Make a Brain-Dump Meal Plan

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This post originally appeared in the September 11, 2023 edition of The Move, a place for Eater’s editors and writers to reveal their recommendations and pro dining tips — sometimes thoughtful, sometimes weird, but always someone’s go-to move. Subscribe now.

Despite my love of both planning and order, I’ve never enjoyed following a rigid meal plan. I like cooking off-the-cuff and I like the way an ingredients-first — not recipes-first — approach to shopping leaves room for discovery. I wouldn’t call to mind a recipe for sea beans while making my grocery list, for example, but I would consider cooking them if I saw them available on Fresh Direct.

That being said, I understand the appeal of going into the week with a meal plan. Knowing ahead of time how everything will be used is a cost-effective approach for some people, and there is peace in not having to worry about what to cook while frazzled mid-week. My weeks brush up against that decision fatigue too — hence why I like to go for a kind of brain-dump meal plan, a midpoint between “no clue what I’m making tonight” and “on Tuesday we’re having spaghetti.”

On Sunday (or whenever I’ve replenished my fresh produce and perishables), I sit down with a notebook or a notepad (the magnetic kind that can live on the fridge are especially handy) and write down everything I’ve just gotten: a bunch of kale, a block of tofu, radishes, a container of ricotta, a pound of mushrooms… whatever. Next, I write down any lingering ingredients that I should prioritize: the handful of broccoli from last week, the half a can of crushed tomatoes from yesterday’s pasta sauce, most of a bunch of parsley.

I’ll poke around my cabinets to identify what pantry goods I’m working with. There’s usually some pasta, coconut milk, lots of rice, maybe cornmeal. Doing this weekly inventory also helps jog my memory of spices or seasonings I haven’t used in a while, like garam masala or the remains of a packet of Filipino soup mix. Then, if there’s anything I feel like preparing at the time, like marinated beans, I’ll do that and jot it down in another section of foods that are ready to go.

From there, I move on to the fun part: the brain dump, where I look at everything I have in one place and imagine meals. Broccoli makes me think of roasted broccoli Caesar, and while I might not have anchovies, I take note that I do have those sun-dried tomatoes, which are also oily and salty. I write down “broccoli Caesar except with sun-dried tomatoes in sauce.” From tofu, coconut milk, crushed tomatoes, garam masala, I write that I could make “tofu tikka masala.” And from kale, ricotta, and crushed tomatoes, I can riff on spinach gnudi in red sauce. Or maybe the kale and ricotta become a simplified version of Julia Turshen’s white pizza-style kale. Maybe I toss the tofu in cornstarch with that Filipino soup mix for seasoning.

When I’ve run through my immediate ideas, I’ll turn to Google. Plugging in random ingredients I have, like “coconut milk + kale” or “radishes + cornmeal,” I’ll look at the recipes that pop up and see how they might jog my imagination. Often, they bring up ideas I never would have thought of on my own, like cornmeal blini with a radish and labneh topping. Maybe I put that on the list, and then realize I can also make extra of that topping and put it on toast.

Ideally, I’ll end up with a long list of dishes or meal ideas that use what I have. On a practical level, I like that I can cross ingredients off as I use them, ensuring that nothing goes to waste just because I forgot about it. On a creative level, it’s also an exercise in seeing what I can spitball without the guidance of cookbooks. I find that, almost always, I think of something I’ve successfully executed before and then push myself into an innovative tweak based on the ingredients on my list.

When it comes time to cook on Monday, I might find that I really want a raw kale salad; there’s no need to look at the list. But on Wednesday, when I don’t feel compelled by any particular craving, it’ll be there, full of inspiration in case I need it.

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