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As we near our collective first quaranversary, I think I can finally say dinner is sorted. This didn’t creep up on me behind a shrubbery, nor was “Dinner Boss” on my list of lockdown ambitions. Nope, dinner reform came as a surprise guest right after Thanksgiving. Leftovers were finished, local Covid cases hockey-sticked, and after years of resistance to the idea of someone else picking out my Brussels sprouts, I understood we were going to have to get our groceries delivered. 

(Of course, some smart people realized faster than me that grocery delivery means fewer people in the store, which makes it safer for everyone. Especially the people picking out my sprouts.)

Fussiness hurdle cleared, I next had to make a meal plan tighter than I’d ever made before. Enough planning to get us through at least two weeks. If you’re not already doing this, and you want to save yourself some money, trouble, and the sadness of last resorts like out-of-date instant oatmeal, here’s my AP Grocery Shopping curriculum:

  1. Keep breakfast simple. Breakfast at Daniels Ranch is the same thing every day: eggs, yogurt, granola. 
  2. Keep lunch simple. Lunch is also the same thing every day, though not the same as breakfast: Tacos with homemade refries (so easy, so cheap, so much tastier than store-bought) along with leftovers. It’s like Taco Tuesday, only every day. Once in a while, just leftovers.
  3. Next, just multiply breakfast and lunch components by 28 (14 meals x two people—adjust for your people!), and you’re good. 

This level of repetition doesn’t work for everyone; I know that. But it’s affordable and saves a lot of labor, and you might be able to make it work if you mix it up enough at dinner. And it’s only until we can all go out for brunch again.

  1. Now for dinner. The main meal of the day is always trickier: more ingredients, more preparation. Some of you excel here: technique, repertoire, personal flair. Me, I cut my cooking teeth in the old-timey diners of the Rockies. My natural tendency is to build a meal around French toast. 

To combat that tendency in Month 11 of lockdown, I need a list of easy-but-delicious dishes at the ready. You know: Things that are better for you than French toast, but not too much more complicated. And it’s got to be a handy little list, because just putting together the grocery order takes real time now. A dreamy stroll through 86 cookbooks isn’t as fun as it was last year. 

  1. That’s how I arrived at the Index Menu Library.

Behold the Index Menu Library

The Library is a set of seasonal meals that I already know how to make and adjust. This isn’t a bunch of recipes on index cards, which would duplicate work. I leave the recipes in the cookbooks. The index cards are a collection of good ideas, and a list of required ingredients.

At the top of each card, I’ve written the name of the dish and the source, meaning the name and page of the cookbook or notebook. I also note how many servings the recipe makes and—important!—how much lead time the dish requires, if it’s more than a couple hours.

On the body of the card, I list the necessary ingredients—pantry goods on the left, fresh foods on the right. If those lists are too long to fit on an index card, the recipe is probably too involved to be included in the main library. I don’t get super specific about amounts for things like herbs or spices; if we’ve got any, it’s probably enough. I do get very specific about weights and amounts for the fresh things: If a recipe calls for four eggs, two eggs leaves you stranded. You’ll know which items need precision.

So when it comes time to plan the two-week menu, I get out my Index Menu Library, poll the fam for suggestions, and then start shopping the fridge and pantry. Usually, there’s some overlap between what’s on the shelves and what’s on the index card. If I’ve planned well, the pantry’s still stocked and the fridge is getting bare by the time I make the grocery order. (And that’s another reason for tighter planning—we are closer to being a no-waste household than ever before.)

I still look forward to the day I can pick my own vegetables again. But I don’t think we’ll ever really go back to buying dinner ingredients the morning of. I’m too in love with the efficiency of the two-week interval.

If your shopping has been knocked sideways by Covid, I hope this idea, or some refinement of it, will be helpful. And as always, we would love for you to add your own tips and inventions to the comments below. Happy planning!

The Waffle Maker, Alexander Hugo Bakker Korff, c. 1850 – c. 1882, Rijksmuseum. Used with permission.
In the MDK Shop
Made for planning—however you do it. Thanks for your purchases. They support everything we do here at MDK.
By Leuchtturm1917

About The Author

Max Daniels is a research-based life coach whose weekly emails make us laugh with recognition and rethink everything we thought we knew. Her new book is Meals at Mealtimes. What a concept!


  • The app Paprika does this all for you digitally. It’s a lifesaver for our family!

    • Here here!

    • I’m also a Paprika fan!

    • New to me! I am checking this out right now.

    • Ditto for the Paprika app. Have used it for years. I tag the heck out of recipes, including by seasonality, makes it so easy to find them. Importing recipes is fast and easy. Recipes can be scaled up or down as needed, can be tweaked and annotated. I use this app a lot.

    • I resisted for a long time but the Paprika app is a real game changer. I’m also one who prefers a paper planner but this app works so well for my meal planning. Pre-pandemic I was never a meal planner, going to the grocery 3-4 times a week and buying what was fresh. Now, the grocery store is really the only time I leave the house. I go once a week, and that little trip helps a lot with my sanity.

    • I have been using Plan-to-Eat the last few years, it would be interesting to compare it to Paprika but Plan-to-Eat is so filled with my recipes that it would be hard to migrate to something else. I agree that having an app that imports recipes into one place, allows you to adjust for serving size, menu plan, and create shopping lists is a huge convenience.

      • I second Plan to Eat. Been using it for 10 years. Worth the nominal cost. Now if I just would follow the plan I make!

        • Plan to Eat is the best! I used Pepperplate for years but then worried that the free app would be abandonned and researched better option, landing on Plan to Eat 5 years ago. I shop once a week for a family of 5-6. During the early quarantine when we didn’t understand the Covid terrain, I planning/shopping for 3 weeks at a time. Never a missing ingredient.

          Overtime, you can make it so that all your recipes fold into one streamlined grocery list with very little editing required. I’ve even arranged the order of the grocery list so that it appreard on my phone app in order of how I shop my grocery store.

          We have a tradition that for your birthday you get to plan a week’s worth of dinners in lead up to your day. I let my children go into Plan to Eat and drag their favorite recipes into the planner.

    • I am another Paprika fan. Not very expensive and worth every dime.

      • And I say this as a person who still strongly prefers her paper planner to anything digital.

  • Copy Me That is another great app to save/create recipes, meal plan, create a shopping list, and you can even create your own cookbook! I love it!

    • Wow! I was *just* thinking how the pandemic has got me planning meals and senior hour shopping every two weeks, too! (Couldn’t give up choosing my own Brussel sprouts, but the 6AM opening really works with my time clock and very few others’) Saves money and that and the extra time every other week is something I don’t want to give up! (But I am using a digital notebook for the recipes that work, not cards.)

      • Thank you for that apostrophe after “others”; it makes my heart sing. 🙂

        • ❤️ Nice to see that proper punctuation still lives.

  • This column is always a favorite of mine! I am a list maker, I’ll start there. We have a list for what’s in the freezers (we have 2 small refrigerators & thus 2 smaller freezers), one for fresh produce & one for dry goods. These lists deserve their own Girl Scout badges for helping us (2 adults) plan & save $. I’ll put a plug in for our spring to fall CSA: they filled the order & we picked it up each week. Thank you, Max, for your columns.

  • The lifesaver for us is a small chest freezer. It’s given us so much more storage space. We also have a master list of foods we buy. We print the list before marketing day and cross off things we don’t need and add special items by hand. It has been nearly a year but I do still have to “squeeze the Brussels sprouts,” so I do go every two weeks. It’s worked really well for us. We also try to do take out once a week to support local restaurants. We’ve had one vaccination and are due for the second in early March. We’re looking forward to feeling a bit safer.

    • Yes! We bought a small chest freezer years ago when I was pregnant, and it was such a good decision.

  • Not a shopping tip, but cooking a lot more dishes that can be frozen – soups, stews, casseroles, chili. Freezing the extra in 2 person portions. Dinner consists of thawing out a portion, and maybe adding a salad or rice side.

  • We are relatively rural, so have a huge veggie garden every summer. Small chest freezer is still pretty full of last summer’s corn, green beans, apple sauce and beets. Canning shelf is full of tomato sauce, peaches, pickles, and jam. Yes, the kids get tired of all those vegetables, but that is where soup and stew comes into play! A wise investment last year was our Instant Pot, so all the stew cuts from our local college’s farm-to-table store are going to good use.

    • Though I am somewhat reluctant to acquire another small appliance, my husband wanted an Instant Pot. And I have to admit it has become a regularly used appliance. For me the best thing is making our own yogurt. And since it cooks beans and lentils I well and quickly, I avoid having to buy them canned.

      • I make yogurt in my insta-pot, too! It is as easy as can be and saves lots of money. A good way to use up all the milk so there’s no waste.

      • My husband discovered an article online about sterilizing used N95 masks in an InstaPot.

        • No! Wow. I have a friend whose son is an ER doc. He sterilized N95s in a turkey roasting appliance.

    • My DREAM!

  • I am a master meal planner and list maker. During the early days of the pandemic, I gritted my teeth and tried grocery pickup. I tried it three times, to be exact. Each time, no meat was included in my order and at least a half dozen other essential items were missing. It defeated the purpose when I had to go into the store anyway to get everything not included in my order but easily located in the store. The last time, I also had slimy greens and a dairy product which was expired. Ever since, I’ve hit the store every Monday at 7:15am (late enough that the 6am senior rush is over but early enough that most regular shoppers aren’t out and about yet). My shopping list is organized by aisle. I can be through the store with a week’s shopping in less than 45 minutes. And I know what I’m cooking. And I have fresh, not rotten, produce. I really wanted to do pickup, but it just did not work for me.

    • First, throughout the pandemic, especially at the start, supply chains were disrupted, especially meat because meat packing factories were big COVID spreaders. Stores were getting whatever meat they could whenever they could. This was true for many other things as well. I saw cuts meat and brands of other his is never seen before.
      Second, if you place your order for pickup or delivery for 7 or 8 a.m. that order is being fulfilled by people at 2 or 3 a.m. They can only do what is at the store at that time. If the meat or Cheerios or eggs you want aren’t in the store because the delivery trucks won’t come until 10 those requests can’t be filled. In the same way, if the delivery trucks for those items came at 10 a.m.and your order is being fulfilled at 5 p.m. that items might be sold out.
      The shoppers who fulfill orders can’t spend time going back and forth to see if something missing from an order has cube in hours later. These two factors are why you might not get meat in your order but see it in the store when you came to pick up. The shoppers are working flat out their entire shift and heaven help them if they make a mistake!
      I can only speak for the two stores I’ve used consistently for the past year, Kroger and Meijer. My groceries have always been fresh and substitutions have been acceptable. One or two mistakes over the year; never anything I’ve had to throw out. I learned to check my delivery after it has been loaded to see what was missing, and if it there was something I really needed I ran into the store for the five minutes it took to see if it had been restocked and pick it up. Far less thing that doing my own shopping.
      I appreciate how hard these stores worked, suddenly having to ramp up a rather limited pick up/delivery service to accommodate hundreds of new users.

    • I so agree with you, I have had broken eggs, smashed cereal boxes, missing items that I need to go into the store to get. I go early, whiz through and I’m done in about 1/2 hour. I get non perishables like paper, cleaning items, etc delivered. Once I month I do a same day deliver from Costco. They haven’t gotten one item wrong yet.

  • I also have trouble with the grocery pick up omitting major dinner needs. And now they have started marking some of them as not available for pickup. Items are in the store but not sold through pick up. From the beginning I will visit a small local co-op for vegetables, ice cream, frozen meat, some dairy, and now replacements for holes in the menu planning. There are fewer employees, few customers and I know how careful the co-op owners are with safety.

    • Missing items were probably not sloppy work, especially at the beginning. It was more a matter of supply chain breakdowns and timing; see my reply above.

      • Thanks for defending these folks – we have had excellent shoppers all year.

  • I worked at a local grocery store when the pandemic hit and the stores were crazy lines all the way to the back of the store people freaking out buying ten of everything. I told people that this is the worst place you could be our online shopping app crashed it was bananas! Needless to say I quit a week later. I loved loved loved to grocery shop it always inspired different meals and as a veggie centric eater I’m very particular about my veggies! But I am a convert I order online weekly I spend less money because I’m not ‘inspired’ by sales or mood and it gets delivered to my door I’m also less wasteful and I stick to my meal plan and I don’t overspend on packaged snack foods!

  • When I went back to school with 3 young children, I became the master of Sunday afternoon cooking for the week. My now grown children also do it which makes their mom smile. I love the instapot and make homemade chicken broth in it from bones I have collected in a freezer bag. Takes 30 mins…a crockpot is great for this as well, just takes longer. I then use that to make all kinds of soups. I also use canned small white beans to thicken soups rather than dairy or a roux. On Sunday, I often make “sauce” which varies by Italian heritage and that is used all week. I make a list of recipes from those as simple as ground turkey baked ziti to the more elaborate. Everything though has to be able to be enjoyed as a leftover. I shop early morning once a week after the vegetables have been put out and after shopping my pantry and freezer. I too use “copy me that” and keep a list on top of a chest freezer. I try to cook seasonally and roast a sheet pan of veggies each Sunday. If I am really ambitious, I bake a loaf of No-Knead bread. I work and am now volunteering vaccinating in my city, so my Sunday afternoon cooking is my time to listen to a good book and make a mess in the kitchen.

  • Yes, very different these days. We have both our protein (monthly) and vegetables/eggs (weekly by local company) delivered and had done even before Covid. My meal plan is whatever is on hand. Lunch is typically leftovers from dinner. Sometimes breakfast too (HASH of whatever with eggs over easy). Been doing some baking too for afternoon fika.

  • Brilliant!!!

  • This reminds me of the Once-a-Month Cookbook I bought years ago. On Friday you laid out a meal plan for the month, then ate out. In Saturday you did all the shopping, then ate out. On Sunday you cooked all the recipes. For things that could not be cooked in advance you stored ask the essential items together. You put the spaghetti sauce in the fridge asking with the box of spaghetti, the frozen fish in the freezer asking with the packet of sauce, and ate out. Then for the rest of the month you just picked out the mean you wanted and defrosted/reheated/ cooked it.

  • Some famous physicist – can’t remember who – was quoted as saying you should always eat the same breakfast and the same lunch every day so as to free your brain power for more important things. Words we live by!

  • Being in rural area, my process was similar to MLFoster. The Kroger we used off-and-on for pickup was an art in learning from past experiences. Sometimes it was ok and we were okay with substitutions, and others we got exactly and sometimes quite good veggies.
    I do have a system of everyday go-to-quick meals, and a few favorites – depends on my mood and possible daily problems with the current local Covid probabilities. I do like cooking so I do a fair amount of real meals to keep my mental health occupied.
    Now that my spouse+I both have the vaccine, we’re almost overjoyed at what we can do now, with continuing being masked. It’s a ‘freedom’ unbeknownst to many right now, we want it for everyone.

  • I have always bought major groceries once a month. I freeze meat, bread, and my home made sauces. This includes home-made chicken broth. All of this is probably because as a kid my mom went to the military base commissary once a month. During the pandemic, we have taken to freezing veggies as well. I package everything we bring home in small meal portions for the 2 of us. Our meals are simple tacos or protein plus veggie. Some times enchiladas or chili. My husband makes fried rice and throw together meals. Leftovers are also frozen for another meal. Eggs are also a staple. We go to Costco once a month and our small local market based on the sale ads for fruit and veggies
    This was a great article.

    • Oh yes, and we try to support our local restaurants once a week or every 2 weeks so no one cooks.

  • My spouse has created a master shopping list of epic proportions. I use that and make notes on it for weekly meal planning. I restock pantry staples and make sure I have enough food for 2-3 main dinners each week. That and an occasional trip to the asian grocery store work pretty well.

    I’ve also started going to a local produce market for fresh veggies and that has been a great way to supplement the local grocery store offerings. As an added bonus, they are usually not crowded and everything keeps longer in the fridge.

  • I used to grocery shop by whim, but had to get more organized in the last year. The MealBoard app is pure genius. It basically is your index card approach, but digital, and it syncs across devices. Also a great place to store online recipes, which is really helpful if you get to the store and need to pivot because they are out of whatever it was you were planning to cook.

  • Tacos! Yes! My husband has been making tacos almost everyday since last fall. He was inspired by Taco Chronicles on Netflix. All sorts of leftovers have been transformed into taco filling. (As a complete aside, the salesperson at Lowe’s gave me an extra 5% discount on my post-season lawnmower purchase because I recommended this show. We started talking about food. Somehow we got to tacos. I recommended this show. He had spend summer vacations working at a taco stand in Hull (MA).)

    I use the King Arthur Crispy Crust pizza recipe in the same way. I add a layer of any sort of cooked–mainly vegetable-leftovers to the basic structure.

    I cannot give up the in-store experience. I do shop early. On the way home from daybreak dog walk. I mainly visit the store because I stock up on clearance items. I especially look for different things that I might not normally consider. The Thai simmering sauce has made its way into a number of meals. Incorporating variety in this way helps me cope with the need to cook dinner on a very regular basis. Left on my own, I would definitely be in the French toast camp. Breakfast All Day is my favorite restaurant sign.

  • This column has made me do two things – figure out a way to make my shopping more organized, and start a monthly sustaining donation to a local food bank. Because when I drove through my very small town last weekend and saw the traffic jam at the monthly food distribution, it really made me realize how many in my rural neighborhood are struggling.
    Not dissing this discussion in any way, it’s full of excellent ideas. But that’s what popped into my head….

    • Love the idea of automating a monthly food bank donation. ❤️❤️❤️
      Another food subscription that helps our weekly meal planning is a local CSA vegetable box. Mine comes with recipes and has 100s of easy recipes on the website.

    • We have had groceries delivered every week or two for the last year from Amazon with excellent success! Very, very few mistakes and always refunded without question (told to just keep the item). We also do Instacart from Costco every few months. Curbside pickup at the liquor store, the bread store and curbside pickup at the library seem to complete our needs.
      I have tried so many new recipes that I can not count. I keep a paper list, but plan to put it on excel after reading this column.
      My salvation is that I cook yummy dishes that make six or eight servings and my husband and I actually enjoy eating them for a few days in a row. That means I don’t have to cook as often so I enjoy it more.

  • I do pretty much everything you do, except the index cards. I have to think about doing this. We have really found a rock solid group of recipes over the year but continue to try new recipes. Thank you for this post.

  • This is so great. My friend and I were just going through our meal planning woes via text. Sometimes I sit down to make a grocery list/meal plan it’s like I’ve never eaten before. What did we eat last week? Yesterday? What should I make for the kids that they’ll actually eat? Huh … what do I like to eat? I think this index menu library may cut down on the confusion. 😉

  • I’ve been menu planning and shopping twice a month for 30+ years, but even that wasn’t a tight enough process once the pandemic hit. Menus went out the window when I couldn’t find the ingredients! We decided to invest in our pantry by putting in a 3-month supply of staple items. Now when I plan menus I know what’s available to cook with. As i remove an item from the pantry I add that item to my list for the next shopping trip, so I’m always replenishing the supply. My stress levels have gone way down now that I’m not worried about being able to purchase what we need.

    • “I’ve never eaten before” made me laugh. It’s so true. I forget about things I like to make and eat. That’s a way Max’s index cards could help me for sure.

  • We started doing a similar thing. Breakfast all week is the same: this week is breakfast sandwiches. Lunch is pork this week. Whatever we make for dinner we double so cook once and eat twice or thrice (if we are lucky). We use Notion to organize our recipes. So easy to say, what soup ideas do we have? Or I’m feeling beef and then search for those using the tags we put on things. It includes cookbook and page or website.

  • This is pretty much my method, too.

  • I have embraced the same breakfast and lunch idea- it’s quick, easy, nutritious and I have room in my brain for other things.
    Having been a produce person in my early life, I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to let someone else pick out my veggies and fruit. But you make a really good point.
    I’m even boring for dinners- forth last month I’ve made soup on Monday, and had it all week. Weekends I cook something. Luckily, I make REALLY good soup, and I’m so grateful for that skill. Even so, by Friday I’m ready for some variety.
    When the farmers market gets under way, I’ll do the same thing, only substituting daily salad for daily soup.
    The important thing is figuring out the balance that works, and realizing that an hour of thinking ahead can save so much brain space and running around during the week- literally hours.
    Thank you for sharing your strategy- I like the cards idea.

  • I started keeping a list of go-to recipes on a list taped to the inside of our cookbook cabinet – a dinner saver from when I am just out of ideas. Again.

    • I had to simplify just a bit more, by having daily themes. It narrows down the time planning for me. Meatless Monday, Taco Tuesday (or Mexican theme anything), Wake up Wednesday (breakfast ), Thursday Comfort (family favs, mama food, mostly casserole type recipes), Fish Friday (seafood), ‘S’ Saturday (soup, steak, sandwich, salads,) and Sunday is CORN night (Clean Out Refrigerator Night—garbage pick up is Monday morning- :). I have a favorite assortment of recipes that I use in each category on index cards, thus not dealing with crusing the cookbooks for planning. Oh——-of course, this is subject to change when I want to make something diferent just ’cause! BUT it is helpful to have the ‘theme’ days to fall back on ‘the regular’.

  • Just set up a Plan To Eat account, imported some of my favorite recipes, made a meal plan for the week & a grocery list. Everything is now on my iPhone, iPad & my PC. Love this ap, thanks to the commenters who recommended it!

  • Love the waffle maker painting! Thanks!!

  • As we’ve passed the “quaranniversary”, It was with a blessing that I came across this article. Forever being daunted by planning and cooking (just for two) I believe this suggestion will likely work for you. Thank you. Stay Safe, Stay Calm and be Kind

  • I would add AnyList as a great meal planning and recipe app. Very similar to the others mentioned, it sounds like. Clean and simple.

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