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bento box filled with chicken, salad, and cherries.

I don’t want to spend all my free time in the kitchen — and I’m guessing you don’t either. Whether you follow a paleo or a whole-foods way of eating, there are two keys to long-term success, in my experience: preparation and delicious variation.

Each week, I spend about 20 to 30 minutes on planning my meals, and then two to four hours cooking on Sunday for my “Weekly Cookup.” I do a “Full Cookup,” which requires more time to put together a few complete meals, but the “Mini Cookup” is also an option: You can prepare key ingredients and then quickly get meals on the table the rest of the week — without cooking from scratch every time.

I recommend a weekly mix of simple protein-and-veggie dinners — like roasted chicken with a baked sweet potato and veggies, or a sliced steak on top of a ginormous salad — and more complex recipes that excite your taste buds and inspire creativity in the kitchen. But remember: You have permission to eat the same things over and over if that reduces your stress level.

When you schedule time in your week to put together a meal plan, the result will be a refrigerator and pantry stocked with good things you can eat when hunger strikes. You’ll eat better, you’ll feel your best, and you’ll take care of the people in your life.

The Weekly Cookup

Depending on your schedule, you can choose to do a Full Cookup or a Mini Cookup. The Full Cookup requires about two to four hours in the kitchen one day a week, but some busy families have a hard time finding that chunk of time. You can work around this issue by doing a Mini Cookup, which I explain below, or doing a Full Cookup once or twice a month, when you can carve out the time and make double batches that can be frozen for Future You.

If you don’t have time for a Full Cookup, I recommend that you at least prepare a simmered dish, slow-cooker recipe, and a big-batch breakfast recipe, such as egg muffins or a frittata, in advance so you’ll have some food in the fridge to kick off your week. 

My Weekly Cookup plan divides food into three broad categories:

  • Eat immediately: salads, stir-fried meats, delicate veggies
  • Eat after a day or two: stews and soups, sauces, braised meats, casseroles
  • Blanch, then caramelize: starchy and nonstarchy vegetables. (In Italy, this is known as ripassare: Veggies are cooked once to make them tender, then cooked again with fat and seasonings to make them irresistible.)

To do the Full Cookup: Pick a day and cook most of the food you’ll need for the week. For example, you might roast a chicken, grill a bunch of burgers, and then also cook a big pot of chili and a batch of salmon cakes or spinach muffins. That way you can alternate between simple protein-and-veggie meals and “fancier” dishes like chili and salmon cakes.

To do the Mini Cookup: Cook your own “packaged food” as follows.

  • Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.
  • Cook a big-batch breakfast. Make a tray of egg muffins or a large frittata so you have an easy grab-and-heat option for breakfast throughout the week.
  • Roast a chicken: Prep a whole chicken or chicken parts to roast in the oven. Cover a large rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil or parchment paper and brush with 1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil. Arrange the chicken (about 2 pounds) in a single layer on the baking sheet. Sprinkle with 1 teaspoon salt, ½ teaspoon ground black pepper, ½ teaspoon coarse garlic powder, and a healthy pinch of dried parsley. (If you are using the oven to cook a big-batch breakfast, such as egg muffins or a frittata, set aside until the breakfast is finished.)
  • Roast sweet potatoes: Wash and peel four medium sweet potatoes. Cover a large rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil or parchment paper and brush with 1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil. Cut the potatoes into ½-inch thick slices and arrange in a single layer on the baking sheet. This also works for red or yellow potatoes, or winter squash. When your big-batch breakfast is finished cooking, remove from the oven and transfer the chicken and sweet potatoes to roast for 20 to 25 minutes.
  • Grate a head or two of cauliflower for “rice.” Break off the florets and pulse in batches in a food-processor bowl. Transfer the rice to an airtight container and place in the fridge.
  • Julienne zucchini to make “zoodles” in a spiralizer. Place the zucchini noodles in a colander and toss them with the salt until the strands are lightly coated. Set the colander in the sink to drain while you prep the other ingredients.
  • Hard-boil a dozen eggs. Slowly lower the eggs into a medium saucepan when the water is at a rolling boil. Set a timer for 10 minutes. Fill a large bowl with water and ice cubes, and when the timer goes off, use a ladle to move the eggs into the ice bath to chill for at least 10 minutes. Store in the fridge.
  • While the eggs are boiling, whip up a batch of homemade mayo. (Find my paleo-friendly recipe here.)
  • Make a vinaigrette or dressing for saladsCreamy dressings also work well for dips for raw vegetables, and you can drizzle a sauce, vinaigrette, or dressing over steamed veggies or cooked protein. (Find a creamy dressing for my Green Goddess Salad here.)

Then during the week, you can cook protein “to order,” add a salad, and supplement with the zoodles and rice. If you’re really tight on time, you could also cook a staple each day while you’re making dinner. For example, while you’re making a stir-fry on the stove, you could roast sweet potatoes and chicken in the oven for the next night.

Meal-Planning How-To

The first step in designing your meal plan is selecting the recipes for your menu. With these tips, you’ll learn how to create menus that save time in the kitchen, reuse ingredients, and taste so good, you’ll be happy to eat at home.

  1. Plan your dinners. I like to start with dinners as the foundation of the plan. Use a blank template to make a list of your choices for each day. (Find one at meljoulwan.com/EL-MealPlanning.)
  2. Pick your side dishes. Use the list you made to start filling in sides on the menu template.
  3. Slot your leftovers for lunch. Leftovers from dinner can be turned into lunches later in the week, with an occasional salad thrown into the mix. Decide how you’ll use your dinner leftovers for lunch, then fill in the rest of the week’s lunches with easy-to-make options like salads with protein or quick meat-and-veggie stir-fries.
  4. Decide weekday breakfasts. Now it’s time to choose your breakfasts. Start with a big-batch recipe, like egg muffins or a big frittata that can be cut into wedges for multiple breakfasts. Then add fast options to the other weekdays, like simple protein-and-veggie scrambles. You can also enjoy dinner leftovers for breakfast; do not discount the magic of stew or chili with an egg on top.
  5. Consider weekend breakfasts. This is where you can have a little fun — maybe you’re sleeping in a bit or you’ll need a hearty breakfast after a weekend morning hike. Saturday and Sunday mornings are a nice time to enjoy brunch-ish recipes like omelets or eggs Benedict.
  6. Optional: Pack a few snacks. If you find that you’re peckish between meals, you might want to start planning the ingredients you need for the mini-meals that help you get from breakfast to lunch, or from lunch to dinner.
  7. Build your Day-By-Day Instructions. These are your reminders about what side dishes you need to prep and if there are any to-do items you need to remember, like defrosting meat or saving leftovers for a future meal. Use your menu as a guide and fill in the Day-By-Day template with notes for each day about side-dish ingredients, freezer-to-fridge transfers, interim grocery-shopping notes, and more. If you have a busy family schedule, this can also be a good place to note scheduling reminders.
  8. Write your shopping list. I recommend that you make your shopping list in the kitchen so you can check fridge and cabinets for ingredients you may already have on hand, then using your menu as a guide, systematically go through each day to make your list of required ingredients.

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