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  • Writer's picturehlhowells

Cookapalooza: Meal Planning for Planners!

Updated: May 30, 2019

If you have a job, a family, and a life, then having most or all of your meals home-cooked from scratch can seem impossible. Yet, following a primal/paleo lifestyle necessitates home cooking, often to the point of making one’s own condiments. Somehow, after 8 years of living mostly primally, our family is mostly there. Mostly :). I’ll be the first to say that it’s not always easy! But I feel good, I enjoy the food we eat, and meal prep — while it has a place in my life — no longer dominates my time off.

How, you ask? That is the subject of this post! Mine is only one way of doing things, but I’m here to walk you through a week of meal prep for our family, in case any part of it speaks to you or gives you fresh ideas to make your life easier.

There are two things you need to know about me first:

1. I am a PLANNER, through and through. Indecision makes me anxious, and there is not a spontaneous bone in my body. Therefore, this article is for the insane planners, the detail-oriented fast-deciders out there. The NEXT blog post will be geared more toward the lovely spontaneous folks of the world, but this one is for those of you who, like me, find yourself drifting away from friends who can’t plan a simple hang-out a few weeks in advance.

2. I am an INSANE MORNING PERSON. This means I kick ass at 4am, and would rather get up even earlier than that if it means I can avoid staying up past 9:00 pm. I work hard and play hard, so I am spent by the end of the day. The last thing I want to do when winding down a busy day is ... ugh ... cook. Putting effort toward this when I’m haggard at the end of the day turns something I love (cooking) into something I hate (chores at night). Therefore, it is always my goal to have enough prepped that I only spend 10-15 minutes per night actually engaged in cooking!

Ok, with all that out of the way, my family meal planning and preparation takes on a fairly straight-forward process. This would drive a more creative type NUTS (the next post is for you guys!), but for me, this works. Here goes:

Step 1: Look ahead at the family’s plans for the week, and pick a dinner that fits each night

All of us crazy-busy Americans probably have some sort of family calendar, either online or on the wall. My family has both. I start meal-planning for the week by looking ahead at the week’s upcoming events.

A) For nights I work late (getting home between 7:30 and 9pm), I like to come home to one of the following options: leftovers to heat-and-eat, or a steaming slow-cooker meal. This also allows my spouse and kids to eat without me if I’m the last one home.

B) For nights I get home “early” (by 6:30pm), I like meals I can prep in advance, then just throw in a pan for 10-15 minutes before we sit down to eat. Or, I’ll have the parts ready to throw easily into the pressure cooker (Instant Pot or similar) so I can forget about them while I get settled in at home.

C) Truly rarely, do I have *nothing* prepped for a meal when dinnertime rolls around. But sometimes, especially since I do enjoy cooking, I leave these unprepared meals for nights when I’m legitimately off all day.

For each night of the coming week, I choose a dinner that fits the time constraints of the day; then I commit to having *that* dinner on *that* day.

As I’m picking these out, I try to streamline a bit, and I try to ensure variety. This keeps us interested while minimizing waste. For example, if we have a dinner that requires 1/2 head of cabbage early in the week, I try to plan another meal utilizing the second half later in the week. I’ll make sure we’re not having chicken more than a couple times a week (booooring!), but still minimize waste by buying a package of 5 lbs of chicken breast, using 2lbs over two meals for the week, and freezing the other 3 lbs in two, separately-wrapped 1.5-lb portions for later use.

Step 2: Consult freezer inventory if budget-hack or time-hack is needed

I am dorky enough that I keep a running “freezer inventory” of our family’s kitchen freezer (part of the refrigerator) and our family’s garage freezer, where we have space to store meat if we buy into a quarter of a local grass-fed steer with some friends, or make a large Costco run to stock up on staples like chicken breasts and salmon filets. I stock the freezer when our budget is more flush. Then, in weeks when our budget is lean, I can often avoid buying any protein at the grocery store, and I simply plan to thaw meat from our freezers instead.

I will also freeze pre-measured portions of fully cooked meals, when we have extra. For example, if we make a huge pan of zucchini-noodle, beef lasagna and eat it for one night, there are often 4 servings left over. These can be frozen as individual portions. Then, in weeks when we are truly short on time, I can simply plan to move them into the refrigerator 48 hrs in advance of eating them, and have a 100% ready, heat-and-eat option at my fingertips.

As you can imagine, this involves some foresight, as well as an extensive library of freezer- and microwave-friendly storage containers!

Step 3: Start with a skeleton grocery list, and refine it through the week

There are things we need to buy almost every single week: diapers; eggs; whole milk for the kids; a couple cases of soda-water. I keep a “skeleton”, bare-bones grocery list on my phone for all of these staples. Each week, right after grocery shopping — before I’m even meal-planning for the next week — I start by re-loading this skeleton list on my phone.

Then, as I go through the week, I pay attention to the things we buy occasionally, and from time to time, run out of. When we run out of one of these items, I add it to the list. The best example of this is spices. I keep a huge library of spices in the house, and it’s easier to replace the cumin each time it runs out, rather than checking to see if we have it each time a recipe calls for cumin. Other examples of occasional-purchase items include laundry detergent, dish-washing soap, and family toiletries.

Step 4: Add ingredients for the week’s dinners to the skeleton list; then shop

This part is fairly self-explanatory. I take our cook-books, and add the ingredients for each night’s dinner to the skeleton store list already in place. As someone who hates shopping, I arrange the list as the store is arranged, geographically. That way, I can walk through quickly, get what I need, and get out. I can usually get all of our family’s groceries for the week within 30-40 minutes, despite having an embarrassingly heavy cart to leave the store with! I have come to know all the grocery store checkers by first-name, and we always joke that I have the “heaviest cart in Colorado”!


Here is where the fun begins!

When I first started eating paleo/primal, back in 2011, I was blown away by the commitment of spending 2+ hours in the kitchen every day. But, eventually, reading Melissa Joulwan’s book Well Fed: Paleo Recipes for People who Love to Eat changed my world in two ways. First, I was finally able to have some Paleo-friendly ethnic food, which I was sorely missing. Second, and more importantly, she introduced me to the idea of the “Weekly Cook-Up,” which I affectionately refer to as the COOKAPALOOZA.

Melissa Joulwan has a background of growing up in her family’s restaurants – and this reminded me of something I should have known after working in restaurants myself for ten years. The reason a restaurant can have your meal ready so quickly is that all the ingredients (chopped vegetables, pre-cooked meats, etc) are prepared in advance. Then, to complete your meal, the parts only have to be thrown into the pan to heat together for a few minutes. She writes that there is absolutely no reason you can’t work like this in your home kitchen, and it is this concept that has changed my primal-eating life!

Therefore, once or twice weekly, I have a COOKAPALOOZA. I commit to spending just 1-3 hours at that time, in the most efficient way possible, preparing ingredients for the coming week. It might look like this:

· Preheat the oven, and use the hot oven to make a whole baking sheet of baked chicken breasts for Tuesday, concurrently while baking the spaghetti squash for a meal on Wednesday.

· Chop veggies for several nights at a time, and store in separate storage containers to grab on the correct night

· Actually pre-make and store 5-7 salads for myself for lunches for the week: it’s a pain in the neck to pull out all the ingredients for one salad, but it takes NO additional time to line up tupperwares on the counter and make several salads at once. Cherry tomatoes do not leak all over and ruin the lettuce. Try these!

· I’ll also pre-make a bunch of sauces: our salad dressings, etc, for the week . . . and store those.

That way, in 1-3 hours, I’ve made anywhere between 8-10 meals, rather than 2-3. I find this to be very time-efficient – plus, it heats up the house with the oven only once, and really minimizes cleanup as well! We can run the dishwasher efficiently, etc.

I also tend to be much more relaxed when getting stuff done at a time I am NOT overly hungry, and I tend to let the boys just play with whatever they want and trash the house, since I only have to clean that up once, too!

Step 6: EATING all this stuff

This is the best part!

I’ll make breakfast fresh every morning, since it only takes a few minutes. Our dinners are all prepped in advance and much easier to get on the table. And usually my lunch is a pre-made salad with a handful of leftover protein from one of the prior dinners. Therefore, I usually spend less than 30 minutes cooking on any given day, when it’s not a cookapalooza day, and our family of 4 has plenty to eat.

On weeks that are particularly challenging, logistically, I sometimes can get enough done during a cookapalooza that I then do not have to cook at all (except for breakfast) for several days.

For us, this works.

For the other planners out there in the world, what do you do to streamline feeding your families for the week? Let me learn from your ideas!

Take care,


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