Meal Planning 101

Meal Planning 101

Susan and I thought it would be fun to do a series of articles that give a behind- the-scenes look at the creation of A Tablespoon of Oil recipes.

My friends and acquaintances are usually stunned when I tell them that I cook five days a week. Cooking in New York City where the takeout options are abundant and inexpensive is not the norm, and getting in the kitchen might seem even more daunting when you consider that I work full-time as a journalist in between running after an active toddler.

I’ve been getting lots of questions on how I manage to prepare home cooked meals so often so I thought it might be useful to share my tricks of the trade. The reason why I’m able to cook most every weeknight is simply because of preplanning.  By Friday, I have every meal planned for the following week and all of the ingredients ordered from a grocery delivery service called Fresh Direct (

Most people I know who have intentions to cook usually don’t plan their meals in advance. At the end of the day, they’re hungry and tired and usually at a loss of what to make so frozen meals or ordering in seems like the easiest option.

I spend a half-hour a week prepping for the week ahead. I start by thinking if there is anything Mahir or I have been craving like tacos or lasagna. If so, that’s the first thing I add to the menu and build from there. If it’s a chicken dish, for example, I try to pick a few kinds of seafood meals, one vegetarian meal using eggs or tofu and occasionally, a meal using flank steak. I aim for as much diversity as possible without using too many different ingredients and get ideas from magazines like Cooking Light, Self, Shape, Fitness and from sites like

Because I try to make sure my ingredients are as fresh as possible, I get my groceries delivered twice a week. My weekly orders always have almost two dozen of the same ingredients, and the rest of the items vary depending on what we are cooking.

Here is last week’s menu:


Flank steak in a chimichurri sauce

Grilled peppers and onions

Whole wheat rolls


“Fried” chicken cutlets (the parsley in the chimichurri sauce repeats in the breadcrumbs here)

Shredded brussel sprouts

Roasted potatoes for Mahir and Meenakshi and Food for Life Sesame bread for me


Spicy Indian Scallop Curry

Brown Rice



Halibut with mint-cilantro chutney (the cilantro from the scallop curry repeats again here)

Whole Wheat Rolls

My Mother’s Gobi (uses cilantro)


Indian style Masala Omelet (uses the cilantro from the previous two recipes)

Food for Life Sesame toast for me, Regular whole wheat toast for Mahir and Meenakshi

Steamed Broccoli

Once I have this menu in place, I spend a few hours on Sunday chopping herbs, garlic, ginger and whatever other ingredients I need so at the end of a workday, putting together a meal takes minimal time. It takes a little practice to come up with different recipes where you’re not ordering a bunch of ingredients that you end up wasting, but once you get the hang of it, takeout will become an occasional habit, not the mainstay it usually is.

Coming up next: a list of all the ingredients in my grocery cart and my pantry staples.

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