As much as I enjoy food and cooking, and playing around with new recipes and ingredients, planning for meal times can be a bit of a pain. It’s sometimes difficult to figure out what might be good for a whole week’s worth of food, but there is nothing worse than the feeling of coming up towards 5 PM and still having no plan. It’s true that having kids often makes things more complicated, but if I’m honest trying to figure out dinner when we were child-free at the end of a long work day was no picnic either.
I’ve tried out a number of methods in an attempt to streamline meal planning: planning for an entire week and even an entire month, using a meal planning service, and other things that have been moderately successful. I have come to the conclusion (at long last) that there really is no set solution that will work all the time; it depends on what is going on in our lives in a given week or month. This seems obvious but it is sometimes hard to remember! And setting up an elaborate plan that is not realistic just makes me feel bad when I cannot keep up with it.
For me, the key definitely seems to be low key = less stress. The following are some tips for meal planning that have helped us keep it relatively painless.
1. Shut Off the Noise
There are a lot of tools out there to help us plan meals, including meal planning services, recipe websites and blogs, sites like Pinterest, and about a gazillion amazing cookbooks (rough estimate). When you need some fresh inspiration, they are great to use.
However, I find that I can quickly get overwhelmed with the sheer amount of information available to me. When I am trying to figure out what to eat for the week, I do not want to take the time to comb through masses of recipes – I want to decide quickly and move on. In this situation, it works better for me to try and stick to some basics that we know we enjoy (see below!) and to choose from what I already have available to me, such as a well-used cook book or a recipe online I’ve used many times. And just pick something. I can always change my mind if inspiration strikes, but if it doesn’t at least we already have a plan.
2. Compile a Recipe List
About a year ago I sat down and wrote out as many meal and snack ideas or recipes that I could think of that we have relatively often or just occasionally. I typed it up and left spaces to jot in other items as I thought of them. It includes everything from basics like omelets to once-in-a-while meals like lasagna. Stored in a recipe binder in the kitchen, this has been a great resource to turn to when I am stuck for ideas. Often, when thinking a week or so ahead, I can pull a few ideas out of this list and maybe pad them with a new recipe I would like to try. This does not need to be a time-consuming project; jotting some ideas down on scrap paper and sticking it on the fridge or somewhere you can easily access it will work just as well.
3. Shop More, Not Less
Although it makes sense to do a main run for groceries about once a week or so, I’ve found that I inevitably leave something off the list, or I need to go back to the store again later in the week to pick up things like fresh produce or milk. Or, I change my mind about a meal or it doesn’t work out for some reason, and the ingredients go to waste. I’ve discovered over time that planning for a few days at a time, and maybe a very flexible plan for the week, seems to work more than a rigid schedule.
This would not work for everyone. However, in the season of life we are in right now, a trip to the store can double as an outing for myself and my daughter, who loves to people watch and plop apples into a grocery bag. And planning for the second trip makes it seem less rushed than having to run out again last minute when my set menu plan changes.
4. Include Breakfast, Lunch and Snacks in Meal Planning
This is standard meal planning advice for a reason, but it tripped me up for a long time (and still does occasionally).
When you think about what to have for dinner each night, you also need to think about what lunches will be. What will I get for my daughter and myself at snack time? How about breakfast? What will I grab partway through nap time to snack on? When I think of only dinner it is much easier to run out of basics like cereal, bread for toasting or smoothie ingredients. A lot of these ingredients keep well – like oats, cereal and frozen fruit – but thinking about it a little beforehand will remind me to check I still have them on hand. Additionally, thinking about them ahead of time means I am more likely to plan for some variety.
5. Make a Grocery ‘Cheat Sheet’
This is literally what it sounds like, and was my husband’s suggestion when we were going through a period where both days with our daughter and work were crazier than usual. Basically, this is a list of grocery items for when you find yourself in a hectic time with work and/or kids, someone gets sick or another emergency arises, or you simply just cannot stand the thought of cooking (it happens to the best of us). Include items to prepare simple meals that will get you through at least of couple of days.
My list includes things like pre-prepared fruit salad, eggs, hummus, bread, cereal, cheese, fish and a quick-cooking veggie, and ingredients for particular sandwiches or salads that we like. You can also include whatever pre-packaged or frozen food you may occasionally have. Think about things you and other members of your household might like to snack on or have for breakfast as well as dinner and include those.
The point of the list is not to have to put any major thought into it; you can hand it off to a spouse or partner or go shopping yourself and come back with an emergency stash. You will know that from the items on the list you can come up with at least a few basic meals.
There is nothing wrong with getting some take-out either. But having a cheat sheet helps keep this as an occasional treat, solves the problem of what to have for dinner, and can get me through an additional day or two when I have more time or energy for planning meals. (Again, in keeping with #2, coming up with a cheat sheet does not have to be an elaborate affair. Scribbled on the back of a junk mail envelope and stuck on the fridge is just fine, or typed in an electronic device like your phone.)
What meal planning strategies work for you?