The last few months have been a whirlwind… chaotic… out of control… beyond busy… action packed… challenging… rewarding… and everything in between. I was involved in a huge project at work that spanned over several months, and for a long time it felt like it was quite literally the only thing in my life. When the project finally came to a close in November, I took some time off work and travelled out west. (The west. So much to say there, we’ll have to come back to it another day.) My return to the office has been equally hectic with several high priority projects competing for my attention so it’s only now, after my second week back at work that I feel as though I am getting back into a normal routine.
I know this because all week long I made suggestions and proclamations for various grandiose plans to execute on the weekend around the house, only to settle on one solitary priority: some simple meal planning. It sounds so basic, but for some reason, meal planning has never been easy for me and my empty fridge was screaming for some nourishment. Before things got really busy at work, I was trying to get into a regular cycle of planning meals on a weekly basis. While I’m happy to figure things out as I go, I’m usually starving by the time I get home from work so it’s nice to know what’s going on the table for dinner. There’s no pressure to make a decision on the spot with an empty stomach. No risk of bringing on a hangry fit. Plus I get to update our chalkboard with the weekly menu so when my man says “what’s for dinner?” all I have to do is point at the board.
I love food and I LOVE eating. But somehow, I feel that planning what I’m going to eat is one of the least pleasurable tasks that I’ve had to take on as an adult. Maybe it’s because my repertoire of meals isn’t very big, so my repetitive menu seems stale and boring. Or maybe it’s because I hate making decisions, so deciding what I will be consuming for 4 to 5 days straight is excruciating. Whatever the reason, meal planning has always been a challenge for me throughout the years and I have been trying very hard to find a good method to make it a bit more enjoyable.
Many months ago, I researched meal planning online and found tons of great ideas and suggestions to make the entire process simpler. What follows is my own synthesis of some of the best ideas I found online. While I do not follow these guidelines exactly every single week (and haven’t for many months!) these parameters are helpful when it comes time to make a grocery list. My goal is to get to the point where this becomes second nature rather than feeling like a forced activity. But… baby steps.
WEEKNIGHTS: Meal planning always happens on the weekend so there’s no need to run to the grocery store after work. The idea is to select 5 meals that fall under the below categories. The order of the meals during the week is really up to you – I always try to keep a loose idea in mind for when I will eat each thing, but usually switch them around night by night depending on my mood.
*Note: Technically there are only 2 nights of cooking on this list, with the other 3 nights involving minimal to no effort in the kitchen. This might seem like a cop out, but it works for me! I want to work my way up to 3 cooked meals during the week (and certainly a more seasoned cook could probably do this or more right away) but for now this structure is the most realistic for us.
- One “easy” weeknight dinner: By easy, I mean something that is quick and simple to make. It should be a favourite meal that you make frequently so it comes together easily and does not require a lot of effort.
- A second “easy” weeknight dinner: Same as above. The idea is to plan for 2 nights of cooking during the week – and this isn’t a case of “go big or go home”. You don’t want to spend 4 hours in the kitchen making a gourmet dinner because it’s Monday, and you have a long week ahead.
- One night of leftovers: A great “no cook” option, planning for one night of leftovers is a reality we all need to accept. Nearly all of the recipes I find are for double the amount of people living in my house so rather than cutting everything in half, I happily make the larger portion and then eat the same thing later in the week.
- One frozen dinner: This requires a minimal amount of effort in the kitchen if you plan ahead and take something out of the freezer the night before. It’s more about “assembling” rather than “cooking”. (More on frozen dinners below.)
- One night of eating out / bringing take out home / more leftovers / winging it: There’s nothing wrong with forsaking the kitchen altogether! And for my man and I, it’s a necessity when we’re both working long hours. Plus you never know when you might end up with last minute dinner plans or some unforeseen obstruction that prevents you from making dinner during the week.
WEEKENDS: The weekend is reserved for putting together next week’s menu, playing in the kitchen and trying out new recipes for future meal plans, for preparing freezable meals, and making gourmet dinners with lots of leftovers to eat later in the week.
- Recipe Testing: Try one new recipe every weekend. The last thing you want is to try “something new” on a weeknight only to find that it’s a dud or that it takes twice as long to cook. I usually do my recipe testing on Saturday night with the intention to find a new easy weeknight meal that I can add to my repertoire, or so I can have some gourmet leftovers on Monday night if it’s a fancy recipe.
- Freezing Dinner: At some point over the weekend, cook something that is going to freeze well so you can defrost and eat it on a weeknight. The idea is to slowly add lots of frozen meals to the freezer so you have several options to choose from week after week.
- Sunday Kitchen Party: Recipe testing can alternatively happen on Sunday if you want to dedicate your day to cooking. During the day I cook my freezable meal and then I’ll make a nice dinner on Sunday evening that is big enough to have as leftovers later in the week. I like to reserve Sunday nights for those great meals that take longer to make (like a roast) since it isn’t possible to make them during the week. Or, I’ll make my freezable for dinner on Sunday and simply eat half before tossing the rest in the freezer.
- Wish & Love List: I have started a running list of recipes that I want to try, recipes that I love, meals I can make with little to no effort, meals that my man loves, meals that my man makes that I love, etc. It’s been a static list for several months but I’d like to start adding to it as much as possible so I can get out of my meal planning funk.
All of the above feels very aspirational as I look it over, especially knowing that I haven’t done this since September. But it’s doable! I’ve done it before and I will do it again. A brilliant friend of mine recently pointed out that anyone can do anything well provided that they keep practicing, so I choose to believe that I simply need to keep doing this weekly, and I’ll eventually become a pro. At least I’m all set for this week:
- Saturday (last night): I tried a new recipe for dinner – these stuffed shells. They were SO TASTY but are definitely a weekend meal since filling them took a lot longer than I anticipated.
- Sunday: I’m making Turkey Chili, half of which will get frozen, and we’ll eat the rest later this week. We have dinner with my man’s parents tonight so I’ll be cooking in the afternoon.
- Monday: Shepherd’s Pie, an easy meal that we’ve made hundreds of times.
- Tuesday: Turkey Chili made on Sunday, so all we need to do is reheat and prepare our sides.
- Wednesday: Chicken Broccoli Alfredo, another easy meal that we can make together in less than an hour.
- Thursday: We’re having dinner with my parents so it’s a real “no cook” night.
- Friday: I tried a fantastic recipe for knock-off IKEA meatballs last month and doubled the recipe so I could freeze some. We’ll defrost them overnight on Thursday so all I need to do is make the sauce and some rice or potatoes to have with them.
Does anyone else struggle with meal planning? It can’t be just me!