Meal Planning 101 With Ashley Sway

A few months ago I was snooping around on my new friend Ashley’s Facebook page when I saw a link she posted to her blog. Being a nosy new friend, I clicked on it and started reading swupper, the blog she writes that chronicles she and her husband Hank’s weekly meals—and more importantly (and impressively)—meal planning.

While I’m certainly a planner, I’ve never been a meal planner, so it was fascinating for me to see that people are actually dedicated enough to do this—and stick with it. Since she’s so amazing at it, and because this month is all about saving money (she swears that meal planning will save you tons), I thought I’d put together a little Q&A  in hopes that you’ll be as inspired by Hank and Ashley as I am.

Danne: You are the most dedicated (and awesome) meal planner I know. Did you grow up in a meal planning household or is this something you’ve adopted as an adult?

Ashley: Thanks. It’s something I’m pretty proud of. My parents definitely weren’t meal planners. We had a bunch of stuff in the freezer (meat), and my mom bought enough veggies for the week on her weekly grocery run. Each day she would say, “What do you want to eat tonight?”, and we would say things like, “Pork chops and broccoli”, and there you have it.

Danne: Describe to me the process of putting together your weekly meal plan. When and how do you pick out the week’s recipes?

Ashley: Here is what we do during CSA season: Monday night we get an email saying what we will get on the farm on Tuesday. We make a list of the things that we want and then start our planning from there. I take out a piece of paper, write down if we have plans on certain nights, like yoga (which means that the meal needs to be especially quick), or dinner plans with friends/family. I ask Hank if there is anything that sounds good to him. He usually throws out at least one idea. Based on what we are going to get, we plan our menu with a mix of throw together meals and recipe meals. Throw together meals are things like curry, salads, grilled cheese and veggies, etc. Our goal is to use all of the vegetables, which means that our menu is based directly on what we are getting and not just what we want to eat. We hate wasting food, and we rarely ever do. By Tuesday evening we have the menu and grocery list all set. We use an app called Our Groceries that syncs between our phones. We make a shopping list of what we need besides the vegetables from the farm, and we try to make it all at one grocery store. On Tuesday evening, we go to the farm, pick up our vegetables, and head to the one store where we can get what we need. This is usually either Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods.

Non-CSA season is a little bit different, but basically the same. If we are doing the shopping on Friday night, then by Thursday evening we have our menu all set and our grocery list made. We have a little bit more freedom on these weeks since we have to purchase everything that we will need. We usually try to narrow it down to two stores, and one of these is almost always Russo’s (a great whole sale, mostly veggies, grocery store in Watertown) and the other is either Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods. 

Danne: Once you’ve done your shopping, do you prep your ingredients in advance? If so, how long does it usually take you to prepare dinner on a given weeknight?

Ashley: Our food prep varies. With our CSA we often do a little bit of prep/re-organization when we get home from shopping. As mentioned before, the nights that we do yoga are the hardest. We get home at about 7:30 and want to make something as quickly as possible. This usually means that the night before we at least cut up the veggies that we will be using. Often, on weekends or non-yoga nights, we might cook a bunch of rice or whatever other grains we plan on using that week. We also prep random other things on the weekends. For instance, we usually have cornbread in our freezer, because we often make meals that have barely any carbs and calories. We make a big batch of this whenever we run out, cut it into serving size pieces, and freeze it. We also make our own stock by saving our veggie scraps, chicken carcasses, and Parmesan rinds. Last weekend we learned how to can, and canned whole tomatoes from the plethora we got from our CSA. We also blanched some green beans that we didn’t eat, and stuck those in the freezer. Basically, by the end of the week our fridge is totally empty.

It usually takes us between half an hour and an hour to make dinner every night. It can really vary though. Sometimes I think that it takes us as long to cook dinner as we have time to cook it.

Danne: You seem to try out new recipes all the time, where do you find most of them? Any favorite cooking blogs?

Ashley: We have some great cookbooks like Mark Bittman’s, How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, and I have a binder of recipes that look great, or that we have tried and really liked. Or, we will have an ingredient that we are tired of cooking the same way over and over, so I’ll check our cookbooks to see if I can find something new. Pinterest is a good source to find new things, but I have found that a lot of it is sweets, which isn’t really my thing (not that I don’t like sweets, I just don’t bake much). I would say that the main place that I find new recipes is from theKitchn. I get updates in my Google Reader and look through them every single day. Other than that, I just keep my eyes open in magazines, websites, and other blogs.

Danne: How often do you stray from your original plan? There must be some nights when you say “Ahhh, forget it” and order a pizza, right?

Ashley: Honestly? Never. Well, to the pizza part. Once in a blue moon I will say to Hank, “You just wanna get Chinese?”, and he will say, “I don’t know…”, and then I will say, “Eh, we have stuff at home we should eat.” We do stray though. We often switch around the days that we will make things on our menu, because I didn’t think about the fact that a certain ingredient won’t last as long as we need it to based on the plan. Also, we often plan one less meal than we need for the week. This allows for frantic eating of leftovers/extra veggies or for an impromptu meal out with friends/family or by ourselves.

Danne: What are a few tips and tricks you’ve learned about meal planning in your experience with it? Any advice for someone who’s just getting started?

Ashley: Here’s the thing. If you have a plan, you have all of the food, and you don’t want to waste the food, then you will eat at home, eat healthier, and eat cheaper. We also almost always cook for 4 people too so we’ll have leftovers for lunch every day. We prep our lunch while we are cleaning up or dinner so it is all set to go the next morning.

We also have a budget for everything in our lives. Our grocery budget is $450/month and our eating out budget is $200/month. If it is getting close to the end of the month and we don’t have much money left in the grocery budget we think hard about how to eat cheaply. And if we run out of eating out money then we don’t eat out any more. We got our budget amounts from looking back over a few months of grocery receipts and figuring out about how much we spent. Right now we don’t spend nearly that much on groceries because of the CSA, and a typical month has us spending a lot less on eating out as well. It all depends, but it is nice to have the fixed amount to help you stay on track with your money.

And like most things, you have to want to do it to be successful at it and to keep with it. I recommend starting small by thinking ahead to the week and jotting down just a few things that you want to eat. Buy the ingredients for those things. Over time, you will figure out the things that you always need to keep around.

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