How I Work 68 Hours a Week and Still Cook 90 Percent of My Meals

Today’s post comes from Leslie Chen, a management consultant-turned food strategist. She writes about healthy eating and science-backed Asian-inspired food and nutrition wisdom that makes weight loss unstoppable. You can find her free Asian-Inspired 3-Step Guide for Automated Weight Loss here, where you’ll find three simple techniques that helped her naturally lose 50 pounds and effortlessly maintain it for eight years.

I maintain a hectic work schedule of 68 hours a week, and it’s a painful fact that I, like many busy working women, don’t have much free time for myself. Living a fast-paced life requires us to be carefully selective about what we put our time into, and while the idea of work-life balance still sounds far away, there’s one thing that I do to make sure my health is still a priority — weekly meal planning.

Through meal planning, I lost 50 pounds (here are my before-and-after photos), feel comfortable in my own skin, and still have exuberant energy after three back-to-back meetings in a late afternoon. While many think meal planning is a time-consuming process, I manage to shop, prepare, and cook 90 percent of the whole week’s meals within just 1.5 hours.

Today’s homemade lunch.

How is it even possible? Listen up and let me tell you a few tips you can use to nail the hassle-free meal-planning immediately. 

1. Start with ultra-simple recipes.

If you are a beginner, gather a list of three or four 20-minute recipes as your go-to staples. A recipe database like AllRecipe is a great place to start, and you can find some quick and easy recipes right here on Eats. Focus on health and simplicity for now. Once you’ve mastered the basics, you can add more diversity to your recipe collection.

2. Plan a menu with recipes that share the same main ingredients.

This shortens not only your shopping list but also the entire meal preparation process. Instead of juggling 10 types of food and maneuvering in different areas of your kitchen, you focus on only a few foods. This helps me limit the food preparation process to 15-20 minutes a week. Below I’ve attached a sample list of dishes that I planned for a typical week so that you can see how a balance between variation and simplicity can be achieved.

sample menu

3. Follow an efficient workflow to minimize time and hassle.

While I see some YouTubers post videos about preparing and cooking a whole week’s food in one afternoon, I don’t recommend doing this for a few reasons: 1. It can be overwhelming. 2. It can make the long-waited weekend afternoon extremely stressful even for an experienced cook. 3. Cooked food won’t taste good after being in the fridge for a few days. 4. It might encourage the “all-or-nothing” mentality, which is the reason many people fall off the track completely.

My meal planning allows me to prepare and cook food at the most convenient time, in different settings as necessary. For instance, I shop and prepare food during the weekend. With a short list of food items on my plan, shopping and preparation are quick and straightforward. Cooking, on the other hand, is usually done during the weekdays. To eat fresh, I cook my dinner after work everyday, and for the simple stir-fries I do, it only takes 5-10 minutes when all ingredients are prepared!

workflow for meal planning

4. Plan for leftovers.

Cook a double portion, eat half for dinner, and save the other half for the next day’s lunch. Done. 

5. Simplify breakfasts.

Find the most convenient breakfast options, stick with them, and make sure all you need is in the pantry. If needed, boil your eggs during the weekend and store them in the fridge for easy use anytime.

6. Minimize your labor with tools.

Save your weekly menus and shopping lists in an app like Google Keep so that you won’t bother making plans later.

If you are God-awful busy and don’t have time to shop in person, order your groceries online on your local grocery chain’s website, have it packed for you, and pick it up on your way home. Some stores like Walmart even deliver.

If possible, save your shopping lists on the store website for one-click shopping later.

If you don’t want to cook yourself after work, get a Crock-Pot and let it do the work for you.

 7. Take time off.

When I was in college, I killed my enthusiasm for drawing by drawing 36 pieces of men’s bodies over one week of an intensive drawing class. You might think staring at naked men for five hours a day would be inspiring (or maybe you wouldn’t!), but the demanding labor of love burnt me out.

Meal planning is similar: to keep the passion for cooking 90 percent of my meals, not cooking that 10 percent is crucial. Dine out in your favorite restaurant or join a friend’s gathering once or twice a week. Take a break from cooking, then come back to it a fresh mind.

Are you a meal planner? What tips would you add? —Leslie


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