I am not a huge fan of meal planning and I never have been. When I head to the grocery store, I rarely do so with specific dishes or recipes in mind. These days, when I interact with a recipe it is more for inspiration than exact measurements. At some point in your evolution as a cook, you stop cooking to the recipe and start manipulating ingredients using the techniques you’ve mastered over hours spent at your stove. Some people will always cook from a recipe and there is nothing wrong with that, but when you spend most of your time preparing food, you stop relying so much on specific recipes and more on the underlying flavor combinations they outline. At this point, after years of cooking both professionally and at home, I don’t often encounter techniques I’m not familiar with.
At some point in your evolution as a cook, you stop cooking to the recipe and start manipulating ingredients using the techniques you’ve mastered over hours spent at your stove.
While I may cook for a living, my wife does not and much more prefers having a set recipe to rely on as she works. This has made it hard to meal plan together. Where I go to the grocery store and look for inspiration, my wife likes to go with specific ingredients/dishes in mind and then add on as necessary. Despite difficulties at first, over the past few months, we have really made some headway in terms of our meal plan and how to best keep our house stocked with healthy foods. We have found that some of the more “attractive” and “grammable” meal planning methods simply don’t fit our lifestyle and would reduce the quality of our nightly meals. Additionally being forgiving to ourselves and our meal plan has taken the stress out of the activity and allowed us to find joy in planning our meals while working together to create “family classics” that will remain fixtures on our table for years to come.
We have found that some of the more “attractive” and “grammable” meal planning methods simply don’t fit our lifestyle and would reduce the quality of our nightly meals.
I wanted to put together a shortlist of the most important features of our “Meal Plan”. By making these adjustments to how we approach our weekly diet, we have found a sustainable way to plan both our shopping trips and cooking duties for the week.
1. Stop Calling it a Meal Plan.
This was a big one for us. To me, a meal plan is both reminiscent of sub-par college dining hall food and also stacks of pre-made homogenous meals in matching black Tupperware containers. I wanted to break us out of the “Meal Plan” mindset and try to build something that allowed for flow and change. Thusly, my wife and I settled on “Weekly Menu”. Instead of a meal plan, we build a weekly menu that takes into account, seasonality, availability, and the occasional evening of takeout or junk food.
I wanted to break us out of the “Meal Plan” mindset and try to build something that allowed for flow and change.
The idea of a meal plan was always very rigid in my mind, it left no room for change or adjustment and it just felt too restrictive. By planning a “Weekly Menu” we are able to think freely about our daily choices, and also make adjustments when we find particularly good ingredients at the grocery or farmers market. Though it is essentially a “Meal Plan” when we write our Weekly Menu it feels like we are creating something more than just a list of food we will eat that week. It gives us something to look forward to, and provides a heightened sense of enjoyment.
2. Separate the Menu Into Meal Categories
One of my favorite features in our Weekly Menu process is separating Menu items into Meal Categories. For our Weekly Menu we like to think about potential dishes as pertaining to one of four distinct categories; Light/Easy, Slow Cookin’, Leftovers, and Wild Card. By doing this we can decide how many of each category we want to feature that week depending on what our schedules look like. Most weeks we’ll have 3 Light/Easy nights, 2 Slow Cookin’ nights, 1 Wild Card, and 1 Leftover night.
Light/Easy is pretty self-explanatory. These are meals that require little to no time/preparation and are ready in under 30 minutes. To facilitate light/easy nights we like to keep pre-cooked ingredients around like grains, proteins, and sauces. This makes it easier to throw together a delicious and healthy meal at a minute’s notice. For these meals, we usually go with sandwiches, grain bowls, or salad options. Slow Cookin’ nights are my favorite. I usually get to handle those meals and put as much time as I need into crafting incredible dishes for our table. This category can pertain to any longer cooking method, but around our house, it usually means I am pulling out the smoker or the dutch oven! In general, we like to think of this category as any dish that takes more than an hour and a half to prepare.
Leftovers are a lot of fun. Depending on how much clutter we create in our refrigerator we try to have at least 1 leftover night a week. I will usually take a quick inventory and throw together a mezze/tapas style spread to pick and choose from. Whatever is leftover at the end of the meal gets trashed or composted depending on the dish.
The Wildcard is the night you have no idea what to do. Everything has gone wrong, and you’re at your wits’ end. There is a screaming kid and at least on barking dog running around, you’ve stepped on a lego and the last thing you want to do is touch the stove. So, you throw together breakfast for dinner, order a pizza, make Mac and Cheese, you do whatever you need to make a meal with as little effort as possible. Sometimes you’ll go weeks without a Wildcard, but don’t you worry, it’s out there, biding its time, and it will strike when you least expect it.
3. Save the Slow Cooking for Days Off
The biggest lesson. we learned with our Weekly Menu early on, was to save the longer cooking times for our day’s off. When you get off from work and have to get home to feed a sometimes unruly toddler, dishes that require any extended preparation are a No-No. Luckily in our home, we share a night off but also have at least one night alone with the kiddo. This allows three total days a week to cook more time-intensive dishes, keeping things like braising and stewing as fixtures on our Menu.
4. Keep Pre-Cooked Ingredients on Hand.
One of the categories we end up employing the most in our Weekly Menu is light/easy dishes. In order to pull off dinner in under 30 minutes on a regular basis, we like to keep a number of pre-cooked ingredients on hand. From pre-cooked grains, smoked chicken, hummus, and boiled eggs to sauces, dressings, and pickles, it helps to have a well-stocked larder.
By spending some time on the prep side of things, we are able to keep the costs down on our Weekly Menu, and also make sure we have super wholesome ingredients at the ready. This has also been instrumental in keeping our lunchbox game on point. While I usually eat family-meal at work, my wife does not have that same privilege. Having a well-stocked larder allows her to throw together a bento box style lunch that’s flavorful and appealing without spending more than a few minutes getting it ready every morning.
In order to pull off dinner in under 30 minutes on a regular basis, we like to keep a number of pre-cooked ingredients on hand.
5. Learn To Relax and Forgive Yourself
I recently saw a joke about someone having to buy another bag of mixed greens so they could let it rot in their crisper drawer for a week. I thought it was super funny, mostly because I knew that I was guilty of the occasional produce neglect myself. Life likes to get in the way of our plans and this is true across the board. The point of creating Weekly Menu is to de-stress the cooking process in our home and bring some reason to our chaos. The moment it starts to be a burden instead of a boon, something needs to change. Feeding ourselves should not be stressful, it should not cause anxiety or feelings of guilt/regret. Yes, sometimes I forget about a bag of mixed greens in the crisper, but that is why I have a compost heap, at least those nutrients will go back into the soil instead of the waste-bin.
Any disruption to that plan, whether in form or function can be a cause of stress and frustration to us. This is why we call our process a Weekly Menu instead of a Meal Plan.
Sometimes, when we create a plan we can become irrationally attached to that plan’s success. Any disruption to that plan, whether in form or function can be a cause of stress and frustration to us. This is why we call our process a Weekly Menu instead of a Meal Plan. In restaurants, at least the ones I have been lucky enough to work in, menus are meant to be an evolution. Dishes change as the seasons do, ingredients change with availability and the food you eat in summer is markedly different from the food you ate in spring or will eat in the fall. This is why we approach our Weekly Menu the way we do, with joy for the unexpected bounty we might find, and the best of intentions for the awesome food we’ll create throughout the week.
Dishes change as the seasons do, ingredients change with availability and the food you eat in summer is markedly different from the food you ate in spring or will eat in the fall.
What meal planning hacks have made your process at home easier? Let me know in the comments and I’ll be sure to give them a try.