life in a tiny apartment.

September 4, 2013

Tip #77: Plan your meals; empty your fridge.

This is life advice more than tiny apartment advice, but we’re loosey-goosey about the rules around these tea leaves.

This tip has a back story about my recent trip to San Francisco and my lovely cousin Gillian and her wonderful family and my first real encounter with meal planning. But we’ll save those details for another time and I’ll do my best to stick to the facts and offer simple advice: Plan your meals; empty your fridge.

Before witnessing my cousin’s system for meal planning, I’d never really considered planning a week’s worth of meals. At worst, meal planning seemed like encouraging another kind of neurosis I wasn’t sure I wanted to cultivate, and at best, it seemed simply unnecessary. For me one of the chief pleasures of living in a big city is the number of food-hawking establishments within walkable distance from my apartment. Who needs to plan ahead when the grocery store is just a block away? If I’m hankering for fresh vegetables, there’s a farmers’ market just three blocks away, three times a week. If I’m too tired to cook, I can choose from one of 20 restaurants in a five block square. But after witnessing my cousin’s dinnertime ritual, I realized that my laissez faire approach was actually making my life more complicated, not less.

Finishing a day’s work in the early evening and being faced then with a decision about what to make for dinner left me grumpy. I was constantly racking my brain (or my pinterest account) for recipes at the precise moment that I was hungriest and my quick decisions left me feeling as though I was missing out on the good stuff. I’m the last person to knock pizza, but eating it out of sheer desperation does take away some of the joy.

Spending an hour on the weekend choosing recipes and planning meals saves what feels like five times that amount of time during the week. Using up the ingredients that I’ve thoughtfully procured at the beginning of the week? Well that’s become just the kind of minimalist challenge I can really get into.

If I may, I think a lot of this comes back around to choice. Too many choices ultimately making one less happy than too few. This guy says it better. Bottom line: as with most things in a tiny apartment, less is more.

More on food in a tiny apartment here and here.

Tiny Apartment Survival Tips #1-76.

{More about the delicious spaghetti above coming up later this week}.

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  • Reply Neurotic Workaholic September 4, 2013 at 2:13 pm

    It's definitely important to empty your fridge, especially if you have a small fridge. I'd like to say that my small fridge is clean and mostly empty, but it still has leftover takeout in there and old dressing bottles from several months ago.

    • Reply Erin September 6, 2013 at 10:49 pm

      sounds like a v. good start!

  • Reply Theresa September 4, 2013 at 2:39 pm

    Erin–I couldn't agree more. I spend about an hour or so once a week combing my favorite recipe blogs for about 4-5 meals to make over the next 7 days. It makes life so much simpler. Of course, the meals which require the most fresh veggies are cooked first, and the lentil/bean dishes are cooked later in the week. Within that time frame I usually hit up the grocer once more for a fruit re-stock, but that's an easy errand. Good luck!

    • Reply Erin September 6, 2013 at 10:50 pm

      yes! lentils last night!

  • Reply Milynn L September 4, 2013 at 3:25 pm

    I've recently started planning my meals. While it's a bit hard to wrack my brain for ideas on what I would want to eat four days away from the day of planning, it's become sort of a game. So much easier than standing in front of the fridge everyday wondering what to eat/cook, and going to the grocery store multiple times during the week to pick up that one missing ingredient for a meal.

    • Reply Erin September 6, 2013 at 10:50 pm

      exactly! so glad to say goodbye to those days!

  • Reply LouLou in Paris September 4, 2013 at 3:26 pm

    Yes, i really feel like i need to do this too! I'm just like you Erin, I check Pinterest or blogs before leaving work. I often go for something a little elaborate and cooking will become a little stressful and a big deal. This sounds like a really good plan *will try very hard to do this* Lou xx

  • Reply iris September 4, 2013 at 3:44 pm

    Yes and Yes just had a post today on this exact-ish thing. Limiting the number of choices you have to make, because choices are hard!

  • Reply iarethefoodsnob September 4, 2013 at 4:23 pm

    When I moved out on my own, i became a serious meal planner. At my best, i was feeding myself on $30 a week thanks to 5 ingredient recipes and a high veggie diet. These days, living with a big carnivore, we still plan our meals down to the day with $100 per week. For me it was about saving money and my waistline. I live in Williamsburg Brooklyn and there are so many wonderful places to order in from. Its just not practical and def not healthy. Kudos to your new ritual- if you are type A, you will live for meal planning day.

    • Reply Erin September 6, 2013 at 10:52 pm

      kudos to you!

  • Reply Archana | my SoCald life September 4, 2013 at 4:37 pm

    This post came at the perfect time because last night I made a decision to start meal planning. I, too, was worried that it would only add to my somewhat Type A personality, but I think it's way better to plan than go through that pain around 7pm every day when I want to make something but 1.) don't know what to make and 2.) have no ingredients to make said meal with. I like the idea of leaving 1-2 nights open to takeout or dinners out and I'm not opposed to a frozen pizza or pre-made Trader Joe's meal if need be. We're human after all.

  • Reply dee September 4, 2013 at 5:16 pm

    I've always read about people doing their meal plans on the weekend and I've always wanted to do the same, except I have no idea where to even begin! I'm so so curious as what future posts will bring. So, thank you, this was just what I needed to read. 🙂

    • Reply Erin September 6, 2013 at 10:55 pm

      start with what you love! plan to make it and a few other meals during the week, and round up the ingredients! you can do it!

  • Reply Jessica Kleoppel September 4, 2013 at 8:36 pm

    game. changer.

  • Reply Emma Jane September 4, 2013 at 9:50 pm

    We have the same problem, girl. I need to follow your lead and plan a weekly menu for myself. Thanks for the advice. This was a great post 🙂

    Tightrope to the Sun

  • Reply Amanda September 4, 2013 at 9:53 pm

    YES. THIS. My old method for meal planning was to go to Trader Joe's or stop in Union Square or go downstairs to Eataly during my lunch break or right after work. Then I started a new job and I'm working crazy hours and shopping after work means I'm fighting off a panic attack at 8pm in Whole Foods trying to decide what to make. I literally just last week stopped freaking out for long enough to realize I need to start meal planning. Then I can go back to enjoying cooking dinner every night!!

    • Reply Erin September 6, 2013 at 10:56 pm

      so true! godspeed, friend!

  • Reply pretty little things September 4, 2013 at 11:18 pm

    completely agree with all of this!! weekly menus are key and clean fridges are a non negotiable for me! xo

  • Reply Pat September 4, 2013 at 11:42 pm

    Yes! I've been working hard on this very thing. Keep us posted on your progress.

  • Reply Isabelle Dervaux September 5, 2013 at 12:15 pm

    Have the book the Paradox of Choice and still haven't read it! The Ted talk might be easier to digest. Thanks for this post.

    In the past when I saw my French relatives plan their meal weekly on I thought it was such an rigid thing to do. Now with a family I found it liberating! No running out to the store last minute if we are missing an ingredient and less tension before dinner time. During the week I look at recipes books for inspiration and jot down what I should be buying for the next week.

    I have been buying less recently taking one day out of the week of the equation to finish whatever is left over in the fridge the day before we go shopping and build a meal out of it with staples. This way there is lot of space when we come back from grocery shopping which makes it easier for the kids to put away the food and we don't obscure what needs to be eaten first.

    • Reply Erin September 6, 2013 at 10:56 pm

      yes; i always thought of it as rigid, too! and then! freedom!

  • Reply Lauren Ashley September 5, 2013 at 2:16 pm

    Yes! I just recently started doing this and it's made such a difference.

  • Reply Anonymous September 5, 2013 at 10:54 pm

    We do one farmer's market trip per week and then plan our meals based around what we bought at the market. We also keep a list of all of our produce (vast majority of our fridge contents) on the fridge and cross it off as it's consumed, that way, if we didn't get around to planning an exact meal, we at least know what ingredients we have on hand. We also have a bit of a meal routine, some kind of pasta early in the week, usually beans or lentils and rice mid-week, asian or indian towards the end of the week…we change up the ingredients and the flavors so it never gets boring.

    • Reply Erin September 6, 2013 at 10:57 pm

      sounds perfect!

  • Reply Anonymous September 6, 2013 at 12:12 am

    I've slightly tweaked "Dinner: A Love Story's" guidelines to dinner planning:

    1) A Saturday dinner inspired by the farmers market;
    2) A Sunday dinner that's comforting/leisurely cooked;
    3) A new/exciting recipe to start your week;
    4) An easy classic/minimal thinking recipe;
    5) A meal you've made ahead and/or frozen for Hump Day;
    6) Smorgasbord and/or finger foody night <hummus plate, anyone?); and
    7) A meal out on Friday to reward yourself

    (I appreciate how the effort to prep dinner becomes more minimal as you push through the week.)

  • Reply Anonymous September 6, 2013 at 2:28 pm

    That pasta looks delicious. I completely agree (especially because I live in a tiny studio in NYC), this is so important. I use to stock my fridge but I was constantly throwing out food. No I shop by week to week bases. One tip that I found helpful is when I get frozen food/fish from Whole Foods to have them individually wrap it.

    Check out my blog:

  • Reply emily @ cabin fervor September 9, 2013 at 2:12 pm

    When we were city dwellers, we were terrible at meal planning. Since we moved to the country 5 years ago though, meal planning has become necessity, especially now that we have a toddler whose diet and eating schedule are much more demanding than ours. The closest grocery store to our home is a 15 minute drive. (Not terrible, but too far for chasing after the whims of your appetite on a regular basis.) The closest Whole Foods or other specialty grocer is 1 hour. While I do miss the convenience of city life, the trade off is being able to grow some of my own veggies at home — and, bonus — I'm now a much better cook because I have to be!

  • Reply Anonymous September 11, 2013 at 6:54 am

    So, what's the system? Please share!

  • Reply Jasmine Brink-Li September 11, 2013 at 5:53 pm

    This is definitely something that I really need to get into, as it will save money, and waste so much less! I'm terrible for buying things and then never making them, and then having to throw out veggies that have gone way beyond bad. Definitely looking forward to more posts on this!

  • Reply Jasmine Brink-Li September 11, 2013 at 5:53 pm

    This is definitely something that I really need to get into, as it will save money, and waste so much less! I'm terrible for buying things and then never making them, and then having to throw out veggies that have gone way beyond bad. Definitely looking forward to more posts on this!

  • Reply Heather September 13, 2013 at 10:09 pm

    This is great. I'm dying to hear the story about your cousin, too!

  • Reply Jenna October 26, 2015 at 10:37 am

    I have two little monkeys of my own (a two year old boy and a 1 year old girl) and have been binge reading your blog (it’s so inspiring how much beauty you fit into a tiny space) ever since I found out were expecting #3 (yikes!) because a simpler life is absolutely necessary to survive three kids under 3. After this post, I find myself anxiously awaiting your cousin’s meal planning secrets. Any further tips / favorite blogs. Getting a simple meal planning system together would save food, time, money and waste in addition to improving the health of our family. Loving your blog!! Write on!!! 🙂

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