More Efficient Meal Planning, Part Two

Today I wanted to check back into a post I shared recently about how we’ve been approaching meal planning.

We’ve been using the Cook Once Eat All Week cookbook for 8 weeks now. I feel like I can count the number of things I’ve stuck with for 8 weeks over my entire life on one hand, so to say that we’ve stuck to this for so long says something about how well it’s working for us.

As I mentioned in the prior post, each week we pick a week that’s in season from the book. I actually wrote the seasons directly in the book so it’s easily accessible but she offers a Seasonal Guide chart as a downloadable PDF when you buy the book. Admittedly, now that we’re several weeks in, it’s becoming more challenging to pick a week that’s in-season that we’d both like that doesn’t seem like something we just had, but with a little compromise, we’ve been able to make it work.

One of the things I also mentioned was that I’ve been keeping a log of sorts in Evernote to capture our thoughts on each of the weeks we’ve tried. In the log, I include a link to a separate note containing photos of the recipes and meal prep instructions (more on why below), the main ingredients, when the week’s in season, how easy or hard the prep was and how we liked each of the meals. At the end of the week, these give us a pretty good idea as to whether we would make the week again, so I color code the week accordingly.

Our Evernote Log

One of the unexpected benefits of keeping this log is that it’s allowed us to see that many of our favorite recipes, despite being from different weeks, still share similar ingredients. With our confidence in meal prepping increasing with each week, we’ve started toying with the idea of our own custom “weeks”. (Side note: I realize the concepts of meal planning and prepping aren’t new, but they are fairly new to us, so the concepts in this book have helped teach us the basics without seeming overwhelming.)

I was already saving our favorite recipes from each week into my recipe manager, Paprika, for safekeeping, and Paprika’s built-in menu feature makes creating custom weeks almost as easy as having them in the book. To make a custom week, I pick 3 of our recipes with similar ingredients to add to the menu. In the description section of the menu, I note any meal prep instructions specific to those meals. Since many of the ingredients are similar, we can still take advantage of prepping in bulk ahead of time.  As far as the grocery list, Paprika does all the heavy lifting to combine like ingredients and generate a grocery list that can be sent directly to our shared shopping list in Reminders.

Custom Menu in Paprika

Our Shopping List in RemindersSpeaking of our shared shopping list, for weeks we pull directly from the book, I’ve been saving time by copying them from the ebook (If considering the ebook, be sure to see my note below). Each week, I copy the week’s grocery list and paste it into Drafts. Unfortunately, this removes all the line breaks, so do I have to go back and add them back in, but from there, I just use a Send to Shopping List action to send everything directly to our shopping list. As an added bonus, the sections Cassey breaks the items into tend to map quite closely to our local Aldi’s layout, so I keep them and indent the ingredients as sub-tasks to organize the list.

A note on the Kindle version: As someone who prefers cooking from my iPad, I bought a copy of the Kindle version of the book thinking I’d be able to use it while cooking. However, the Kindle version strips out all of the formatting that makes the physical copy of the book so easy to follow. (This is the reason I’ve been snapping pictures of each week’s recipes to Evernote.) If you’re an e-book person like myself, I strongly recommend NOT getting the ebook version of this book.

In my first post about how we were meal planning, I shared a few of the benefits we saw right away (mainly focused around keeping our kitchen cleaner), so before I go, I wanted to wrap up by sharing some of the other benefits we’ve noticed now that we’ve been doing this for a couple of months :

  1. Because we have a plan for the week, impulse buys have pretty much stopped. Don’t get me wrong, we still grab the occasional ice cream or candy, but our pantry, fridge, and freezer are no longer bursting at the seams with random ingredients we picked up thinking they might be useful for a meal one day.
  2. We have a better understanding of what we actually have. Without all the random ingredients, it’s easier to notice the extra chicken in the freezer, which means we reduce the amount of chicken we buy for the week accordingly to use up what we already have.
  3. We’ve started making better use of our freezer. Another benefit of having a freezer that’s not overflowing with freezer meals is that we actually have room to freeze leftover ingredients and meals, instead of letting them go to waste.
  4. We’ve reorganized our kitchen. In most cases, this was as simple as relocating things we use regularly to be more easily within reach, but we did spend a few dollars on things like lazy susans or bins to make better use of our space as well. As a vertically challenged person, not having to get out a step stool to grab things is a huge time saver.
  5. We’re learning which tools we use, which we don’t, and most importantly what’s worth upgrading. For example, I had been thinking about replacing my cheap set of kitchen utensils for a while, but it turns out, nine times out of ten, I reach for my favorite spatula when cooking. I ended up just buying another spatula instead of a full set.

One last thing of note, while you can buy a spiral-bound copy of the book, the copy we have is the regular paperback version which has a tendency to close while we’re cooking if we don’t weigh it down. Recently, however, I saw someone who had rebound their copy using discs and seeing as how I still had a disc binding punch leftover from my paper planning days, it seemed like a logical upgrade for our book as well, so wish us luck in performing a bit of surgery on our copy.

More Efficient Meal Planning

I wanted to take a bit of a detour on the blog today and share something that I’ve been trying out recently to simplify things at home and save us a bit of money in the process. (Added bonus, it’s also helping me be more healthy so it’s also contributing to my year of health).

I received a copy of Cook Once Eat All Week for Christmas, and it’s been getting used just about every week since.

In essence it’s a cookbook centered on meal planning, but if by meal planning, you’re thinking you have to eat the same thing packaged into containers for a week straight, think again. The recipes are each quite different.

Meal Prepped Food In Containers

Prepped Ingredients from Week 1

The title itself is actually a bit of a misnomer. You don’t actually cook once. You actually cook throughout the week. What you actually do once is most of the meal prep, which cuts the time you spend on cooking during the rest week down to 10 or 20 minutes.

There are a few things about the book that have made it work for us more-so than other cookbooks or recipe services we’ve tried in the past:

  1. Each week is based around 3 main ingredients (usually a protein, a veggie, and a starch). This means we can save by buying things in bulk even though we’re only a household of two with limited freezer space.
  2. Each week features 3 recipes that serve 4-6 (plus two bonus meals). Well before this book, I found that planning for 3 dinners at home is the perfect amount for us each week. Three dinners (plus our usual night or two out or ordering carryout) usually leave just enough leftovers for lunches or nights when only one of us is home without throwing away a ton of food. This has taken a lot of the guesswork out of which meals to make each week. I just pick a week and those are my three meals. For larger families or those who prefer to eat in every night, I realize 3 meals isn’t enough, but for us, it’s just about perfect.
  3. Grocery lists are already made. Each week also comes with a pre-prepared grocery list meaning as long as we stick to those 3 meals, our grocery list is practically made for us give or take a few usual extras like milk, coffee creamer, or some time of fruit.
  4. Ingredients are straight forward. I’ve tried meal planning services in the past, and the one thing I couldn’t stand was always having to buy some obscure ingredient. Not only did this require a special trip to a grocery store other than Aldi, I often never used the items again. This book seems to feature pretty common ingredients. There have been a few items Aldi hasn’t stocked but they’re often pantry items I’ve reused in subsequent weeks. As we start to stock our pantry properly, I’m finding that our grocery list is becoming mostly just meats and produce.

Unexpectedly, I’ve found a couple unexpected bonuses as well:

  • Prepping everything on a single day means the kitchen only gets really messy for one day versus multiple days. Most of the messy steps requiring pots, pans, knives, and cutting boards have already been taken care of prior to cooking during the week.
  • It simplifies trash and compost. We tend to do our shopping and meal prep on Sundays or Mondays which happens to be around the time we set out our trash to get picked up for the week so most of the packaging gets thrown out almost immediately. I also keep our compost bin out and open while prepping so the bulk of our scraps get tossed into the bin all at once rather than having to open it several times throughout the week.
  • Last but not least, I find I’m getting more confident in the kitchen. I don’t mind cooking, and I’ve never been told I’m terrible at it. That being said, I tend to gravitate towards making what I’m comfortable with and that tends to be some variation of a cheesy chicken casserole found on Pinterest. This book has pushed me out of my comfort zone both in terms of flavors but also by helping me improve overall skills.

The book is composed of 26 weeks of recipes. Rather than working straight through from Week 1-26, we’re working through the weeks based on what’s in season (based on a chart included as an online extra). Thus far, we’re halfway through our 5th week and have made Weeks 1, 3, 4, and now 8.

Food in Casserole Dish

BBQ Chicken Broccoli Cauliflower Rice Casserole Before it went in the oven

Admittedly, some weeks have been home runs (e.g. Week 1) and others not so much, so I’m recording our thoughts on each week in Evernote in hopes that I can find at least several to rotate through. As an added help on my part, I’m also snapping photos of each week’s worth of prep and recipes and including them in Evernote as well. Not only does this allow me to have the recipes on my iPad while I cook, which I prefer, I can also pull up the recipes or prep instructions while I’m away from home if I need to. For our home run recipes like the Loaded Cauliflower Casserole from Week 3, I’ve also added just the recipes themselves directly to my recipe manager, Paprika, in the event we just want to make the recipe on its own.

All in all, this book has taken most of the guesswork out of cooking for the week. Cooking is almost fun again. We’re eating at home more and we’re eating much better too. Two thumbs up for this book from me.

Creating A Minimal Browsing Experiencing in Safari

Years ago, back when theming a Mac was possible, it wasn’t uncommon for me to spend hours tweaking the way the menu bar looked or changing the stock icons of my favorite apps. These days I’m pretty content with the way OS X looks though, which is good since Apple’s greatly reduced the ability to customize it. In any event, I’ve always done my best to hide things that didn’t need to be seen. Case in point, this screenshot from 2008 where I meticulously picked out every icon to match the wallpaper.

I’m no where near as into customizing as I used to be, but I still try to keep things as minimal as possible. Bartender’s a great example of an app that does that by keeping my menu bar tidy. I rely heavily on Bartender’s ability to only show an item in the menu bar if it detects a change. In fact thanks to that feature, on a regular basis, I only have 3 things in my menu bar: Healthier only when I’m at my desk, Fantastical, and the time (and of course the dots are Bartender itself).

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Somehow Safari ended up being the next app to be caught in my minimizing grasps and the results are a Safari interface that’s as minimal as I’ve ever had it. The minimalism isn’t just for looks though. It’s actually changed my behavior, making me more mindful of my browsing and more efficient too.

Hide Unnecessary Extensions and Buttons in the Toolbar

The first thing I did to simplify Safari was to hide any uncessary extensions and buttons on the toolbar. Only the things I truly use regularly need to be in the toolbar for quick access. For me this meant things like the Pinterest button didn’t make the cut. Pinterest unfortunately doesn’t have Share extension support where I’d prefer it to be located, but I’ll share my solution in a second. 1Password, the Share extension, and downloads are the only thing occupying the right side of my toolbar these days.

Remove the Favorites Bar

The next thing I removed was the favorites bar. This was a pretty big step for me. I’ve always had the favorites bar shown in my browsers for as long as I’ve been using a computer. I was worried I’d miss it, and I did for about 20 minutes. After those 20 minutes, my muscle memory had completely switched to using Alfred to launch my most visited sites.

Configure Alfred to Launch Bookmarklets

One thing Alfred couldn’t replicate out of the box was the bookmarklets that lived in my favorites bar. Paprika, my recipe manager of choice, allows you to import recipes from websites, but it does so using a bookmarklet rather than an extension. (Maybe one day that will change.) Without access to my favorites bar, saving a recipe became a lot more complicated than a single click. Thankfully, I found a wonderful Alfred workflow that let’s you trigger a bookmarklet with a keyword. I used “paprika” as the keyword to launch Paprika’s bookmarklet purely so I didn’t need to remember something else. Now when I’m on a site, I just need to launch Alfred and start typing paprika to get the bookmarklet.

timed-03_29_16 at 01.20.49PM

With the bookmarklet solution figured out for Paprika, I used the same workflow to make one for Pinterest. Remember I removed the button from the toolbar, so I needed a way to pin things. Pinterest’s bookmarklet, available originally for the iPhone before it got it’s own dedicated share extension, is available here.

New Windows Open Blank

Rather than launch a particular page or display my favorites, I opted to have new windows launch with a blank page. Minimal yes, but it has greatly reduced the mindless visiting of certain sites that I found myself opening purely because of habit. So here you have it folks, my Safari experience.

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The Mindful Browsing Extension

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My last Safari tweak is actually the addition of an extension called Mindful Browsing. If I find myself visiting a distracting site, I can click a button on the toolbar to block the site. Next time I visit it, I’ll be met with a timer (set to a time of your choosing) and a message asking me to reconsider my decision. Another handy addition is the inclusion of when you last visited the site, which serves as a great reminder for how often you actually visit distracting sites.

Creating a Smart Grocery List in Omnifocus

Last week, I added an Amazon Echo to my slowly-growing collection of home automation devices. The recently added Spotify integration is what sold me, but within a few days, Alexa, unexpectedly, made herself known as the missing link in how I collect my grocery shopping routine. I’ve written about my set up before, but it’s evolved since then especially with the addition of Alexa in my kitchen.

**Disclaimer: References to products on this page may contain affiliate links.**

To start, it’s probably best to share a few basic tidbits of my routine:

  1. I tend to make 1 weekly trip to the grocery store (typically Aldi).
  2. Paprika is my recipe manager of choice. Two years ago, I was keeping a messy collection of recipes on Pinterest, which I later found out consisted of mostly dead links. Now all of my recipes get saved to Paprika for safe keeping and are meticulously organized based on meal type and whether or not I’ve made them before. I also only save things I’d truly want to make, so no more 30 unprounceable-ingredient, 25+-step recipes.

    Paprika OS X

    Paprika for Mac

  3. Omnifocus is where my grocery list lives along with all of my other tasks. I’ve tried keeping a separate list, but I really prefer having my lists in as few places as possible.
  4. Both Paprika and Omnifocus are available on Mac and iOS meaning the majority of my workflow can be used anywhere.

Getting Things on to the Grocery List

  • Things I buy regularly on a predictable schedule – These are set up as recurring tasks in Omnifocus based on how often I buy them – the”defer another” option, if you’re curious.
  • Things I need for a particular recipe – One of Paprika‘s best features is it’s ability to make grocery lists. It even combines quantities if multiple recipes call for the same item. While you can use the Paprika app to manage your list entirely, I prefer Omnifocus. Thankfully, Paprika also has the ability to export their grocery list to Reminders. I know I said I prefer Omnifocus, but stay with me here. Omnifocus can capture tasks sent to Reminders. With that you can essentially export from Paprika to Omnifocus.
  • Things I want or don’t necessarily buy on a predicable schedule. Not everything in my kitchen is part of a recipe or something I buy regularly – sale items, less used staples, etc. I could just manually add these things to Omnifocus, and when I’m out of the house that’s what I do, but when I’m at home the Amazon Echo makes things crazy easy. I set up an IFTTT recipe so that any time something is added to my Echo shopping list, it gets added to Reminders. Again, Omnifocus is set to capture anything sent to Reminders. The result, whenever I run out of something that’s not a regular buy or I think of something I’d like to buy and I happen to be home, I simply say “Alexa, add <item> to my shopping list.”

Items added either via Paprika or the Echo are added to the inbox in Omnifocus where I process them with the rest of my tasks. Once processed, they get added to my Shopping List single actions list. Anything I need to buy gets added to this list with the “Shopping” context. If they happen to be grocery-related, they get added to a special “Shopping: Grocery” sub-context. That used to be where the filtering stopped, but the lack of organization left me scrambling around the store. (If any of you are familiar with Aldi, you’ll know it’s set up much like an IKEA where you’re supposed to go in one direction.) To account for this, I recently added sub-sub-contexts to further sort my list. Since I always shop at the same store, my Grocery sub-contexts are set up to match the layout of the store. Aldi happens to be a small store so this ends up being about 6 sub-contexts.

Getting to the Grocery Store

When I arrive at the store, Launch Center Pro prompts me to open my Grocery Store perspective. Any items with a Grocery or Grocery sub-context appear sorted by context. The result: A grocery list sorted by aisle.

 

Grocery List Perspective on iPhone

Grocery Perspective in Omnifocus for iOS

 

*Other people have suggested using recurring projects to sort your grocery list. I decided to go with contexts because it allows me to add one-off items along with my recurring items each week. If using recurring projects, those one-off items would also end up as recurring items which required an extra step of removing them from the next week.

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{March Topic: Meal Planning} My Routine

Since moving out on my own, I’m pretty surprised to admit that the most challenging thing I’ve had to deal with has been shopping for food. I finally feel like I’m about 80% there in terms of figuring things out, but some weeks are inevitably better than others. I thought I’d share my “fun” journey as it might help some others that live alone.

When I moved out, I was offered the opportunity to “shop” the shelves at my mom’s house before I bought anything. {Another perk of having family members with hoarding tendencies} I didn’t really have any sort of plan though. Long story short, after a trip to her house and the grocery store and many trips from my car to the kitchen, I realized I’d ended up with a whole lot of condiments, coffee, snacks, and things for lunch, but not much for any other meal. It was pretty comical. A friend even stopped by and asked “Wait, you already went shopping? Where’s the food?!”

The next week, I planned to rectify my lack of any actual food, so I picked out two recipes to make for dinner that week figuring that each one typically lasted my mom and I a couple days. Again, I came back with bags of food, but I had a plan so I was set. It wasn’t until I started cooking that I realized one recipe called for a 1/2 can of soup. I ended up doubling the recipe to use the whole can which ended making it enough food for the week. I never did end up making the other recipe, and a lot of the ingredients went bad. Fail on my part for not checking the recipe in the first place.

One way or another this went on for weeks. Buying too much food, spending too much money, forgetting to cook something before it went bad, and then having a fridge full of food I was stuck with until trash day. A lot of it has been learning what doesn’t make sense to buy, e.g. an entire gallon of milk for 1 recipe and I don’t drink milk. I’d like to think those days are past me, but having a plan has made a big difference in both having a kitchen with actual food and my wallet.

At some point during the weekend, I open up my recipe manager, Paprika, to find a recipe for the next week. As a creature of habit, I’ve grown used to eating one thing for a few days, so one recipe actually works. Another perk to this is I typically only have to really cook once during the week. Lately, I’ve been picking a lot of casseroles because they’re easy enough to make and reheat well. If for some reason I can’t find something I want to make in Paprika, I turn to Pinterest.

Once I’ve picked out a recipe, I add it to Paprika’s Meal Planner just so I can keep track of what I’m making each week, and add any ingredients I’m missing to my Shopping List project in Omnifocus. Paprika actually has it’s own grocery list feature, but I’ve found I prefer Omnifocus because I can set the items I buy frequently to recur every week or every other week. I also like having my lists in one place. I have a “Grocery List” perspective in Omnifocus to show any items with the “Shopping: Grocery Store” context. It’s also a “starred” perspective on my phone, so it’s 1 tap away once I open up Omnifocus when I’m out shopping.

I try to do my grocery shopping on Monday after work partly to save some gas, but mainly because I found myself putting off weekend trips in favor of lounging around the house in pajamas. I try to do most of my shopping at Aldi, but if for some reason, they don’t have somthing, I can save it for a trip to another grocery store or add it onto an order from Amazon. I generally try to keep to my list, but truthfully, Aldi’s prices are low enough on most things that if I throw in a few extra things, I’ll still stay under budget for the month. Another perk of Aldi is that you bring your own bags. One week of groceries fits in 1-2 bags for me, so I’ve eliminated the back and forth trips from car to kitchen.

Monday night is also typically my cooking day. Once I get home, I grab my iPad or computer and open up Paprika to the recipe I’m making. I like to listen to podcasts while cooking too, and while I’m in the kitchen, waiting for my food to cook, I’ll prep my lunches for the week. Doing all the cooking and prep {and cleaning} on one day means the rest of the week is fairly simple. Whatever I made typically lasts me most of the week, which means after work, I just have to pop some left overs in the microwave. By the time the week starts wrapping up and I’ve likely run out of the meal I made, I tend to make something simple from the freezer like a pizza or order carryout from my local Chinese restaurant as a treat for the weekend.

The last step in my meal planning routine takes me back to Paprika. Before I start the process over again for the next week, I use Paprika’s built-in rating system to rate the recipe I picked. My hope is that eventually I’ll be able to use them to simply the recipe picking process down to 10-20 favorites so that I’m not constantly buying new items.

Andrea