It’s not a coincidence that the phrase “meal plan” consists of four-letter words.
These words made me feel like I was being tied down and forced to erase what little spontaneity I had in my day. How should I know what I want to eat a week from today? Instead of feeling spontaneous at meal time, though, what I routinely felt was indecisive, hungry, and frustrated that I didn’t have anything to eat (while staring at a refrigerator full of food thinking, “Me hungry. Me eat.”).
Well, I’ve converted. Meal planning is one of a few main things I do each week to make every day go more smoothly. Oddly enough, planning my meals allows me to be more flexible with my time. Eating three (sometimes seven) times a day is something that I know is going to happen, so why not thoughtfully prepare for it, rather than waiting and reacting at the last minute?
Living intentionally means reducing decision fatigue, being thoughtful with my choices, and making more space in my day by making things as simple as possible.
It requires creating a structure for some of the big stuff so that I have flexibility with the little things. Knowing what and when I am going to feed myself and my family— and having everything handy rather than running to the store — actually frees up my mental space and allows for more flexibility with my time.
Our recent routine has been to feed our son something quick and healthy early for dinner, then my husband and I would look at each other in the first quiet moments we had all day and say,
well, what are we going to eat?
Followed by a quick search of the fridge, an internet search for recipes, frustration that we didn’t have one or more of the ingredients we needed, then a search for what we could substitute, often followed by giving up and ordering take out. In short, we ended up with a meal that wasn’t exactly what we wanted and took way longer than we planned. Not to mention the fact that we were angry and hungry, and we felt like we’d wasted the evening. It was the opposite of living intentionally and mindfully.
Meal planning has freed me from this. It sounds ridiculous, but taking a few hours (yes, I know, hours) out of my weekend and doing some planning, shopping, and food/meal preparation lets me save my energy and time for other things. My husband and I get to argue about things that matter, rather than what is for dinner. While one of us is putting our son to bed, the other is starting the oven and getting out ingredients. We enjoy time together in the kitchen. I don’t have to run to the store at the last minute to get something. We spend less on food because we only eat out when we have planned for it. There’s no caving in to a craving. We use all the food in the fridge now. (Does anyone else buy all the lettuce in the store imagining all the healthy salads you’re going to make and then throw it all away having never eaten the first one? Now, I actually eat the salads.) Plus, I’m getting better at being creative with what we have rather than just throwing my hands up when what we have on hand doesn’t immediately seem to go together.
Of course, I’d rather spend the whole day on Sunday hanging out with my family. But it’s also becoming an activity that we all participate in. I take my son to the grocery store. He has started “helping” me at the kitchen counter. My husband starts washing and cutting the vegetables while my son eats lunch. Besides, it frees up extra time that I can share with my family during the week.
There are so many decisions to make every day, big and small. It feels nice to have the choice of what to put on the table three times a day already finalized.
Tips for starting to meal plan:
1. Most importantly, keep it simple. I tried to find new recipes every day and make something big and complicated at first. That was stupid. Plan staple meals at first, only adding in 1 or 2 new recipes each week. Start with recipes you know and love.
2. Food prep when you have extra time. I typically have 10 minutes while my son is eating breakfast in which I can wield a knife in peace. I can chop onions or other veggies and have a head start on dinner. Even better, wash and cut veggies as soon as you get home from the grocery store. I’m much more likely to cook if I feel like I’ve already started on the meal ahead of time.
3. Bulk prepare when you can. On a night that you have extra time, plan a meal that you can easily double for a modified meal later in the week (extra chicken breast for chicken salad, for instance). Or marinate/prepare and freeze meat so that it’s easy to put it in the slow cooker or instant pot on a night when you couldn’t make it to the store. I recently had a little snafu at the butcher and ended up with way more meat than anyone should eat at one time. We used 1/3 of it for the recipe we needed (and ate leftovers for a week) and had the remaining 2/3 in the freezer in smaller packages to throw in when we needed. Bam!
4. Start with meal planning 3 days of meals and move up from there. A week can be a long time to plan if you are new. I’ve always thought it’s easier to start small. On busy weeks or if we are traveling, I plan for only a few days at a time. I might have to make an extra trip to the grocery, but planning on an extra trip is much easier than trying to squeeze in an unplanned trip into an already packed day.
5. Plan your recipes with your schedule in mind. Are you working late one day? Do you know that you get home early on Wednesdays? Keeping in mind which days need a quick meal and which days you have time to do something new or more complicated can make a big difference in helping you stick to your plan.
6. Plan for emergencies. Keep a list of a few meals that you can quickly make from items in the pantry or freezer in case you are running behind or can’t get to the store. Put that list on your fridge — or tape it on top of the takeout menus in your house.
7. Stay with the tried and true. If you find a blog or cookbook you like, stick with it rather than trying someone new each time. Not everyone who puts a recipe up on the web has the same tastes as you, and not everyone who has a cooking blog is good at describing how to prepare food. You’ll save yourself some frustration if you stick with chefs/bloggers that you like.
8. As for the nuts and bolts, you can be as retro or tech savvy as you like. There are a ton of meal planning apps that are really wonderful (I’ve used Paprika and Plan to Eat). They’ll import recipes from the web, integrate a calendar, and automate a grocery list, but I’ve found it to be too time consuming when I was also trying to also use cookbooks or personal recipes. The easiest way is to use a piece of paper, write the days of the week on the left side, what you’re going to eat in the middle (along with sources for recipes), and your grocery list on the right side. As you find and add a recipe, write down what you need to buy from the store on the right-hand side. I still store any online recipes in my meal planning app, but I can just make a note of the cookbook and page number for my regular recipes on the paper. You can always get fancier with your list later, but for the first few weeks, try to keep it old school.
Here are a few resources that I’ve consulted while learning how to streamline the process. I hope they help you!
Wishing you a few moments of clarity amidst the chaos,
Please share this post if it resonated with you. I’d love to hear any tips that you have or if you can relate to the phrase “meal plan” as being a four-letter word. Email me or comment below!