I love cooking, but I'm not the world's biggest fan of meal planning. Most of the time, I don't meal plan until after I get home from the grocery store (although I try to sketch out a few meal ideas before hand so I don't come home with 80 pounds of peaches and 3 lbs of chicken and nothing else).
However, even this kind of meal planning is too rigorous for some folks. On top of that, meal planning is much more likely to be successful if you are cooking for 3+ people (I normally cook for four or more) than if you are cooking for 1-2 people.
As such, I've come up with a few alternatives to meal planning that you could utilize if you hate meal planning.
1. Rely heavily on unhealthy processed foods
I spent one summer in college living almost exclusively on baby carrots, oatmeal, peanut butter, and grapes with an infrequent Banquet brand Chicken Pot Pie mixed in. However, that was better than one friend who claimed his diet was Mac and Cheese and Gatorade, six nights a week.
I'm kind of vomiting in my mouth thinking back on the crap I ate in college, but there's no denying that it was cheap. Even when I wasn't buying my own food, I still ate pretty poorly. I had a job that provided me with 14 meals per week in our dining hall, which is pretty much like eating at Golden Coral twice a day. Interestingly, this didn't prove to be too bad for my waistline until I got injured but maintained the appetite of an athlete without maintaining the exercise regime of an athlete (You can see the visible effects of the diet below).
While I don't recommend this plan for the long term, I think that it is a cost effective way to eat for a few weeks if you are under the age of 22.
2. Bulk Cooking
Bulk cooking revolves around spending the majority of one day each month cooking. You make a variety of meals, and freeze them. Then as you go throughout the month and basically reheat whatever sounds good to you that day. You can add a salad, and you're pretty much done.
Bulk cooking is typically best for families (especially larger families), but I actually did a bit when I was cooking for myself after college. The key to making bulk cooking for one is to have approximately infinite quantities of tupperware that you can use to freeze single or double portions.
I would typically do a moderate sized cooking session every two weeks (approximately 3-4 hours plus a slow cooker that took all day), and I would end up with 20-25 portions of 5-6 unique meals that I could eat for the next two weeks with a minimum of effort (I usually ate one portion of food for lunch and another for dinner).
The only cookbook I ever used when I did bulk cooking was Jessica Fischer's Not Your Mother's Make Ahead and Freeze Cookbook, which I definitely recommend. If you want to try out a few of her recipes before committing to the purchase, check out her work on her blog, Good Cheap Eats.
Bulk cooking can be expensive or cheap depending on how inexpensively you obtain your ingredients. It seems that people who succeed with bulk cooking in the long run have enough freezer space to hold inexpensively obtained meats, frozen produce and frozen meals.
3. Component Cooking
Component cooking is a variation on bulk cooking, but it's something that I wish I did a lot more of. Component cooking is basically cooking and preserving (usually freezing) a primary component of a meal (usually the meat), and then applying different sauces, produce, and cooking techniques when you heat it up.
The way that I typically implement this is I make a huge portion of something (marinara sauce, meatballs, pulled pork, grilled chicken strips, etc.) when I'm making a meal that requires them anyhow. I freeze half (or more) of what I made then, later on, I pull these out of the freezer and make it into something totally new!
This technique typically takes only a minute or two extra during the initial prep day and it saves you time on day to day meal prep. It also allows you the advantage of being flexible with your meal prep based on what you feel like eating, and what you have on hand.
My two sources for component cooking are a blog called Foodie With Family (literally never had a bad recipe from this website), where Rebecca runs a series called "Make Ahead Mondays", where she gives recipes (and importantly tips) on how she makes a meal (or sometimes 2-3) out of a pre-made component.
I also really love the Burgers, Bangers and Balls section of Well-Fed 2 by Melissa Joulwan, which has 15-20 sausage recipes that make some very nice, and very tasty components that you can keep on hand. Joulwan is a paleo recipe creator, and I'm not a Paleo eater, but I love pretty much every recipe of hers that I have tried.
I tend to think of component cooking as my best money/time saving plan, since I can buy double or triple portions of meat when they are very cheap, and then use them when I'm crunched for time or seeking variety.
4. Weekly Cookup
The weekly cook up is a cross between component cooking and bulk cooking. During a weekly cook up, you cut a bunch of veggies to store in the fridge, you brown enough meat for the week (sausage, chicken, ground beef, etc.), and if you're feeling particularly ambitious you'll whip up a few sauces (salsas, peanut sauce, barbecue sauce, etc.). If you're not a Paleo eater you might even cook up a few grains such as quinoa or bulgar.
Then throughout the week, you can make plates or bowls of food which basically consist of meat, grains (if you aren't paleo), and veggies that have been heated up with a healthy dose of spices and smothered in a delicious sauce. If you're not super into cooking, and you're mostly looking for healthy and easy, this is how I would go.
I did a weekly cookup (or more accurately a few days cook up) for the majority of our early marriage. It's not the cheapest way to go because you can't rely on cooking techniques to offer variety, so I ended up depending on a wide variety of ingredients (sometimes expensive ingredients like meat and nuts and herbs) to get the flavors we wanted, but you could do it much more inexpensively if you are great about buying seasonal ingredients, and not going overboard on the garnishes.
If you're wondering how to start a weekly cookup, I would start with some inspiration from a blog called Framed Cooks, where the author makes delicious "One Bowl Meals". However, the whole concept is codified in several Paleo Cookbooks including Well-Fed (yeah, the first version of what I mentioned earlier) and Paleo Comfort Foods, and all over the interwebs.
What alternatives to meal planning do you have?
I'm a wife, a mom, an employee, and a personal finance nerd who is devoted to spreadsheeting my way through life.