Hi, friends! For this long awaited post, we gathered questions from our Simplified Sisterhood Facebook group and asked Dusty to kindly share her meal planning secrets. Dusty is our go-to kitchen aficionado on Team Simplified. She’s the one that makes homemade pizzas at Team Retreat and the one that we consistently ask what to do with the chicken breast in the fridge. Oh, and the magician that can turn leftovers into a brand new meal! We like to think Dusty has all the foodie answers, so we’re excited for her to finally answer your questions in the kitchen! Enjoy!
Q: How do you plan meals out for the week without them being too similar?
Dusty: When meal planning, try and incorporate a few different proteins if you are looking for some variety. Make sure you have a good mix of chicken, beef, seafood, or pork. I love to cook with chicken because it’s a good blank canvas. With just a few minor changes, you can have 5 different meal feels with just the one protein.
A simply seasoned, pan seared chicken breast cutlet can turn into Chicken Picatta with lemons and capers, or Chicken Pomodoro by leaving out the capers and adding tomatoes. Want Chicken Bruschetta? Leave out the capers, keep the tomatoes, and add in garlic and basil. If I’m buying a not-every-week ingredient, like basil, Feta, or fresh mozzarella, I will plan to use it for two meals so it doesn't go bad. With the Feta, I would plan a Gyro Pita meal and then Feta Burger Patties in Tomato Gravy. Both are ground beef, but totally different feels!
Q: When do you prep all your food? I have two kids under 3, and I cannot find time to prep because once they are in bed I am exhausted.
Dusty: As soon as I bring groceries home, I prep things that I know will be "go-to" or "grab-and-go" for the week. Celery, cucumbers, and peppers are healthy options my girls can easily grab and make into snack without having to chop anything or ask me for help! They are teenagers now, but when they were younger I kept a, "Kitchen is Closed" drawer for them. This housed those after dinner "I’m hungry" moments when Mom was already done for the night. It was just a drawer in the fridge of easy open, kid-friendly snacks that they could access themselves. Our favorites were chopped cheese, grapes, or cuties. If you know your kiddos love berries and cheese, just focus on having that ready to grab. Don't overcomplicate it, mama!
As far as prepped proteins go, if we are grilling at night for dinner, we always-always-always throw on a few chicken breasts! Having that prepped in the fridge for the week is so helpful. We do things like quesadillas, chicken salads, or simply cold chicken dipped in ranch. The same goes for ground beef. If you're making tacos or spaghetti, brown up more than you need and dip out the extra for another meal. You’re one step ahead and you only dirtied one pot! When my girls were little, I would prep while making dinner. I figure the kitchen is messy anyway and they are already preoccupied. Everyone's prep will always look different!
Q: If I meal prep on Sunday, what are the best foods guaranteed to stay fresh until Friday? I tend to have issues with chicken drying out after refrigerated and reheated.
Dusty: I suggest making sure your chicken isn’t too thick. Most store bought chicken breasts are huge and can actually serve two by slicing it in half, lengthwise. This helps chicken cook faster, and keeps it from drying out.
Tip: keep broth on hand for adding in moisture! If I have a plain roasted chicken breast (that is not looking all that great), then it will typically become chicken salad or thrown into a soup. Making things on Sunday and then freezing them for later in the week can be helpful, too. Fridges are very drying, but freezing it will lock in the moisture – just don’t forget to set it out to thaw!
Q: What seasonings go best with each other for the best flavor?
Dusty: You can never go wrong with a good house seasoning! These are typically a mixture of salt, pepper, and garlic powder. That combo on any protein is a great start. Onions and garlic are best friends, so starting any meal with those is a big flavor booster.
- Mexican meals: Cumin, chili powder, garlic powder, onion powder, oregano, and coriander. Add some cayenne if you like it spicy!
- Italian meals: Basil, oregano, parsley, thyme, garlic, and onion
- Greek meals: Very similar to Italian, but add in dill and lemon zest!
Q: Where do you go for more meal planning inspiration?!
Dusty: I love browsing Pinterest and finding great food accounts on Instagram to follow. Even though we eat low carb/Keto, I find ideas from many non-low carb bloggers and even some Weight Watchers accounts. I simply switch out the bread, pasta, rice and sweeteners to accommodate my family. The same goes for a Keto account – don’t let the name scare you! The majority of the ingredients are the same, so it’s a great starting point.
Q: What are some fast meals for kids?
Dusty: Our fast go-to right now is little tortilla pizzas. We use the low carb tortillas, but any will do. Crisp them up in the oven and then top them with their favorite toppings, or even let your kiddos do it. Then pop them back in the oven to melt the cheese. Tortillas, sauce, and mozzarella are always on my grocery list!
My girls also love what we call "plates." I’m not sure where they came up with that name, but basically it’s a plate of random things! Ham and cheese roll ups, peppers and hummus, boiled eggs, nuts, pretzels – things like that make up our beloved "plates!"
If your kids like a certain soup or chili, have one ready to go in the fridge for the week. Tip: My girls don’t like chili, so I call it "melted tacos" and serve it with cheese and sour cream. They have no idea!
Make a dozen peanut butter & jelly or ham and cheese sandwiches and freeze them. They both freeze great and can be a quick lunch! Just make sure you wrap them really well – air is the enemy in the freezer. Add any mayo or mustard right before serving. Tip: During the school year, you can throw a frozen sammie in their lunch boxes and it will be thawed by lunch time.
Q: What are some strategies to plan to use ingredients effectively? I feel like I often get stuck buying something for one meal and then having extra and not knowing how to use it.
Dusty: I often plan things like that on purpose. Especially if I need an ingredient I don't normally buy. Making two entirely different meals that both call for the same ingredient is smart kitchen strategy! For example, if I’m making a chicken dish with basil, then I’m going to plan a second meal that also uses basil. Chicken Bruschetta one night and then Chicken Caprese for the next!
Q: Any ideas for meal prepping for one? I feel like I always end up with too much food or eating the same thing every night because it is just me.
Dusty: I haven’t been in that season of life for 26 years, but I suggest mixing and matching things. For the week, make two proteins, 3-4 different kinds of veggies, and a grain (or side that you like if you don't include grains in your diet). Then you can mix and match meals creating something new for each day. For example, on hand, you would now have chicken and ground beef, broccoli, cauliflower, pepper and onions, and brown rice or a whole wheat pasta! Tip: Don’t underestimate the power of sauces! With a few of different sauces on hand, you have endless possibilities.
- Chicken + broccoli + rice (or noodles) with an Asian-style Peanut sauce
- Ground beef + onions + peppers with salsa and sour cream
- Chicken + peppers + onions with salsa and sour cream
Q: How can I transform leftovers? Family of two over here, so we have lots of leftovers.
Dusty: We call these "Planned Overs" in my house! :)
- Chili (aka melted tacos) will become enchiladas, chili dogs, or a pasta fagioli soup. Simply sub out any pasta or bread if needed for your dietary needs!
- Leftover Spaghetti – make spaghetti pie by adding in eggs, cheeses, and baking it in a pie plate.
- Leftover taco meat – make a quiche! Eggs, salsa, and the leftover taco meat would be amazing.
- Leftover poultry – great addition to any soup!
- Tip: Just about anything can become a really good stir fry! Leftover rice (or cauliflower rice) serves as a great base for a mixture of chicken and veggies.
P.S. Join our Simplified Sisterhood FB group to ask questions for the next Q&A.