Cooking with a formula

I have been cooking for myself regularly since getting my own kitchen while in law school. My friends are always impressed when I tell them that I make dinner, and even packed lunch, for myself every day. How do you have the time, or energy, after a whole day of work? Well I actually resorted to ordering take-out once while living in Chicago and decided to never do it again. The food took almost an hour to arrive and it tasted like it had been sitting there for that long too. For comparison, when I cook for myself, it usually takes an hour from prepping to eating to cleaning up.

I am a firm believer in cooking at home over ordering take out because it’s generally more affordable, healthier, and can be done in a very little time if you get the formula right. Here is the formula I use:

Basic Nutritional Breakdown:

  • >50% vegetables
  • >30% protein
  • <20% grain-based carbs

Types of dishes:

  • A: Green leafy vegetable (e.g. spinach, kale, lettuce)
    • Stir-fry or salad
    • Ready in under 10 min.
  • B: Meat + vegetable
    • Stir fry or soups
    • Ready in 20-30 min.
  • C: Meat + vegetable + carb
    • E.g.: fried rice and noodle dishes
    • Ready in 20-30 min
  • D: Grain base
    • E.g. steamed rice or quinoa
    • Batch cooked (30 min) and reheated in microwave (2 min)


Depending on what I have in the fridge and my mood, I will opt for one of the following:

  • Low carb option: A+B
  • I’m really hungry / just had an intense work out: A+B+D
  • There’s some leftover B and/or D: A + C

Grocery List

One of the best things about cooking with a formula is it streamlines the grocery shopping process as well, which reduces time spent at the store and waste at home. Below is a list of items we get on a weekly basis, and the dishes they typically go into:

Green leafy vegetables:

  • Stir-fry with olive oil and light seasoning
  • Lightly blanched and seasoned
  • pre-washed salad packs that can be tossed into a salad on its own, or added to soups or other proteins.


  • Mapo tofu
  • Pan fried tofu
  • Tofu soup (we usually get the BCD tofu pack from Asian grocery stores, which comes with a seasoning pack that makes it fool-proof and very quick).

Chicken tenders

  • Stir-fried in some Asian style (Chinese, Thai, etc)
  • Japanese curry
  • Chicken salads (good on its own, and also great topping on noodle dishes)

Ground beef

  • Added to vegetable stir-fried dishes like eggplant or mapo tofu
  • Great as a topping for noodle dishes like dan-dan noodle


  • Chicken soup
  • Seasoned or marinated (overnight is best, but right before works too) and then cooked in the air fryer (20 min pre-set)

Other vegetables:

  • Carrots – stir-fry, curry, etc
  • Bell peppers – stir-fry, omelettes, snack on its own
  • Onions – stir-fry, fried rice, omelette
  • Mushrooms – soup

I’m not one of those people who can eat the same dish for more than two days in a row. I need a good amount of variety and balance, and this formulaic approach provides just that, but also makes it easy and manageable. It takes me no more than 2 minutes to decide what to make for dinner and grocery shopping is a breeze. We still enjoy going out on weekends once or twice a week, and we definitely like to experiment outside of the formula on weekends too. I find the formula works best to provide a no-brainer approach that allows me to have balanced meals on week nights, all in under an hour.

You probably noticed that stir-fries are heavily featured, and that’s that’s probably because I’m partial to Chinese cuisines and stir-fries are just so easy. I like that stir-fried dishes have a lot of latitude to play with and they are generally fool-proof. You can also adjust the seasoning and sauces to your own taste easily. If you visit Asian grocery stores, you can even find lots of pre-made sauce packets that make stir-fries even easier.

Do you have a week night dinner routine? Let me know in the comments below.


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