Several years ago, I walked into my therapist’s office, sat down and said “Before C leaves for college at age 18, I have 4,372 more dinners to cook.”
If you feel overwhelmed by the thought of cooking dinner every night, I suggest you avoid making a similar calculation. Instead, I urge you give meal planning a try.
Benefits of meal planning
Reduces food waste. You don’t buy more food than you need. That is, unless you plan on cooking seven-course meals every night. If you plan elaborate meals—or even not-so-elaborate meals—every day you’ll wind up with little bits and pieces of ingredients you won’t use and you’ll have more food on hand than you can possibly eat.
Saves money. See above.
Saves time. “I think I’ll make but I’m out of .” Sound familiar? By planning your meals ahead of time, you’ll shop more efficiently and eliminate those last-minute trips to the grocery store during peak hours.
Reduces stress. So I’m no therapist but I do know that when I feel overwhelmed, making a to-do list calms me down. (Sometimes a to-not-do list induces a similar calming effect. “Do not check email after 7pm” for example.) A meal plan is basically a to-do list in to-cook list form.
Improves your diet. Unless you plan on eating homemade fudge for dinner topped with bacon, you’ll eat healthier food when you follow a meal plan. With a meal plan in place, at the end of a long hard day, famished and tired, you’ll be less likely to reach for a bag of potato chips for your meal. You may have already prepped something or you may have leftovers on hand that you can simply heat up.
Improves taste. Similar to the previous point, when you eat on impulse, you likely won’t eat the most delicious food—you may simply scarf down whatever you can get your hands on. Taking the time to think ahead, you’ll plan for tastier meals (unless you’re a bit of a masochist).
Meal planning light
I have never been very strict about meal planning. On the weekend, I’ll look at what food I have on hand and then think of a couple of meals I can make out of it during the week. I then buy any ingredients I need for those dishes. I’ll cook one meal the first night, eat leftovers the next night, then make a different meal the night after that. The next night we might eat more leftovers or something new made from all the leftovers—the person who does the cooking generally appreciates leftovers more than anyone else in the family.
Four easy steps to better meal planning
I’ve never been a super organized cook, more like a semi-organized one. Then recently, for a project I’m working on, I drew up a weekly meal planner. Filling it out and seeing our meals on paper, I realized that I don’t need to cook all that much. I felt relieved. Here are the steps I followed:
1. Look through the panty and refrigerator and jot down what’s on hand.
2. Plan meals based on number 1.
3. Fill in the rest of the menu planner with other favorite dishes.
4. Make a shopping list of missing ingredients.
Below is a screenshot of my meal plan for the week.
Following this menu, I’ll have to make the following to feed us for one week:
I feel this to-cook list is pretty manageable. I can make the granola, hummus and crackers on the weekend. Everything else I’ll make during the week. I’ll cook vats of the chana masala and the minestrone soup so we have enough of both for a few meals. When I make soup, I almost always freeze some so I have a meal squirreled away we can eat in a pinch. A follower on Instagram told me she follows my chana masala recipe and freezes that successfully.
I’ll have a few other things to prep—steel-cut oats (I quickly start them the night before and heat them in the morning), salads, hard-boiled eggs, an omelette, pancakes. These all take little time. I have kimchi—or krautchi, a cross between kimchi and sauerkraut—on hand at all times. I make several jars of it every few months. I try to eat at least one fermented (i.e., probiotic-rich) food every day. My gut loves me for it.
Our diet isn’t perfect but I do try to incorporate lots of vegetables and fruit into it. As Michael Pollan says, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” You’ll notice I don’t make anything very elaborate. You may want to cook more gourmet fare than I do. If so, please invite me over for dinner 😉
Only change is constant
After this exercise—creating a meal planner and filling it out—I’m pretty much sold on meal planning for the entire week. However, if you give meal planning a try, I’d keep one or two slots blank in your plan for the unexpected—a work lunch, a dinner invitation to a friend’s, a night out. Things can come up and throw off your plans. Try not to stress about it.
The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men,
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!
— Robbie Burns, “To a Mouse”