Say NO to hectic weeknight meals and

YES to meal planning for stress relief

A conversation with cooking teacher

and food writer Leslie Owens

Meal planning for yourself and/or your family can be a constant source of stress. In my conversation with Leslie Owens – personal chef, cooking teacher and food writer – meal planning for stress relief can be simple and helps us think about cooking for ourselves and others as a way to reduce stress and make cooking a relaxing act of self-care.

You CAN say NO to hectic weeknight meals and YES to Leslie’s simple meal planning techniques that will change how you eat and live. Below is a lightly edited transcript from our conversation on Aug. 10, 2023. Let’s dive in and make your next weekly meal plan simple and stress free!

Nicole: Hi, good afternoon or morning or whatever time zone you might be in joining us. I am Nicole Havelka, and I am your mindful change coach, and we are doing Defy the Trend LIVE today. And I am so lucky that Leslie Owens has joined me. Today we are going to be talking about saying no … to hectic weeknight meals and embracing simple and just tasty and good ways to eat that you can actually cook for yourself fairly quickly.

Why meal planning creates stress and increases burnout

White woman holding a baby and her hand to her head looking at a chaotic kitchen with a stressed face.

And you’re like, wait, Nicole, why are you talking about [meal planning]? You work with burnout and things like that.

[How to plan meals for stress reduction] is actually something that comes up fairly often, especially from my clients who are parents or who are caregivers in some way, or have to cook for groups in particular. But [meal planning] is a source of stress for [many] people because obviously it’s constant, right? People … need to eat almost constantly, especially little kids need to eat a lot.

I’m going to turn it over to Leslie and let you introduce yourself and say more about who you are and what you do, and how do you come to … teaching people about cooking.

Leslie: Right, so, thank you very much for having me. I really appreciate it. I’m really excited to be here today. And yes, you are absolutely right about [meal planning being a source of burnout]. And so, like most people, I started out a career thinking I wanted to climb the corporate ladder and be some kind of CEO. And what I realized sort of early on was that I hated being chained to a desk. I did spend over ten years working for Disney, but when I left there, I decided that I still wanted to use my business brain, but I wanted to do something creative.

So I went to culinary school, started my own personal chef business. And then at some point you come to realize you’re watching all the chefs around you and you’re watching them get new knees and new hips and shoulder surgery. And you think [that] maybe physically, at some point, I might need to take some time off from this. Around 2018, I decided I wanted to do some food writing. And I’ve been really lucky to be able to work with corporations and nonprofits and do food writing for them … newsletters and blogs and things like that.

And I’ve done some really cool projects. I’ve gotten to run a couple of recipe contests. I’ve written a cookbook, actually, for a home healthcare company that sends caregivers into people’s homes to help seniors who are still living at home but need extra help. I wrote a cookbook for them to be able to cook at home with the seniors. And I also did a ten-recipe cookbook on foods you can share with your dogs for an animal nonprofit. That was fun. 

But the teaching thing just came sort of naturally. I’m one of those people – I’m a lifelong learner. I think you are too. And if I find something that I think is cool, I’m going to tell everyone about it. … So that’s sort of how I fell into it. And now I do cooking demonstrations, cooking classes, healthy cooking classes for seniors, for an insurance company. And I go about five times a month … all you have to do is say food or cooking and I’m off.

Food writer and cooking teacher Leslie Owens, a white woman wearing wire framed classes, long brown hair framing her face.

Nicole: Well, I love talking about food and cooking. I am not a professionally trained chef at all, but I would say I’m a pretty accomplished home cook. And I’ve loved to cook since I was really little. …  So I love this conversation, and I want to help the folks who struggle with this, right? [Meal planning] is a source of stress [for many people], and it doesn’t have to be as stressful sometimes as we make it out in our head to be.

So speaking of stress, why should we let go of [the] hectic weeknight meals?

Leslie: So obviously cooking is about eating, but really there’s two reasons why we cook. There’s that cooking that you do, that’s sort of relaxing, Zen. … At some point, we were all making sourdough bread. When the weather turns cold, you want soups and stews, like that comfort feel. Sometimes you’ve had a stressful week, and you just need to make a pan of brownies. Holidays and the food that we make at holidays that evokes those memories and those good feelings – that’s one of the reasons why we cook. And studies have shown that cooking, and particularly baking, give us a mental boost. 

But then there’s that other type of cooking where we’re just trying to fill bellies, right? Bodies need fuel, and it can be really stressful. So, it doesn’t have to be stressful.

And we all know what happens if you don’t have a plan, if you wait until 5 o’clock to decide to start thinking about dinner. We get tired. We get stressed. We get hangry, right?

We all know we get hangry. If you have a partner, or you’ve ever had a partner, you start that conversation:

“What do you want for dinner?

“I don’t know. What do you want for dinner?”

“I don’t care. How about we have this?”

“I don’t want that.”

“I thought you said you didn’t care.”

“Well, I don’t care, but I don’t want that.”

You have that conversation and it goes on and on and on. And then, I don’t know, somebody eats … cereal standing up at the counter. [laughs]

So the key to avoiding that and avoiding the stress is planning. And you have to plan in a way that works for you. 

Now, some people are really great. Like, they’re fabulous at meal planning. They’ve got boards in the kitchen with every meal that every person in the family is going to eat for the next six years, right? And everything is planned. We all know those people. It gives us stress. Maybe they have an app; they have an Excel spreadsheet. Like I said, they’ve got the calendar in the kitchen. Every single meal is planned out.

But if you’re not that type of person, the planning can be very simple. It can be as simple as: You come home from the grocery store, you put the groceries away, and you write on the notepad on the refrigerator what you have available that you can cook. It can be that simple, because we all know that sometimes you bring home the groceries and then you forget what you have. So if you’re not someone who wants to have Meatless Monday and Taco Tuesday – I like to be a rebel. If I want tacos on Thursday, I’m going to have tacos on Thursday, right?

Nicole: Totally.

Leslie: If I want tacos Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, that’s what I’m going to do. But if you just make a list, prioritize the things that you need to make first – especially anything that’s been left from the week before that needs to get used up – put that first on the list. Then the next time you go grocery shopping, take that list off, write a new one. Really, it’s just about the planning. It can take off a lot of that stress, and it doesn’t have to be complicated.

Nicole: I’m noticing that’s a great place to start talking about this planning meals, and how do you let go of the stress of that? … Take us [in] a little bit more detail through that process of planning your menu. Obviously, the grocery shopping has to come in there somewhere, and then into preparation. What are some of the basic steps that you usually teach people? Because I know … this is your thing. You teach people how to do [meal planning].

Meal planning basics for stress relief

A black woman in a white sweater reading a recipe in front a cutting board and knife in a sunny kitchen.

Leslie: Yeah. So in my family, we have a joke about: We’re eating one meal, and we’re talking about what we’re going to eat for the next meal, right? So that’s kind of where it has to start, but it actually starts even sooner than that if you are the main cook and meal planner and grocery shopper in your family.

… Most people can make about 15 different things without a recipe. And actually, that has fallen a little bit, believe it or not, in the last couple of years, even though we’re all cooking more at home [during COVID-19 lockdowns]. I think that’s funny that the number of different things we can cook has fallen, but at any given time, we’re only making about seven of those, which means we’re eating the same seven things over and over again.

But it’s because we go to the grocery store without a list, or we put blinders on at the grocery store, or we make that grocery list [out of habit]. It’s really easy now with the grocery apps, they tell you what you buy, so you just buy those same things over and over again, and you end up eating the same things over and over again.

But what I do is, at night when I’m watching my shows, that’s when I make my list. So before I even sit down, I look in the freezer, I look in the refrigerator and go, “Okay, what do I need to use up?” That’s where you start, because we all know that we have found things in our freezer and thought, “When did I even buy this? Right?”

So if you start and you just pick one thing, like one thing every week that’s in your freezer or in your pantry – if you have a spice that you bought three months ago that you’ve never used because you pulled a recipe and you never used it – that’s the perfect time. Just pull something, and then start making your grocery list. So I make those meal plans in the evening when I’m watching my show. I take that quick glance, “What do I need to use up?” Then I flip through my store circular, because I want to know what’s on sale. Groceries are too expensive to not buy things on sale, and that’s how I make my grocery list.

We have this terrible habit, or have had this terrible habit of deciding what we’re in the mood for, or like I said, buying those … same things, over and over again. We’re wasting a lot of money by not buying things on sale. So make your grocery list and figure out your recipes based on what’s on sale. And what’s in those circulars.

Are there things I can buy? BOGO – buy one, get one. Or things that I can buy in bulk that I can use in multiple recipes. So I usually only cook about three times a week. The rest of my meals are actually just about assembling what’s already done. So, for example, if I’m making a sheet pan dinner. … So if I’m making a sheet pan dinner, I will throw in an extra pan of vegetables, or I’ll throw in extra chicken, or I’ll throw in a pan of bacon, so that I’m making those things. It takes me an extra five minutes to make those. While I’m making tonight’s dinner and throwing them in the oven, bacon could find its way into BLTs for the next night or for breakfast for dinner the next night. Extra vegetables: I can make those into a Buddha bowl, power bowl, a salad. They might make themselves, [or] make its way into a soup or a stew. Extra chicken:We can always use extra chicken, right? There are a million recipes – enchiladas, those tacos, chicken salad, anything – chicken pot pie – depends on the time of the year and what your family eats.

The biggest mistake that people make when they are meal planning and batch cooking

But I think that the biggest mistake that people make when they’re sort of meal planning is that they do batch cooking, because I do batch cooking also, where you make a double batch of something. Fall is coming. We’re all going to be making soup, we’re all going to be making chili, we’re all going to be making stews of some kind. And what we do is we make a big, huge batch, and then we expect our family to eat it all week, right? And inevitably, I hear parents, they’re like, “Oh, I spent all that time making that chili.” And unless you have a house full of teenagers who are just going to come through like a tornado and wipe out everything in your kitchen, at some point the family is going to go, “No, we don’t want to eat that.”

A notebook with the handwritten word, "mistakes," with an eraser on top of a pencil erasing the word away Small pieces of eraser around the page.

So make a big batch of something and immediately take half of it and put it in the freezer. And if you do that once a week, now all of a sudden after a month, you’ve got four meals you don’t have to cook for a week. You could take a whole week off cooking almost. So that’s really what I tell people.

The other [big mistakes] is we make big pans of lasagna. Now, maybe your mother or your grandmother made big pans of lasagna because she had a big family, right?

Nicole: Yeah.

And lots of people love leftover lasagna. But I find most people, after one or two times eating lasagna, they don’t want anymore. So rather than a huge pan, get the little 8 x 8 cake pans and make two small lasagnas. It’s better to leave your family wanting a little bit more, when they’re like, “Where’s the leftovers?” And you’re like, “Oh, I don’t know,” and bring it out two weeks from now, than it is to throw that money away, because groceries are too expensive right now to throw away leftovers.

Nicole: Yeah. … I know one of the big mistakes that I made – and I’ve lived alone most of my adult life, other than here and there. So it’s a different equation than cooking for a group.  … And I don’t mind leftovers. I’m also one of those people who will keep eating leftovers most of the [time] as long as I’m making things I really, truly like and that hold up well.

One of the things I would do is that I thought I had to cook every day in the beginning. I don’t know why. Maybe because I had grown up with just more people in the house, there’s sort of more necessity for that. And because I’m an adventurous cook and I always want to try new recipes, which is, again, fine, but I found myself having so much extra food then that I was wasting a ton of food, which of course is wasting money, right, and bad environmentally and all of those sorts of things. So I learned over time that, like you, about three things a week is all I really need to plan for because I’ll eat the leftovers from that. And plus, there’s often some little quick thing I can make here and there in the house anyway. …

Right now all the fresh sweet corn is in season around here. And so I’ll buy six ears of corn, which is way more than I can eat, but I cut it off the cob and I have it in the fridge right now. And I have two recipes I’m gonna use. I know what I’m going to make with that corn. And it’s already processed. It’s just a question of making [it]. When I’m ready to make those meals, I can make those meals, right?

Leslie: And because corn is really expensive in season and really expensive where you are right now. And that’s why I say shop the sale circulars. It’s because, you know, because the one thing that I tell people is shop in season. And people will say, “Well, I’m not a farmer, I don’t know what’s in season.” We don’t have to be farmers. Shop the sale circular … whatever is in season is on sale.

If you walk into your grocery store and the produce department, whatever is front and center in the produce department, that is what is in season. So right now, if the corn is in season, you take those six years of corn you bought and you put them in the zipper bags or some type of sealable container. Even if you don’t have time to make them now, if you just put them in the freezer, you can make them another time because I guarantee you, in January, you’re going to be like, “Man, I would love some corn and potato chowder right now.” It’s freezing cold, right? It’s so much better than any [corn in the store] at that point in the winter months. The corn – you don’t want it if it’s in the grocery store [in winter]. You don’t want it.

Nicole: No, right? It’s pretty gross at that point. It doesn’t taste yummy. 

Here’s a question I added to the list, because even if you’re planning meals for a family, which again, is a little bit more work than [meal planning]  for one or two people. How can [meal planning for a family] be an act of self-care? Because it feels like it’s … an act of caring for your family. How can we integrate things that make that a more pleasurable experience for the one who’s the primary cook?

How to make meal planning for a family an act of self-care

A heteronormative family, mother at the center of cooking in the kitchen with the adult (dad?) next to her and three children on the other side.

Leslie: Right? So I saw this reel recently, and it was a dad and he was home with the toddler making the sandwich for lunch. And the toddler said, “Well, Mom cuts it into three triangles.” So Dad cut it crossways, so it was four triangles. And the kid had an absolute meltdown because it was four triangles and not three triangles.  And the dad was just – he didn’t know how mom did it. So of course, I had to read through the comments and a lot of people said, “Well, Mom is cutting a V shape so that it makes three long triangles. They may not be even, but it’s three long triangles. Right? But most of the moms said, “No, Mom is cutting it into four triangles and then eating that fourth triangle when the kid’s not looking, because that’s Mom’s lunch.” I thought that’s the most likely thing that’s happening because mom has to eat, too.

But I think when you’re caring for others, it can be especially hard when you have a family where this one won’t eat this and that one won’t eat that. And maybe you like things spicy, but your family doesn’t. Or somebody’s a vegan, and somebody is, “No, I want meat and potatoes.”  

We don’t have to eat any more like our parents and grandparents ate. I give you permission to not make a protein, a green vegetable, and a potato or a starch, right? That is my gift to you. I give you that permission. Think outside the box.

So … you can’t drive a car on an empty tank, and that’s where cooking is not just for your family, but yourself, too. [It is] self-care. What you really need to think about are deconstructed meals, especially if you’re making those multiple meals. So what you can do, especially because a lot of people are not only feeding themselves and their children, but also maybe parents, too – so now you’ve got all of these different tastes. This is where things like tacos and fajitas and things like that, anything that’s a deconstructed meal where everyone can make what they want out of the different parts –

I have a chef friend. she makes these big giant salads, and instead of putting a salad in a bowl, she puts it on a big platter. Or you could use a big sheet pan. And what you do is you put the lettuce down. And then if you’re going to make, say, a Southwest style salad, you could put a pile of chicken, then you put your pile of black beans, a pile of corn, pile of onions, a pile of cucumber, a pile of tomato, of cilantro, of cheese, and then everyone can pick what they want. And you’re not having to worry about this one doesn’t – If there’s one or two things, like if you like spicy, maybe put your jalapenos in a little bowl on the side. That way, you’re just making one meal instead of making 20 different meals. And it’s so much easier than having to make the chicken and the corn for the little one. And then dad wants it spicy. And it’s so much easier, I think, to make stuff that’s deconstructed or to make a meal that you can then add something to. 

Last week in my [Life in the Feast Lane] membership, one of the things that I did was a beef and broccoli stir fry. You sort of prepare all the parts separately, and then at the last minute add everything together. So I have a friend whose 13-year-old doesn’t like sauces of any kind. But that’s okay, because my friend could make the beef and the broccoli and the noodles (because it was served over noodles) – You could make them all separately for the 13-year-old and then put it all together in the sauce for the rest of the family. That’s really what you have to think about when you’re making meals, is how can I take this meal and deconstruct it so that it’s just not all together and that I can eat, too?

Nicole: Right? And making sure it probably is something that you would like and eat.

Leslie: Absolutely. You can definitely account for all tastes without having to make a bunch more work for yourself. 

Nicole: Right. Not without making [meals for] as many people as [there are] people are in the house and using all of your pots and pans and making separate dishes. 

Leslie: It just hurts my heart when I watch people making three or four different meals based on who’s in their house.

Go-to recipes that will ease your stress

Nicole: So you mentioned the beef and broccoli recipe that you were just sharing. Is there any other favorite recipe? Either go-to recipes for you that you like, or ones that you’ve shared recently with some of your clients?

Leslie: Gosh. For me personally at home, it tends to be like a protein in a pan sauce, a really easy pan sauce. Just because they’re fast. They’re easy. It’s 15 or 20 minutes, and it’s on the table. But a lot of people find those too “chef-y,” and they really kind of are. They tend to be the kind of stuff that you find in a restaurant – just because they cook quickly. That’s why they’re in restaurants, because it’s something that the cooks on the line can do really quickly. It’s ready in 15 minutes. You use a wine or a vinegar or something like that, and it’s just ready. So I find that people don’t like them very much.

A person with white hands holding a tablet with a recipe on the screen, the blurred background of the kitchen in the background.

So I’m a big fan of what I call a low prep time. Now, I catch a lot of flack for this, but I say that the five-ingredient meal is the big lie, because they either aren’t very tasty, most of them – not all, but most – either not very tasty, or they’re really unhealthy because they’re filled with a lot of heavily processed ingredients. So what I pay attention to when I’m looking at recipes is actually the prep time. How much time am I actually going to spend making this recipe? I have an easy pesto chicken recipe that it takes me about five minutes to put together. Then I put it in the oven, and the oven does the rest of the work. And it’s beautiful. It comes out of the oven – it looks like it was made in a restaurant. I can serve it over pasta. I can just eat it as-is with a salad, and it’s perfect. Anything that has a very limited amount of time in terms of how much time I’m actually spending hands-on.

I also make a lot of stir fries, but I’m balancing the amount of time that I spend chopping, because I’ve also found that there are a lot of people out there who don’t like cutting vegetables. So I don’t know if it’s just that they’re uneasy because they don’t know how – they’re afraid they’re going to cut themselves, or I’m not sure what. So now with the stir fry recipes that I share, it’s maybe one or two vegetables that you’ve cut, but then

other vegetables that you don’t have to. You can get them precut or frozen in the bag, things like that.

Kitchen tools that will reduce meal prepping stress

Silver long-handled tongs with black plastic tips. These are one of your best tools in your kitchen. They are an extension of your hand.

Nicole: Sure. So I’m going to add a quick [question because] your mentioning of cutting things is making me think of [it].  What is … a tool in your kitchen that you couldn’t live without?

And I would say this – because you were mentioning cutting: my chef’s knife. A number of years ago, I invested in more expensive, heavyweight chef’s knife. You don’t have to do that, by the way, although they last forever. The nice thing – they seem more expensive than they are – but they last. I’ve probably had that one at least ten years, and it’s definitely holding up. But I think that and a paring knife are the only knives you need for the most part, unless you’re carving things. I do have a carving knife I use, like, once a year. But those are the two knives that I go to most often for you.

What are the things that are sort of indispensable, besides knives, because I obviously took that already? 

Leslie: So I would also add a good bread knife.

Nicole: Yes, I have one of those, too.

Leslie: So I do have a tip, though, about knives. The big honing steel that everyone has, and that’s what it’s called – a honing steel or a honing rod — that doesn’t sharpen your knife, that actually realigns the blade so that it’s straighter, but it doesn’t actually sharpen your knife. What you should be doing, if you are someone who uses your blade regularly, you should be taking it to someone professional to have it sharpened. If you don’t know who that is, if you have, like, a restaurant supply store, they might have someone or be able to direct you. But one of the best places to have your knives sharpened are actually hunting in fishing stores because fishermen have to have knives. 

Nicole: And they really have to be really sharp.

Leslie: And you want a really sharp knife. You are actually less likely to cut yourself on a sharp knife than a dull one, and you’re less likely to do serious damage with a sharp knife. I did have someone say to me, “Oh, well, we got really sharp knives and we kept cutting ourselves on them.” Then my response was, “Well, then you just needed to learn proper technique rather than going out and buying dull knives.”

Here’s a really good example: I saw another reel recently where a young mom was talking about [how touching chicken] was the worst part of mealtime for her because she had to touch the chicken with her hands just to move it from the package into the pan. And I picked up my tongs, and I was like, “Gosh, if only someone made a tool that you could pick up your chicken with without having to touch it.” So for me, I don’t know why home cooks don’t use tongs. I don’t understand it. It is actually an extension of your hand. I don’t know, but professional chefs use them, home cooks don’t, and I don’t understand it.

Nicole: Yeah, and I’ve cooked for a long time, but only recently have I started using tongs more oftenn my kitchen. You’re right, they are an extension of your hand. And it’s so much easier to stir something around. Like if you’re making a pasta and you want something like a sauce over it. You do a couple of flips and you’re done it’s so quick to use tongs rather than even a spatula or spoons or things like that, which are fine for certain jobs, but tongs work really well, and they’re not expensive either.

Leslie: I buy the really super cheap ones. The only time that I don’t use the really super cheap ones are on any of my non-stick. But other than that, I love the super cheap tongs. 

Nicole: Yeah. I even recently got some at Target that are like plastic on the tips – which have the risk of burning,  here is that problem with the plastic – but usually I’m using them really fast. I don’t use those stirring things. I’m not doing that. I think I have three of them or something.

Leslie: You can get the ones with silicone tips, and those are even better because they are heat-proof and use those on your non-stick pans. I have a good set of wood spoons. I have a good set of silicone spatulas. I very rarely use them. I use, almost exclusively, tongs. But yeah. If you could stick your hand in a hot pan, which as a chef, I have been known to do – 

Nicole: But most people won’t do that at home. 

Leslie: I know most people won’t do – it’s because, once you cook for a really long time and you cook every day – I call them asbestos fingers. You just don’t feel the heat. 

Nicole: Right. I agree. I have a pretty high tolerance for that too. But I had a friend once who said, “I don’t cook because I don’t want to burn myself.” I’ve actually had someone say that to me, or it was along those lines. “I’m always injuring myself in the kitchen, so why would I cook?” She didn’t make very many things with heat. She would do a lot of salads or things like that, but not so much with that because she was always burning herself.

Leslie: I had a chef instructor that said, “The more you burn, the more you learn.”

Nicole: So true. That’s how we learn, right? We make mistakes and we learn.

Basic cookbook recommendations that will reduce your stress

So one more thing/question, and I brought this – I showed this to Leslie when we were offline, but she had mentioned the Betty Crocker Cookbook in some preliminary conversation we were having. And I pulled out my mom’s, which I still have, which I think is probably from about 1970 or ’71.

You can tell that there’s [holding up the old cookbook with duct tape on the spine]. Now I’m sure it was my dad who put the duct tape on there to hold it together. And the pages are coming out, which is why I don’t know exactly what year because the copyright page is lost and it’s a mess. But it was like, such a nice little memory to look through that. And I learned how to cook on this cookbook when I was pretty little. So it is really useful. I had forgotten about it.

An open blank notebook surrounded by a wooden spoon, a paring knife and a bunch of veggies like carrots, onions, etc.

Leslie: You know, I do love the Betty Crocker Cookbook, especially for beginners, because the recipes are very basic. And what I really love about the newer cookbooks is they have pictures. One of the things I’ve learned in teaching is, there are a lot of vegetables, and fruits even, that people cannot identify. They don’t know what it looks like in its unprocessed form, so the newer Betty Crocker Cookbooks have those photographs in them. They also talk a lot about the different cuts of meat and the ways that you should be cooking them. They have a glossary of culinary terms because I know when I was young, I did not grow up in a cooking family. I did not learn how to cook until I was 25. I did some when I was a kid, but it was like spaghetti with sauce from a can or from a jar.

So when I really started learning how to cook I was 25, and it took me so long because when I was in my late teens, I bought a wedding gift for someone that was a cookbook. It was like a bridal shower gift or something like that. And I bought one for myself because it had the word “basic” in it. I thought it was a really simple cookbook, and it turned out not to be. And I didn’t understand any of the book. I read the whole thing, I put it down, and I cried because I didn’t know what the authors were talking about at all. So what’s really great about that Betty Crocker Cookbook is, it defines all of those big culinary words, tells you about the different cuts of [meat], the recipes are very simple. They’re very basic. And once you learn those, you can start experimenting and building. But you should also look at the way you eat. If you’re a vegetarian, then find those books that are written by subject experts. I really prefer books written by subject experts over celebrity cookbooks.

I think we have a tendency to buy those celebrity cookbooks. But I really prefer, if I want to learn Mexican cooking, and there’s lots of great Mexican cooks out there, I’m going to learn from someone who grew up eating and cooking that way. When I travel, my souvenir to myself is always a local cookbook, and some of them are hilarious. I have one from, I don’t know, 20, 25 years ago that I bought in Savannah that was written by the Junior League of Savannah. I mean, it’s a great book to go through. So look for those subject experts. 

And I’m seeing a lot of books now that are more about the way we cook now. I don’t cook the same way that I did 10 years ago, and I certainly don’t cook the same way that I did 20 years ago.

Nicole: Yeah, for sure. And all through it, because you mentioned vegan or vegetarian cooking – and I’m not a strict vegetarian anymore. I was for a lot of years, and I actually only discovered these cookbooks in recent years, but they’ve rebranded recently. They’re Bad Manners cookbooks – which are really funny, by the way, because they swear a lot in them. So if you have little kids around, you might want to keep those cookbooks away from them. … But they do what Betty Crocker does … but for vegan cooking. They do a really good job in those cookbooks – and especially because vegan cooking has some ingredients that people wouldn’t use if you’re not doing vegan cooking – and they define [them], and they’re really good at saying, “Oh, make this really big pot of rice, and then you can make these other meals.” So I think they sort of do a little bit of what you’re suggesting in their cookbooks, and those [recipes] have become very standard for me, became very standard very quickly. They also have a blog.

You don’t have to buy the cookbook. They have a blog with a lot of offerings on there as well. So that’s one that I’ve [gotten new]  in the last five years or so.

Recipe sites that won’t help you with meal planning for stress relief

Leslie: Right, yeah. I do have one warning. I don’t like to talk negatively, but I do have one warning, and I don’t want to name the website directly. I’ll just say that it’s known for having all of the recipes out there, all of the recipes. And the problem with having all of the recipes is that it also includes all of the really bad recipes. I know a lot of people who use that website. Quite a few of my chef friends will use it as a reference site. Unless you are very good at picking out good recipes from bad, if you’re a beginner, stay away from that website. Because I will tell you that every single time that someone messages me or calls me and I’ve had people calling me crying because they think that they’re bad cooks because they’re trying to learn how to cook and they use the recipe and they say, “I tried this, and it didn’t work out and it was so bad. And what did I do? And I’m such a terrible cook.” And I’ll say, “Send me the recipe.” And they send me the link, and it’s to the website that has all of the recipes. And I read the recipe and I’m like, “It was not you. This is a terrible, terrible recipe.” There are a lot of really bad recipes out there.

Nicole: Yeah, right. Because I think I’ve had that experience on that or other websites, too, where you’re like, that is the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen. And again, I’ve cooked long enough that I’m like, “I’m not making that because that’s stupid.” Or “I could do that better.” Or sometimes I can take the recipe and say, “Oh, I’m going to do all those things, but not that,” or whatever. But if you’re not familiar, you wouldn’t know how to delete steps.

Leslie: Right. And there are a lot of food bloggers out there, and I get it. We all make changes to a recipe when we see it, but there are a lot of people out there who don’t have the skill or the know-how, that when they change a recipe they don’t understand what they’re changing. So not to get too complicated, but recipes have components, and everything that a professional chef or recipe developer writes is in there for a reason. It should create balance in a recipe. And lots of times food bloggers will go in and they’ll take things out or make substitutions without really understanding what the purpose of that ingredient that was in a recipe.

Because they just think, “Well, my family doesn’t like that, or I think that that ingredient is too bad.” Whatever reason, they take something out, or they make a substitution without really understanding it. So that’s why I say – I warn people who are just starting out – you’re really a lot better off following professionals. 

Maybe not – there’s a group on PBS, and I love those people, and they show you how to make these recipes, and they always show you the very best version of a recipe. But man, sometimes their steps are crazy. Even I’m like, “I’m not going to take three days to make that particular recipe.”

But it’s because they’re showing you the best version of the recipe. So find someone who is a really good chef recipe writer, someone who has some type of experience, education, and follow that person. You’re better off following one person and learning their philosophy at first and then branching out once you understand, especially if you’re just beginning, because there’s a lot of people who are really great people, but they just don’t understand how to write it.

More resources for meal planning for stress relief

Nicole: Awesome. Well, Leslie, you’re one of those people! How do people find more about you?

Leslie: I have a meal planning and cooking membership. I decided to go the membership route because food blogs are filled with pop ups and ads and dumb stories. Not dumb stories, but stories about people’s lives. And we all know that we don’t want to read those anyway. I have a meal planning and cooking membership called Life in the Feast Lane, and it’s

A brown-skinned mom and daugher wearing bright yellow aprons while cooking. They are reading a recipe or meal plan.

We have a great group of people all at different levels of cooking. You can come for the recipes, but stay for the cool people. They’re the best people out there, I’m sure they’re probably right up there with your people as well. During the holidays, I also share not just recipes, but I also share cooking tips and baking tips and all that kind of stuff. And unlike the traditional food blogs, once you’re in the membership – no ads, no need to jump-to-recipe, no pop-ups. 

Once a week, you get a meal plan. It comes on Thursday for the following week. You get a meal plan, four recipes. The benefit of the membership and the meal plans is that it not only gives you recipes for the following weeks, but it makes use of all of the groceries you’re going to buy so that you’re not buying a bunch of groceries and then having a bunch of ingredients left over. Because we talked about leftovers in terms of once you’ve cooked something, but there’s really nothing more annoying than … buying a bunch of food and then having all of the ingredients left over.

But if anyone has any questions, you can also reach me at

Nicole: Cool. Awesome. Well, thank you so much for being with me. … This conversation with Leslie is part of my “Loving yourself Enough to Say No” series. And again, we’re saying no to hectic weeknight meals here in this particular conversation. And there’s lots more that we’re saying no to and saying yes to. We say no to things, so that we say yes to other things. In this case, we’re saying yes to tasty, easy, good things to make during the week, even when we’re busy. So I want to thank you for being there and you all can find more about me, too, at

Thank you so much, Leslie, and thank you all who joined me [today].

Leslie Owens

Leslie Owens

Chef, food writer and menu planner

After a career as a corporate lackey with Disney, Leslie went to culinary school to pursue her passion. She’s spent the last 19 years as a personal chef, cooking teacher and food writer. A former food heathen herself, Leslie now shares what she’s learned about meal planning and preparing easy healthy meals with home cooks. Her super power is converting picky eaters. The two foods she absolutely will not eat are kale and bottled ranch dressing. 😄

Nicole Havelka

Nicole Havelka

Burnout Coach

Nicole Havelka is the founder of the Defy the Trend community, which uses restorative yoga, group coaching and a supportive community to prevent and recover from burnout. Try one of Nicole’s free yoga classes any time by joining the free Defy the Trend community: