I’m someone who really enjoys eating out. I love trying new restaurants. And I’ve realized that’s where all my money goes. Not shopping (yes, those $120 jeans make by butt look great, but imagine what type of fabulous meal and wine I could buy for that price). In the new year, I needed to get a handle on this expensive eating habit.
Enter the cookbook A New Way to Dinner by Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs (the founders of Food52.com). It had come across my desk a few months ago, and it was full of delectable photos. The book maps out 16 different weeks of meals. It has shopping lists and tips that tell you exactly how to prep each menu the weekend beforehand.
I knew what I had to do. And it didn’t seem daunting because Amanda and Merrill had already done the heavy lifting. I didn’t have to make any decisions or do any planning; I just had to follow directions.
“Initially, we were shying away from getting into the nitty gritty of planning and executing a week of cooking,” Amanda said. “But as we wrote the book, we realized that this detail is exactly what people want and need.”
How right she was. I followed one of Merrill’s winter weeks of dinners to a “t,” and here’s what I learned.
- It’s easier to shop and cook on separate days. I was tempted to order all of my groceries online and get them delivered to my apartment, but I wanted the experience of picking everything out at the grocery store. Shopping took over an hour. I had so many grocery bags that the woman who checked me out came outside with me and hailed me a cab. By the time I got home I was beat. Did not feel like cooking for several hours.
- Organize your shopping list by supermarket department (e.g. dairy, meat, produce). This is how the book structured its shopping lists, and it totally streamlined shopping.
- I couldn’t have a messy fridge, because all of the new food wouldn’t fit. So I ended up cleaning out the whole refrigerator. It felt great.
- In fact, the great feeling of getting so ahead motivated me to organize my entire kitchen. Once I started getting my meals organized, it seemed easy to get other parts of my life in line.
- Prepping food in stages (washing everything at once, chopping everything, peeling everything, etc.) is the fastest way. There’s a reason that restaurants prep food this way: it’s the most efficient.
- There is zero point to round storage containers. After I was done prepping and cooking, I think I had about 15 different storage containers stacked up. Square and rectangular ones stacked neatly like bricks; circular ones wasted a bunch of space.
- Always zest citrus before juicing it, then freeze for later. This was a little tip in the cookbook that I loved. Keep the zest in an airtight container, and use frozen zest as you would fresh—it thaws almost instantly.
- Stock up on foods that require little prep to stretch your menu. Things like eggs, avocadoes, Greek yogurt, hummus, good cheese, cured meat, and cooked grains are a great way to stretch fully prepped dishes.
- I didn’t snack. Most days I have a ton of snacks piled up on my desk (perks of the job), and I basically nibble most of the day. Knowing exactly what I was eating for breakfast, lunch, and dinner though took away my desire to snack.
- I saved money even though I bought everything at Whole Foods. I spent about $200 total, which seemed terrifying at the time. Divide that by 21, and you get $9.50/meal. I also was cooking recipes that served 4 people and had a ton of food leftover that I froze.
So yes, I found a way to save money (and promise I won’t be shelling it out on a pair of new jeans instead). I also found a way to save time. Sure, it seemed like a lot of work when I did it once. But if I kept working off an organized fridge, rolled over those foods that stretched my menu, and tossed those round storage containers, the plan would work like a well-oiled machine. Week 2 of meal prep, here I come. Though this time I’m getting my groceries delivered.