It’s the ultimate guide to SIMPLE meal planning and I’m designating them ‘Zhang Dinners’—after my good friends that inspired this post. Plus if you read until the end, there’s a special giveaway!
Meal planning is when you make a calendar of what will be eaten for dinner (sometimes breakfast and lunch too) for several days, a week, or even a month ahead. Then going through the recipes you make a grocery list. This ensures you’re only buying what you need and also cuts down on those impulse buys (guilty!).
I want to preface my meal plan post with saying that I’ve never been able to wrap my head around the idea of meal planning. The idea of sitting down
with my favorite cookbooks and planning the recipes and grocery list just seemed impossible and not my style. Granted there are many days I like to pick and make other’s recipes, it’s more often the case that I’m using up fridge and pantry items and flying by the seat of my pants. I love flying by the seat of my pants.
I do see the benefit of meal planning though—it can save time, money and prevent groceries from being wasted—which are A++ in my book.
I was finally able to wrap my head around meal planning when I stayed with our very dear friends in Illinois this past year. I adapted ‘meal planning’ to a way that works for me and allows creativity and flexibility.
10 Benefits of a Zhang Dinner
- The ultimate simple meal plan
- Brings the focus to PLANT-based whole food
- Nutritionally RICH and oil-free
- A great way to eat VARIED & not feel overwhelmed
- Great for learning to cook without a recipe
- Eliminates food waste
- Perfect for 2 people
- But also customizable, in quantity & ingredients
- Split duties – one preps, the other cooks
- You will feel GREAT!
Our friends, Alma and Yangling, aren’t vegan or even vegetarian but they do eat a lot of vegetables and grains with dinner along with a much smaller portion of meat than most people would have when sitting down to dinner and I can stand behind all of that.
While staying with them, I observed that Alma would buy the vegetables for the next few days and each day take out enough of chicken, tofu, or pork from the freezer for that night’s dinner and at least one leftover so Yangling has a lunch to take to work the next day. The meat in our house is substituted with more veggies, legumes, tofu or a faux meat product.
Alma will usually prep their veggies and start the rice in the rice cooker around 5 pm and then when Y arrives home at 6 pm, he’ll start cooking everything. They’re almost always eating within 20-30 minutes.
So how does this work exactly? What is a Zhang Dinner?
- You pick 1 vegetable that’s your main (examples below)
- Plus a handful of herbs
- Spices and/or sauce (tamari + lemon juice)
- Garlic and onion
- Grain (rice) or seed (quinoa)
- Protein (optional): beans, tofu, faux meat
How to Grocery Shop?
So when you’re planning for the week you’d buy 1 head of cauliflower, 7-8 baby bok choys, 1 head of broccoli, 1 head of celery, enough eggplant for 2 – these are your mains. After the first time using the vegetable it will get easier to know how much of it you need.
Vegetables to use as a main:
- Head of celery
- Head of broccoli
- Head of cauliflower
- Green beans
- Bok Choy (or baby bok choy and sum choy)
- Head of fennel
- Squash (Summer and Fall varieties)
- Swiss Chard
- Beets and Beet Greens
Then I like to get a few bunches of fresh herbs like cilantro, parsley, and basil. These will last in the fridge for the week and using a big handful of each (one, the other or both) per night.
Next pick out several jalapeños (if you like spicy), fresh garlic, white/yellow onions, green onions, and ginger. The garlic and regular onions will last several weeks in your cupboard or pantry. Trim the roots of the green onions and place them in a glass of water on the counter and they’ll last a lot longer than they would in the refrigerator. Adding in a little of these to each night’s meal will add so much flavor and good-for-your-body-nutrients.
I love to use a few different spices to bring out whatever flavor we’re feeling that night.
- Indian: curry seasoning, coriander, garam masala, and cumin
- Italian: fennel seeds, basil, parsley, oregano and the common Italian seasoning blend
- Asian: fennel seeds, five-spice powder (fennel, star anise, Szechuan pepper, cinnamon, and cloves), ginger, kaffir lime, turmeric, and lemongrass
- Mexican: chili powder, cumin, garlic, oregano, paprika, and onion
- Other: tamari, curry paste, apple cider vinegar, a sweetener, marinara, etc
You can eat the veggies straight if you make a bit extra or add them to a whole-grain to add a nice and dense carbohydrate into the mix.
- 1/2 cup brown rice or quinoa = 1 cup cooked
- spelt or whole-wheat pasta (follow serving size on package)
- what would you serve it over?
Some Zhang examples:
The main vegetable in this dish is cauliflower. One head of cauliflower was enough for one dinner plus a small amount of leftovers for Jeremy and I.
This night was Julienned zucchini using the mandolin along with sun-dried tomatoes and spices served over brown rice with tofurky.
Prepping the ingredients
It really doesn’t matter too much how you prep as long as each ingredient is uniform in shape so they cook evenly and by that I mean all the cauliflower is about the same size, all the ginger the same and garlic etc.
How I prefer:
- garlic – minced
- ginger – minced or slivers
- greens – big greens like kale, chard, bok choy, and cabbage – 1 inch slices & baby greens like spinach leave as is
- onion and jalapeno – chopped or diced
- herbs – chopped
How to cook a Zhang dinner
If you’re cooking rice, do this before you prep the vegetables. Brown rice usually takes about 40 minutes. The time it takes to prep the veggies and cook them will work out just perfect with when the rice finishes and maybe even a few minutes before.
I prefer to water sauté instead of using oil – 99% of the time. To do this, in a large saucepan add a thin layer of water, enough to cover the bottom of the pan. Add in the white/yellow onion and water sauté on medium or low-medium heat until translucent (about 3-4 minutes), then add in the garlic and ginger and sauté another 2 minutes—add additional water if you need to, during any of this, just enough to keep things from sticking. When you’re about to steam the veggies – a good amount of water to have before starting is like the picture above.
Add your vegetable to steam and cover. Cook until the greens start to reduce or if it’s cauliflower or similar until it’s tender. I like to add any spices about half way through this process – stirring everything to coat. Then adding fresh herbs and green onions at the very end before serving.
Mix in the rice/grain and plate or serve separate at the table.
Red Curry Baby Bok Choy
- 1/2 cup brown rice
- 1 cup water
- 1/2 cup water plus additional if needed
- 2 tablespoons chopped ginger
- 1/4 large onion (about 1/3 cup), chopped
- 1/2 jalapeño, diced
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1/2 cup chopped cilantro
- 8 heads baby bok choy (about 875 grams)
- heaping tablespoon red curry paste
- drizzle of sweetener
- 1/4 teaspoon coriander
- 1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
- 3 tablespoons tamari
- Bring 1 cup of water and rice to a boil in a small saucepan - reduce heat to low, cover and cook for 40-45 minutes.
- In a large saucepan heat water on medium heat, add in onion and cook until translucent about 3-4 minutes. Next add in garlic, ginger and jalapeño and cook another 1-2 minutes. Add a little more water if needed and add in the curry paste, stirring until dissolved.
- Turn down the heat to medium-low and add in the bok choy. Cover and steam until reduced. It should still be bright green but wilted - stirring every few minutes. Drizzle with sweetener, tamari, and spices - stir until incorporated.
My good friend Alma (of Alma and Yangling) has donated a beautiful natural stone pendant from her etsy store, Pendants by Alma, for a Feed Your Skull giveaway, thank you Alma!
This particular stone is a moss agate. It has a silver-pewter bail and will fit any length chain or cord you have. The pendant is approximately 1.5 x 2 inches big.
Moss agate is a semi-precious stone and is a form of chalcedony. “Moss agates are considered the most powerful of the agates. It was the agate of warriors. Moss agate is the most powerful of the agates that helps balance emotional energy. It helps the user to let go of anger and bitterness, so the emotions are balanced. When used in jewelry the moss agate is believed to bring the wearer health, friends and riches.” [source]
I’m excited to hear what you think of the Zhang meal plan. Do you meal plan or eat as the week goes? Thanks for reading and don’t forget to enter the giveaway!