Sara Schulz is a project manager at heart.
When she was a kid growing up in southern Louisiana, she used to play a game called Town, where everybody had jobs and they would make money. There was a store and a zoo and a bank. “I’ve been project managing my whole life,” she says. “Food is my love language, and planning is just part of that.”
Schulz, 36, is a North Austin mother of two who manages to plan a month’s worth of meals at a time and has done so for years. Her husband, Doug, is a paramedic who works 36 hours at a time; planning out meals is one way to stay organized while he’s gone for long periods of time. It’s also a way to save money and time at the grocery store, and Schulz says it also provides a structure that allows her to feel more creative in the kitchen.
“Food is a huge part of my life,” she says. “My daddy worked offshore, seven (days on) and seven (days off), my whole life. He kept a little field notebook, and he’d write recipes in it. He and the chef on the oil rig were best buddies, and they would talk about food all the time.”
“The love of planning is all me, but the love of food comes from him,” she says.
Schulz, who works part time at a local nonprofit, Hand to Hold, recently started graduate school with the hopes of getting a Master of Business Administration with a concentration in project management.
“There’s a lot of stress trying to decide what’s for dinner and trying to make sure I have all the groceries,” she says, so she or her husband, who share a digital shopping list, will buy the bulk of the food in two big shopping trips at the beginning of the month — one to H-E-B and another to Costco — to get all the canned goods, spices, meats and cheeses. She makes small shopping trips every week or so for produce and other dairy products.
She remembers grocery shopping with her older brother in rural Southeast Louisiana, but she avoids going grocery shopping with her kids when it’s a harried time and everyone’s hungry.
“I’m really grateful I took home ec all those years and that my mom sent me to the grocery store and that I started doing my own laundry when I was 9,” she says. Her mom worked a bunch of different jobs, and starting around age 13, Schulz cooked dinner for the family when her dad was on the rig. Dinner was almost always the same thing: rice and gravy and a different meat every night, usually with a can of vegetables.
The only food shows she watched were on public television, so that meant learning from Cajun humorist and cooking show host Justin Wilson and famed New Orleans chef Paul Prudhomme.
When she was a 20-something and moved to Austin, she had Indian food and Thai food for the first time, and that’s when she started to get interested in other cuisines and sources of recipes.
She uses a big wall calendar so the family can see what’s coming in the days ahead. Every Thursday, they rotate dinner with two family friends, so Schulz knows she’s either cooking for three families that night or not cooking at all.
Breakfast is predictable. “You can have three things: You can have oatmeal, cereal or eggs and toast,” she says. For lunch, her kids choose from a SunButter and jelly sandwich, a turkey tortilla roll-up or a homemade Lunchable: crackers, turkey pepperoni and cheese cubes. This makes it easier to shop because she’s buying the same things for two out of the three meals the family eats each day. (Most days, she eats a salad topped with leftover proteins for lunch.)
To plan out the month’s dinners, she makes a list of about 15 dishes. She doesn’t want to cook 15 brand-new recipes in a month, so first she goes through last month’s meals and decides which ones she wants to make again. Then, she goes through a small set of new recipes that caught her eye over the past month. Finally, she flips through her favorite cookbooks and the big binder of trusted recipes to fill out the list.
She always includes a few slow cooker dishes, especially on gymnastics night, and lots of chicken dishes. At least once a month, she plans to make a more challenging dish that she knows her kids probably won’t eat. “And I don’t worry about it,” she says. “If they are hungry, they’ll ask for something else to eat, and that’s OK.”
After using colored markers to write her husband’s work schedule and the family’s plans for the month, she uses a pencil to write in each of the dishes on a specific day, usually a few days apart.
She picks recipes with similar ingredients, so if one dish calls for half a box of beef broth, she’ll find another recipe that uses up the rest of it. “If something calls for cilantro, I can plan two or three things that use cilantro so that less goes into my compost pile,” she says. The meal plan takes about an hour to complete.
She writes in pencil so she can move dishes around, but for the most part, she sticks with the schedule. At the bottom of the recipe list, she writes each of the proteins and primary ingredients that the dishes require and then starts making tally marks for how many pounds she’ll need for each dish. All told, she’ll need 5 pounds of chicken breasts, 4 pounds of ground beef, 3 pounds of chicken thighs and 3 pounds of ground turkey.
“Doing the whole month gives me room," Schulz says. "It allows me to create room to do this creative thing so I don’t feel the anxiety about not cooking new things.”
That takes care of the planned dishes and the required ingredients, and for the other 15 or so days on the calendar, she plans on eating leftovers or making quick meals with the extra ingredients in the fridge or pantry, which can go into frittatas, pasta or quesadillas. She doesn’t plan any specific meals on the weekend, which act as makeup days if she ends up skipping one of her planned meals during the week.
Once a week, it’s her husband’s turn to cook. “He has five or six things he knows really well, so I pick one of those,” she says. Sharing the cooking, cleaning and parenting duties is a priority in the Schulz house.
“You have to have a partner who is game for it. We agreed on this a long time ago,” she says. “We knew we were going to have these kids and he was going to work this schedule; we knew that in order to make it work, we’d need to agree to some sort of division of responsibilities.”
As her kids get older, they’ll help out, too. “There’s some myth somewhere that the best parents make sure that you never have to do anything,” she says. “I remember as a kid really hating to cook and do the dishes and the laundry, but as a grown-up, I’m really grateful.”
To help make things a little easier and to build in a social activity with friends, for the past few years, Schulz and a group of moms get together every other month to make freezer meals together.
They make a marinade for a protein, usually chicken, that they can freeze in a bag, as well as enough soup, stew or casserole to go around. They almost always make some kind of quick bread or muffin, as well as kid-friendly freezer burritos with refried beans, shredded cheese, homemade salsa and grilled chicken. “That’s the first thing to go from the freezer,” she says.
The group uses a private Facebook group to share recipe ideas and stay connected in between cooking sessions. One person decides the recipes, one person writes the grocery list, two people go shopping, and another person is the accountant.
Since her wedding in 2012, she has stored all of her favorite recipes in a green three-ring binder with plastic sleeves so she can categorize the recipes by dish. Some of them are tried-and-true family recipes, but others are new meals that she’s printed off the internet and are now family favorites, such as Whole Foods’ coconut oil biscuits or Martha Stewart Living’s pumpkin pancakes.
For both a sense of community and new recipe inspiration, she often turns to her favorite recipe creators online, including Heidi Swanson of 101 Cookbooks, Gina Homolka of SkinnyTaste and “The Pioneer Woman” host Ree Drummond, and when she finds a good recipe, it goes in the book.
With so many recipes at hand and a memory bank of which ones work best for the people she’s in charge of feeding, Schulz finds freedom in her meal planning.
“I only have to decide what to make for dinner once a month,” she says. “It’s never 4 p.m. and I don’t know what I’m having for dinner.”
Cheddar Corn Chowder With Bacon
This thick and cheesy chowder with potatoes, corn, cauliflower and bacon is perfect for cold and cozy winter nights. You can make this in an Instant Pot by sauteing the ingredients first, starting with the bacon, and then cooking under pressure for 10 minutes with a quick release. The author has more specific directions for achieving a varied texture of corn on the website skinnytaste.com.
6 strips center-cut bacon, chopped
2 small yellow onions, chopped
2 large garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons all-purpose (or gluten-free) flour
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
3 1/2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
2 small Yukon Gold potatoes, diced
1 (12-ounce) wedge cauliflower, stem intact
1 pound frozen corn kernels
1 cup whole milk
4 ounces shredded white sharp cheddar cheese
Saute the bacon in a large, heavy pot over medium heat until cooked and crispy. Use a slotted spoon to remove the bacon and place on a paper towel-lined plate. Set aside.
Keep the bacon grease in the pan and leave the pot over the medium heat. Add the onions and garlic and saute until the onions are soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Sprinkle flour over the onions and add turmeric, thyme, salt and pepper to taste and cook for another minute, stirring.
Add broth, potatoes and cauliflower and stir with a wooden spoon, scraping the bottom of the pot. Bring the mixture to a boil and then decrease to simmer. Cover and cook 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, heat about 2/3 cup of the corn with a splash of water in a small microwave-safe dish until just defrosted, about 1 minute. Remove lid from pot and transfer the cauliflower, 1 cup of the soup and warmed corn to a blender and blend until smooth. Transfer puree back to the pot.
Add remainder of the frozen corn, milk and cheese. Mix well and then simmer for 3 minutes or until the cheese is melted. Taste and adjust salt, if necessary. Serve topped with reserved bacon pieces.
— Adapted from a recipe by Gina Homolka from skinnytaste.com
Pair lentils with your favorite vegetables to make this flavorful, hearty soup. If you prefer to leave out the bacon, skip step one, and cook the onions and carrots in 1 tablespoon olive oil. Add up to a cup more water if the lentil soup becomes too thick during cooking.
3 strips (3 ounces) bacon, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 large onion, chopped
3 medium carrots, peeled, halved lengthwise, and cut into 1/4-inch half-moons
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 1/2 cups lentils, picked over and rinsed
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
2 cans (14 1/2 ounces each) reduced-sodium chicken broth (3 1/2 cups)
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
In a Dutch oven (or other 5-quart pot with a tight-fitting lid), cook bacon over medium-low heat until browned and crisp, 8 to 10 minutes. Pour off all but 1 tablespoon fat. Add onion and carrots; cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Stir in garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in tomato paste and cook 1 minute.
Add lentils, thyme, broth and 2 cups water. Bring to a boil; reduce to a simmer. Cover; cook until lentils are tender, 30 to 45 minutes. Stir in vinegar, 1 1/2 teaspoons salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Serve immediately.
— From a recipe on marthastewart.com
Use up your leftover canned pumpkin puree to make this spiced breakfast treat.
Makes 8 to 10 pancakes
1 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg, preferably freshly grated
Pinch of ground cloves
1 cup milk
6 tablespoons pumpkin puree
2 tablespoons butter, melted, plus more for skillet and serving
Pure maple syrup, for serving
Whisk flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and spices in a bowl.
In a separate bowl, stir together milk, pumpkin puree, butter and egg. Fold mixture into dry ingredients.
Melt some butter in a skillet over medium heat; pour in 1/4 cup batter for each pancake. Cook pancakes about 3 minutes per side; serve with butter and syrup.
— From Martha Stewart Living
This is a very large batch. We recommend using a 12-cup food processor, or you can process the ingredients in batches and then mix everything together in a large mixing bowl.
1 can (28-ounce) whole tomatoes with juice
2 cans (10-ounce) Rotel (diced tomatoes and green chiles)
1/4 cup chopped onion
1 clove garlic, minced
1 whole jalapeño, quartered and thinly sliced
1/4 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 cup cilantro
Juice from 1/2 lime
Combine all the ingredients in a blender or food processor. Pulse until you get the salsa to the consistency you'd like — I do about 10 to 15 pulses. Use a chip to test for seasoning and adjust as needed. Serve with tortilla chips or cheese nachos.
— Adapted from a recipe by Ree Drummond for pioneerwoman.com
I love the idea of granola, but store-bought granola is never as good as the granola of my imagination. A few years ago I set out to make granola that I would love every time. I read 10-15 recipes, kept what I liked and tossed what I didn't. Voila! Store in an airtight container at room temperature for as long as you can manage without eating it all, which will not be longer than a week and might only be for a day or so depending on how many people live in your house and how many ways you can think of to eat it. Enjoy any way you can think to eat granola. My favorite is in a cereal bowl with a banana diced up and unsweetened vanilla almond milk poured over.
— Sara Schulz
2 cups rolled oats
1/4 cup nuts; slivered almonds or chopped walnuts are my favorite
1/4 cup flax seed or chia seed
1/4 cup wheat germ
1/2 cup unsweetened, shredded coconut
1/2 cup honey or maple syrup (or 1/4 cup each honey and maple syrup, which is my preference)
1/4 cup butter/ghee/or coconut oil
1 cup dried fruit (optional)
In a large bowl, mix the dry ingredients except for the fruit. In a separate bowl or a large mixing cup, combine the wet ingredients. A 2-cup measuring cup works well for the wet mix since you end up with 3/4 of a cup of liquid. Stir wet into dry and pour the whole mixture onto a parchment-lined sheet pan with raised sides.
Bake at 325 degrees for 30 minutes, stirring and rotating the pan every 10 minutes. You will know it's done when it looks brown and starts to clump together. If you want to add dried fruit, let it cool completely before stirring in the dried fruit. (I usually skip the dry fruit because I like to add fresh fruit when I eat my granola.)
— Sara Schulz