Meal Planning 101: On Cooking with Limited Time and Energy, plus a Menu of Meals

A couple of entries ago, I shared with you all my maniacal approach to finding co-curricular fulfillment and how my body failed to keep up. After a much-needed therapy session, I had hoped that I would easily be able to drop an activity or two, or at least dampen my must-approach-everything-with-100-percent-intensity modus operandi. No dice. I tend to feel like there is no point to doing anything if I’m not giving it my all, or producing at high levels. In any case, it is clearly (and frustratingly) going to take me a long time to figure out why my drive seems to be so dogmatic, unforgiving and cruel. In the meantime, however, I need to make more time for myself, but how do I do that? I refuse to drop my Italian tutoring sessions. I shouldn’t give up my volunteer work. I will always make room for my husband and my dog. Spending more time with my friends/chosen family is generative and important. And at this point, I need to strengthen my body so that it can better withstand stress, so I won’t be canceling my gym membership anytime soon.

I mentioned to my therapist that I have been cooking an average of 2-3 hours per day for the last two months, and that more than half of every week’s meals were brand new dishes and experiments. I also articulated that I feel a building internal pressure around cooking (because I need to measure personal achievement) and this blog (because I need external validation for my personal achievements). Though I continue to experience a great deal of joy when I cook and eat, I’ve found myself getting grumpier in the kitchen. I HATE being grumpy when I’m around food. So, I decided that I would try to forcibly de-escalate my growing personal expectations around cooking. And I’m doing this by setting parameters. This week, I will spend no more than an average of 45-minutes/day cooking our meals. 

I know I may be in the minority when I say this, but planning is awesome. If you spend a little bit of time intentionally crafting your week’s meals, particularly when you know you’ll be frenzied and busy, I promise it will really help you save both time and energy. Here are some of the things to consider.

Note, I’ve added gifs to make this more exciting. 

Prepare stock items when you have some free time and stick that shit in the freezer.

I can’t tell you how amazing it is to open the freezer and see an arsenal of useful homemade goods, like tomato sauce, chicken or vegetable broth, ragu, dough, or dumpling skins. In the fall and winter, I’m very frequently cooking soups, stews, and risotto, so I always make sure to have some broth in hand. Actually, making broth is one of my most favorite things to do. Since it takes a few hours, I’ll usually position myself in front of the TV and occasionally return to the kitchen to skim off some fat. This process forces me to relax, which is something I desperately need help doing. In any case, several of this week’s dishes require chicken broth (split pea soup, garlic rice, farro). If it’s already made, the amount of time I’m spending preparing and cooking decreases a lot. A lot a lot.

Choose dishes that utilize a crock pot.

I used to think crock pots were for cheaters, but I was wrong – they are simply amazing. If you don’t have one, ask for one for the holidays, or treat yo’self. They’re only like $30.

Because things are being consistently slow-cooked or braised, there is really no need to check on your dish, and usually you can just plop all your ingredients in at once, cover the lid, and call it a day. I don’t know about other people, but I feel comfortable leaving the appliance unattended, especially if the setting is on “low.” This means you can make something overnight, or cook your delicious meal while you’re at work. I did once make the grave mistake of making slow-cooker ragu overnight. The smells were so amazing and distracting, that sleep did not come so easy. This week, I’ll be using the crock pot for split pea soup.

Choose meals/dishes you know so well that you no longer need to use a recipe.

Whenever I make something new, my brain is tired from the experience, even if it only takes 30 minutes to prepare and cook. Perhaps it’s because I’m some mutated form of a perfectionist, but there is something kind of exhausting about quadruple-checking ingredients and instructions when I’m already sort of spent from the day. If I don’t need a recipe, it usually means a dish is relatively simple (even if I’ve made a beef bourguignon dozens of times, I cannot for the life of me remember how much of everything to use). These are always pretty good go-to meals when you have limited time and energy. This week, for example, I’ve included these dishes that I can cook easily, quickly, and from memory: (1) penne w/ cauliflower, bacon, and peas; (2) Korean pan-fried fish fillets (jeon); and (3) farfalle w/ smashed broccoli and garlic.

Pick dishes that require fewer ingredients.

Last weekend, I cooked the best stew I’ve ever made (lamb tagine), but it took forever, and I used about a zillion spices. It was totally worth it, but this is not the sort of thing I’m about to make when I’m stressed and have little time/energy. This week, I chose entrees and side dishes that are simple so I don’t have to think about much. For example, the Korean fried fish fillets require a white fish, salt, flour, and egg, and the side requires chopped bok choy, garlic, water, salt, and white pepper. One of the pastas has bacon, cauliflower, and peas, and the other entree simply has boiled broccoli, garlic, anchovies, and olive oil. Obviously, if you’re using fewer ingredients, than you’ll have less shit to prepare and cook. SCIENCE.

On days when you have a little more time and energy, prepare and/or pre-cook your side dishes.

When I’m feeling especially drained, I get annoyed when I have to split my energy/time between cooking an entree and side dishes. So, sometimes it is really helpful to pre-cook certain side dishes. For example, one can cook a bunch of rice, store it in the fridge, and reheat the amount you need for each meal (the refrigerator life of cooked rice is usually between 4-6 days). You can do the same thing with blanched vegetables (though it’s always good to look up the refrigerator life of different cooked vegetables). I also find that on some days, I love chopping vegetables. I usually take advantage of those spurts, look at my meal schedule, and chop up items for use the next few days.

When cooking your dinners, make enough so you can have leftovers for lunch. 

I am really not a morning (or evening) person. Is it possible to be an afternoon person? That sounds super lame. In any case, I don’t like to spend time doing anything in the morning before work – I can barely get myself to take a shower and chug a cup of coffee. All this to say: I despise preparing lunch for myself in the AM. For me, it is a billion percent better to pack dinner leftovers and just shove some filled tupperware into my purse.

So, with all this in mind, here is the menu for the week:

Menu of Meals: Week of November 9, 2015

  • Monday
    • D: Korean pan-fried white fish (jeon) with jasmine rice and garlic bok choy
  • Tuesday
    • L: Leftover fish jeon
    • D: Hainanese chicken with garlic rice and spicy cucumber salad
  • Wednesday
    • L: Leftover chicken and rice
    • D: Farfalle w. smashed broccoli and garlic
  • Thursday
    • L: Leftover farfalle
    • D: Split pea soup w/ baguette and salad
  • Friday
    • L: Leftover split pea soup and bread
    • D: Chicken fried rice and sugar snap peas
  • Saturday
    • L: Leftover fried rice
    • D: Penne w/ cauliflower, peas, and bacon and sautéed garlic swiss chard
  • Sunday
    • L: Leftover penne
    • D: Freekah or farro salad with roasted kale and cabbage and fried egg

Coming Up…Five Cooking Tools I Cannot Live Without, plus a Poll for What Recipe to Share Next

Meal Planning 101: On Reusing Versatile Ingredients, plus a “Nourish Bowl” Recipe

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, my initial motivation to schedule all my meals came from anxiety – anxiety that I would be wasteful with ingredients (and therefore money), that I wouldn’t enjoy my food. It’s become much more than that, more than a pressure valve for my neurosis. It’s a way for me to think creatively, to exercise a kind of freedom that only exists in the presence of strict parameters.

I’ve tried to outline a Meal Planning 101 entry, but found that a singular post would be far too long and verbose, and probably super boring. So, I’ve decided to start a series, highlighting different elements of my planning process. This first one is going to be about thinking ahead and reusing ingredients, and I’ll go through my thought process behind this week’s menu.

The process of reusing ingredients is important to me for a number of reasons:

  1. It tightens parameters. I don’t know if you know this, but there are like a gazillion food blogs (read: food porn sites) and a bajillion recipes for everything. Diving into the endless abyss of books and blogs to find that perfect dish is probably a gigantic time suck, and this helps. And, even though I like planning stuff out (clearly), sometimes I find it exhausting to make completely new things, everyday, and to find delectable recipes for each. Choosing versatile ingredients that I can reuse gives me a weird sort of peace of mind.
  2. It helps me to develop my palate. I learn more about the ingredient when I cook it in a number of different styles. Also, by focusing on one or more reusable ingredients for a week’s meal, I have the opportunity to actually taste different ingredient pairings and formulate my own opinions.
  3. It can save time. For example, I can prepare the ingredient for the whole week in one fell swoop (e.g. trimming or blanching vegetables), or cook the ingredient(s) in one batch and use them throughout the week.
  4. It can save money. I am often on the prowl for what’s on sale or in season. If I’m okay with reusing an ingredient or two throughout the week, it means that I can spend less money. Also, if I find that I’m reusing a great deal of something (an example for me would be jasmine rice), then I can save some money by purchasing in bulk.

There are obviously other elements to meal-planning. Often, I’ll start with what kind of stuff I’m craving, or what I think my body needs. But the focus on ingredients and how I can make them versatile is a key element to my planning process, one that I use every week.

This Week’s Meals

This week, because my husband is on tour (I’m lonely!), I’m making a lot of one-pot meals, reusing loads of ingredients/elements, and cooking things that are easy to bring to work. Additionally, because it’s been getting warmer, I want to cook and eat things that don’t make me feel like a sweaty slimeball. Here were some of my thoughts in coming up with the menu:

  • I wanted a versatile grain that would be good either hot or cold. I chose farro, because it’s not one of the foods that just tastes really healthy (read: boring or icky), it is healthy but has a relatively complex character. I can cook all of my farro at the same time, and use it for different meals to save on time.
  • Honestly, after a week of eating very little meat (since we binged in Maine), I am craving some animal. I decided to go the chicken route, since it’s kind of on the lighter side. And I’m not afraid to admit this to the world: I like eating chicken. Like, I like it a lot. So, I bought enough chicken for roasting, and for ddak bulgogi (Korean chicken BBQ). The latter will be its own meal (with rice or farro), and then serve as toppers for farro bibimbap and bibimguksu.
  • Roasted vegetables are amazing on or with everything. I’m going to roast a bunch of vegetables on a cool morning (w/ my new spice mix obsession for vegetables: salt, pepper, cumin, chili powder, cayenne, and paprika). Then, I’ll use them as a side for rice & beans, cheese omelette and fish in a bag. And, they will serve as integral elements to my farro nourish bowl.
  • Eggs. I love them so much. This week, I’ll pickle some soft-boiled eggs as part of all the rice or farro dishes. Also, since I’m allowed to be “lazy” while Nico is on tour, I’m going to make myself a delicious and easy omelette, one night.

I should also add that I needed all the meals to be relatively simple, since I had my first trip to the Emergency Room (as an adult) on Wednesday. Apparently, I have pretty severe vertigo, so lots of movement, or movement at all, is pretty disorienting and disconcerting. WOMP.

Now, with all the context, here is the weeks’ menu:


  • D: Fish in a bag, w/ lemon, fennel, olives, and white wine sauce


  • L: Farro nourish bowl w/ roasted vegetables and a pickled egg, topped w/ lime dressing
  • D: Bibim guksu w/ chicken bulgogi


  • L: Leftover bibimguksu
  • D: Chicken bulgogi w/ jasmine rice and roasted vegetables


  • L: Leftover bulgogi, rice, and vegetables
  • D: Farro bibimbap w/ chicken bulgogi topping and a pickled egg, and an arugula salad


  • L: Leftover farro bibimbap
  • D: Brie omelette, baguette, and an arugula salad


  • L: Leftovers (of anything)
  • D: Roasted chicken thigh w. cherry tomatoes & asparagus, baguette, and an arugula salad


  • L: Leftover chicken
  • D: Rice & beans and roasted vegetables


  • L: Leftover rice & beans
  • D: ORDER DELIVERY (woohoooo)

And, here’s a recipe for an amazingly simple farro nourish bowl that has swept me off my feet. By the way, I think the term “nourish bowl” is the worst, like it’s the top selling (and only) food item at a CA smoothie store. But, it’s easier to say that, than to say “healthy but delicious bowl of grain with other hearty and mostly vegetarian toppings.”

Processed with VSCOcam with c1 preset

Farro “Nourish Bowl” with Roasted Vegetables and Lime/Maple Dressing
Adapted from Cookie Monster Cooking’s Blog
Servings: 4-6
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cooking Time: 45 minutes

Roasted Vegetables:
  • 1 medium red onion, sliced
  • 2 small or 1 large yukon gold potato, peeled and chopped into ½ inch chunks
  • 1 large sweet potato, peeled and chopped into ½ inch chunks
  • 2 large carrots, peeled and chopped
  • 2 heads of broccoli, chopped
  • 2 ears of corn kernels (cut right off the cob)
  • 2 tablespoons of olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon of canola oil
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
  • 1 teaspoon chili powder
  • ½ teaspoon cayenne
  • 1 teaspoon salt
For the dressing:
  • 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
  • 1 tablespoon pure maple syrup
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • pinch of pepper
  • ¼ cup olive oil
For serving:
  • Farro, cooked per instructions
  • Avocado, sliced on top
  • Pickled egg


  1. Preheat the oven to 400ºF.
  2. Chop up all the vegetables, and place them into a large bowl. add the cumin, paprika, chili powder, cayenne pepper, salt, olive oil, and canola oil. Mix well, and place the vegetables onto a baking sheet (use two if necessary – you don’t want to crowd the pan).
  3. Bake for 40 minutes, and stir halfway through. The vegetables should be beautifully browned and aromatic.
  4. In a small bowl, whisk together the ingredients for the dressing.
  5. To serve, place some farro in a bowl, and add the roasted veggies, sliced avocado, and pickled egg on top. Dress with the lime/maple syrup mixture, and enjoy!