I don’t want to spend my free time in the kitchen — and I’m guessing you don’t either. Whether you follow a paleo or a whole-foods way of eating, there are two keys to long-term success, in my experience: preparation and delicious variation.

Each week, I spend about 20 to 30 minutes on planning my meals, and then two to four hours cooking on Sunday in my “Weekly Cookup.” I do a “Full Cookup,” which requires more time to put together a few complete meals, however the “Mini Cookup” is also an option: You are able to prepare key ingredients after which quickly get meals on the table the rest of the week — without cooking on your own every time.

I recommend a weekly mix of simple protein-and-veggie dinners — like roasted chicken having a baked sweet potato and veggies, or a sliced steak on top of a ginormous salad — and much more complex recipes that excite your tastebuds and inspire creativity in the kitchen area. But remember: You have permission to eat the same things over and over if that reduces your stress level.

When you schedule amount of time in your week to put together meals plan, the result will be a refrigerator and pantry stocked with higher things you can eat when hunger strikes. You’ll eat better, you’ll feel your very best, and you’ll take care of the individuals your life.

The Weekly Cookup

Depending on your schedule, you are able to choose to do a Full Cookup or a Mini Cookup. The Full Cookup requires about two to four hours in the kitchen one day a week, but some busy families have a hard time finding that chunk of time. You are able to work around this issue by doing a Mini Cookup, that we explain below, or carrying out a Full Cookup once or twice a month, when you can carve out the time and make double batches that can be frozen for Future You.

If you don’t have enough time for a Full Cookup, I recommend that you simply at least prepare a simmered dish, slow-cooker recipe, and a big-batch breakfast recipe, such as egg muffins or a frittata, in advance so you’ll have some food in the fridge to kick off your week. 

My Weekly Cookup plan divides food into three broad categories:

  • Eat immediately: salads, stir-fried meats, delicate veggies
  • Eat following a day or two: stews and soups, sauces, braised meats, casseroles
  • Blanch, then caramelize: starchy and nonstarchy vegetables. (In Italy, this is whats called ripassare: Veggies are cooked once to make them tender, then cooked again with fat and seasonings to make them irresistible.)

To do the Full Cookup: Pick a day and cook most of the food you’ll need for the week. For example, you might roast a chicken, grill a bunch of burgers, and then also cook a large pot of chili and a batch of salmon cakes or spinach muffins. This way you can alternate between simple protein-and-veggie meals and “fancier” dishes like chili and salmon cakes.

To perform the Mini Cookup: Cook your own “packaged food” as follows.

  • Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.
  • Cook a big-batch breakfast. Make a tray of egg muffins or perhaps a large frittata so you have an easy grab-and-heat option for breakfast throughout the week.
  • Roast a chicken: Prep an entire chicken or chicken parts to roast in the oven. Cover a large rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil or parchment paper and brush with 1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil. Arrange the chicken (a couple of pounds) in a single layer around the baking sheet. Sprinkle with 1 teaspoon salt, ½ teaspoon ground black pepper, ½ teaspoon coarse garlic powder, along with a healthy pinch of dried parsley. (If you work with the oven to cook a big-batch breakfast, such as egg muffins or a frittata, set aside until the breakfast is finished.)
  • Roast yams: Wash and peel four medium sweet potatoes. Cover a large rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil or parchment paper and brush with 1 teaspoon extra-virgin essential olive oil. Cut the potatoes into ½-inch thick slices and arrange in a single layer on the baking sheet. This also works for red or yellow potatoes, or winter squash. Whenever your big-batch breakfast is finished cooking, remove from the oven and transfer the chicken and yams to roast for 20 to 25 minutes.
  • Grate a head or a couple of cauliflower for “rice.” Break off the florets and pulse in batches inside a food-processor bowl. Transfer the rice to an airtight container and place within the fridge.
  • Julienne zucchini to make “zoodles” in a spiralizer. Place the zucchini noodles in a colander and toss them with the salt before the strands are lightly coated. Set the colander in the sink to drain while you prep the other ingredients.
  • Hard-boil a dozen eggs. Slowly lower the eggs right into a medium saucepan when the water is at a rolling boil. Set a timer for Ten minutes. Fill a large bowl with water and ice, and when the timer goes off, use a ladle to move the eggs in to the ice bath to chill not less than 10 minutes. Store in the fridge.
  • While the eggs are boiling, make a batch of homemade mayo. (Find my paleo-friendly recipe here.)
  • Make a vinaigrette or dressing for saladsCreamy dressings also work well for dips for raw vegetables, and you may drizzle a sauce, vinaigrette, or dressing over steamed veggies or cooked protein. (Find a creamy dressing for my Green Goddess Salad here.)

Then throughout the week, you can cook protein “to buy,” add a salad, and supplement using the zoodles and rice. If you’re really low on time, you could also cook commonplace each day while you’re making dinner. For instance, while you’re making a stir-fry on the stove, you could roast sweet potatoes and chicken in the oven for the next night.

Meal-Planning How-To

The initial step in designing your diet plan is selecting the recipes for the menu. With these tips, you'll learn how to create menus that save time in the kitchen, reuse ingredients, and taste so good, you'll be happy to eat at home.

  1. Plan your dinners. I prefer to start with dinners as the first step toward the plan. Use a blank template to make a list of your choices for each day. (Locate one at meljoulwan.com/EL-MealPlanning.)
  2. Pick your side dishes. Use the list you made to start filling out sides on the menu template.
  3. Slot your leftovers for lunch. Leftovers from dinner can be turned into lunches later in the week, with an occasional salad thrown in to the mix. Decide how you'll use your dinner leftovers for lunch, then fill in the rest of the week's lunches with easy-to-make options like salads with protein or quick meat-and-veggie stir-fries.
  4. Decide weekday breakfasts. Now it's time to choose your breakfasts. Start with a big-batch recipe, like egg muffins or perhaps a big frittata that can be cut into wedges for multiple breakfasts. Adding fast options to the other weekdays, like simple protein-and-veggie scrambles. You can also enjoy dinner leftovers for breakfast; do not discount the magic of stew or chili by having an egg on top.
  5. Consider weekend breakfasts. This is where you can have a little fun – maybe you're over sleeping a bit or you'll need a hearty breakfast after a weekend morning hike. Saturday or sunday mornings are a nice time to enjoy brunch-ish recipes like omelets or eggs Benedict.
  6. Optional: Pack several snacks. If you find that you're peckish between meals, you might like to start planning the ingredients you'll need for the mini-meals that help you get from breakfast to lunch, or from lunch to dinner.
  7. Build your Day-By-Day Instructions. These are your reminders about what side dishes you have to prep and if there are any to-do things you need to remember, like defrosting meat or saving leftovers for any future meal. Use your menu like a guide and fill in the Day-By-Day template with notes for every day about side-dish ingredients, freezer-to-fridge transfers, interim grocery-shopping notes, and more. If you have a busy family schedule, this could also be a good place to note scheduling reminders.
  8. Write your grocery list. I recommend that you make your grocery list in the kitchen so you can check fridge and cabinets for ingredients you may already have on hand, then making use of your menu as a guide, systematically undergo each day to make your listing of required ingredients.