A Chef’s Guide to Successful Meal Plans

From The Lecture Series: The Everyday Gourmet — Making Great Meals in Less Time

By Chef Instructor Bill Briwa, The Culinary Institute of America

Preparing food is a perpetual chore—a job to be done day in and day out. Chef Instructor Bill Briwa shares ideas for meal plans that make feeding
 yourself, your friends, 
and your family easier 
and more satisfying.

Shopping lists help with Meal plans

Food is associated with national identity and, in some cases, with social ritual; it’s strongly connected to family and friendship. Cooking and eating meals together are intimate and sensual experiences. And preparing food is a chance to take part, literally, in the creative process—the process of creating human health and well-being. The many facets of food and cooking are what led me to become a chef. But even I admit, regardless of how compelling the arguments are for cooking our own food, producing daily meals remains a chore.

This is a transcript from the video series The Everyday Gourmet: Making Great Meals in Less Time. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

I will share some ideas and recipes to make feeding yourself, your friends, and your family easier and more satisfying. My perspective is that of a busy father and husband but also—and most importantly—a chef. Chefs work with food and take great joy and satisfaction in its preparation and service, but we also learn how to work efficiently and get high-quality results. We look into the refrigerator or the pantry and begin to assemble meals in our minds, and when we purchase food, we do so with a plan. This approach is essential to getting the job done.

Learn more about adding your own personal touches to a basic chowder recipe

 Tips from a Kitchen Professional

  • The first step to achieving efficiency in the kitchen is to use a template to develop a weekly menu plan and make a shopping list from this plan before you head
out to the grocery store. Don’t skip this step; if you do, chances are you’ll have to return to the store later in the week to pick up missing ingredients, or you’ll end up throwing food away.
  • As you write out the week’s menu, give thought to generating “planned-overs.” Make double batches of soups, stews, or casseroles and freeze the extra for future meals. These stored meals will be a lifesaver when you hit a busy week that doesn’t allow time for cooking.
  • Let ingredients that are in season and at their peak set the theme for your weekly menu. For example, summer tomatoes might
inspire you to make 
pasta with fresh heirloom tomato sauce and basil one night and ceviche served with corn chips and salsa later in the week.
  • Have on hand a selection of small containers to hold leftovers that might be repurposed for other meals.
    Water boiling in a clear glass pot.
  • As soon as you come home from the supermarket to make a meal, even before you put away the groceries, turn the oven on; if you’re making pasta, start a pot of water boiling on the stove.
  • Always try to multitask in the kitchen. As meat is browning, unpack your groceries, periodically checking on the pans you’ve already got going. As one part of a dish is cooking, chop ingredients for the next step.
  • Divide your time in the kitchen mentally into three parts. In the first third, you’re working quickly—turning on the oven, putting pots of stock on to boil. During the second third, you’re keeping up with the different tasks required of what you’re cooking or doing prep work for future meals. For example, if you’re washing lettuce for tonight’s salad, you might as well wash tomorrow night’s spinach at the same time. The last third is the payoff—your time to relax; focus on setting the table nicely and 
coasting home.

Weekly Menu Planning

A week represents 21 meals and some number of between-meal snacks. From this list, let’s remove 3 meals: a breakfast on the weekend (to be replaced by a glorious brunch), an evening meal out with someone special, and a luncheon that is either a business meeting or a chance to catch up with friends or family. Remaining are only 18 meals: 6 breakfasts, 6 lunches, and 6 dinners.

Learn more about techniques for turning out restaurant-quality food without all the stress

Use a template to develop a menu plan, giving thought to generating “planned overs” and doing prep work for lunches or follow-on meals. As you plan your menu for the week, ask yourself these questions:

  • What do you want to eat?
  • What ingredients do you have on hand in your freezer, refrigerator, or pantry?
  • What ingredients are in season—in other words, are readily available, inexpensive, and of good quality?
  • What ingredients speak to you—are so delicious that they will shape your menu in the week ahead?
  • What is your current skill set? What are you capable of in the kitchen?

As your menu comes together, look for opportunities to repurpose “planned overs.” These are not leftovers but foods that keep well and can be prepared in greater-than-needed quantities so that they can be used later to cobble together a quick meal. But avoid making more than you need when it comes to dishes that don’t keep well or that quickly become monotonous.

Download a blank Menu Planner to print and use

Shopping Lists

Once you know what to cook, the next step is to make a shopping list, organized by broad themes: produce, meat and fish, dairy, frozen foods, dry goods, and household supplies.

Fruits and vegetables in paper grocery bag

Taking the time to organize your shopping trip is much more efficient and less stressful that just winging it at the store. Even for a chef, shopping without a plan often results in the frustration of forgotten ingredients and additional trips to the store. Set aside some time in your week to tackle this important task.

Learn more about fresh ideas for putting together a quick and well-rounded breakfast

And don’t make shopping all work. Allow yourself to buy a couple of treats or items that hold special appeal: freshly baked bread, ripe fruit, a vegetable you love, such as sweet corn on the cob or ripe avocados. But don’t get completely sidetracked and forget your weekly menu. Filling your house with food is not the goal. Getting the foods you need to realize your plan is.

Common Questions About Meal Plans

Q: What exactly is a meal plan?

A meal plan is a way of budgeting your time, money, and food variety so that you can successfully make healthy meals with your allotted time and money.

Q: How do you begin to form a meal plan?

The first step to forming a meal plan is deciding how many meals you need per week. Once you decide on a number, you make a chart with how much time you have to make and eat the meal and then begin adding recipes that you can afford to each meal.

Q: What are some of the cheapest meal plans available for delivery?

The top three cheapest meal delivery plans are available from Home Chef, Chef’d and Veestro, according to cost per serving in one study.

Q: What are some tips for eating healthy on a budget?

Eating healthy usually involves controlling the quantity and use of certain ingredients. Cooking at home, cooking large quantities, recreating dishes with leftovers, and avoiding processed junk food are three sure-fire ways to eat healthy on a budget.

This article was updated on 1/13/2020

Keep Reading
Can Plants Think? The Torch Podcast
Learn to Love Leftovers—Let No Food go to Waste!
Slow Down as You Consider Fasting