a little more herbage and pop it in the oven until a meat thermometer inserted into the thigh reads 165F. You can try my recipe for Upside-down Chicken for a chicken or a turkey. Don’t throw away the bones! Instead, throw the bones into the slow cooker  with a couple of bay leaves and water {30 seconds!} to make a rich stock for your soup, up next.
  • {10-15 minutes} Make a big pot of soup. Double, triple or quaduple your recipe – whatever it takes to fill your biggest stock pot. If you need ideas, I’m partial to my White Bean Soup and Roasted Red Pepper Soup.
  • {5-10 minutes} Wash and chop vegetables. Chop enough for the big salad that’s coming next, plus snacks for the kids, plus to throw into a stir fry and wraps later in the week.
  • {5-10 minutes} Make a huge salad. If you’ve chopped vegetables already, you only need to chop up the greens. I like to line my biggest bowl with paper towels (keeps it fresh) and fill it for the week. Salads are so versatile – they can be served with any meal, or you can stuff them into sandwiches and wraps. It’s nice to have a big salad ready when we’re running to this and that. When we get home, I can just pull out my shredded chicken and my big salad bowl and call it done.

I should say that I don’t do all of the above every week. No need for all of that, unless I really want to stock my freezer.

When do I do my meal prep? When I can. It’s not a weekend project, it’s not part of the grocery ritual. It happens when I can steal a few moments to make my week easier.

What do you do to cut down on meal prep time?





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15 Responses to “ Life, Automated: No Plan Meal Planning ”

  1. I love this idea Courtney! I do use meal planning, but this seems like a great additional option, especially the pre-cooking of meats. I have done it before, but I don’t stay on top of it enough. Outdoor soccer doesn’t fill my weekends so much (just every single week night, lol) so maybe I can dedicate Sunday afternoons to this type of weekly prep :)
    Laurie recently posted…Almost ThereMy Profile

    • It surely got rid of that awful feeling that happens around 4:00 when I would realize I haven’t even thought about dinner. Soccer nights are almost always crock pot or leftovers nights.

  2. This is similar to our “strategy” (if you want to call it that). We also have some sort of beans either in the freezer or waiting in the fridge.
    LydiaF recently posted…Individual Banana PuddingsMy Profile

    • Beans are good to have on hand. I’m really sensitive to the metallic taste of canned food, so I usually have a few quarts of cooked beans in the freezer.

  3. I am a horrible meal planner, but I think I can do this! With a hectic May full of lacrosse and field hockey, this may be my only hope at getting meals on the table.
    Dana recently posted…Today is our day – Listen To Your Mother showMy Profile

    • I don’t know what lacrosse is like, but my hockey-mom friends’ schedules are logistic nightmares. Shortcuts are a good thing.

  4. I absolutely love the idea of having pre-shredded chicken in the freezer! GENIUS! I’m going to have to do that!
    Rebecca @ Love at First Book recently posted…Children of the Holocaust: Book & Movie PairingMy Profile

    • I have no need to buy cold cuts now. The expense, the fillers, there’s usually gluten hiding in there so my husband can’t have them…it’s just easier to have shredded chicken ready for whatever.

  5. I always love the IDEA of meal planning, and yet in implementation it never quite works out the way I intended it to. So I love this strategy!
    Katie @ Pick Any Two recently posted…Want to Feel Healthier Tomorrow? Do This Today.My Profile

  6. That’s what every real food book tells me to do but I’m such a recipe junkie I just can’t or don’t feel confident I could do this. See, what if you buy, say, 2 zucchinis at the farmers market, but then later you find a few recipes that call for 5 zucchinis? Do you just buy the three at the grocery? Or what if you can’t find recipes to use up all the ingredients?

    Man now I’m just sounding like a worrywart haha. My method of meal planning is to find 7 recipes for the week. I make two lists: one for the market and one for the grocery. I do the market first because there’s a chance some of those things aren’t available. Then whatever I couldn’t get there I get at the grocery.

    Seriously though, every good cook I’ve read about does what you do: they buy what’s fresh, then whip up some recipe around it. It’s genius, and I don’t know if I have that much confidence in my cooking. I’m all about following directions haha.
    Nina recently posted…Help Your Kids Fight the Stomach Flu with These 6 Best PracticesMy Profile

    • Even when I follow recipes I don’t exactly follow them. Such a renegade, I know, ha. If I’m short a few zucchini, I add something else or adjust the whole recipe. It’s the only way food gets onto the table.

  7. Totally, straight up GENIUS! I bet I would be far more likely to cook if I had freezer ready bags of meat/chicken! I am definitely doing this!-Ashley
    thedoseofreality recently posted…Stay Or Keep Going?My Profile

  8. This is similar to my strategy, although I want to get more food from the farmer’s markets and less from the grocery store than I currently do!
    maryanne @ mama smiles recently posted…Toddlers and Preschoolers: Learn by PaintingMy Profile

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