The Day I Finally Decided to Plan My Meals
As a serial nondinner-planner with a husband, two little kids and a full-time job, I would start thinking about what meal I was going to make each night around 3 p.m. most weekdays. This usually entailed taking a trip to the supermarket after work; other times, it would be, "Hmm, I have chicken, and some spinach that's probably about to go bad...What can I do with them?" So, the system was decent enough, but I could do without scrambling to the supermarket three times a week. Plus, having the "What's for dinner?" question hanging over my head daily was starting to become annoying. The worst was that my thrown-together dinners were usually pretty weak.
Then one Sunday afternoon about four years ago, I decided to try and make a proper meal plan. I definitely felt unsure about it and had to shake off thoughts of, "Who am I kidding? This isn't going to work!" But, it ended up being one of the best things I ever did for my sanity—and I've been meal planning ever since. Some weeks are better than others, but overall, meal planning has been a game changer. Less stress in my life. More tasty dinners. Even less money spent at the grocery store, since I often base meals on what I already have in my fridge, freezer or pantry. Win-win-win.
There are not many rules to meal planning. But here's what I've found helps:
1. Write it down.
Plenty of great services exist to help you; but, I just use a pen and paper. I went through a chalkboard phase, but gave up on that because it felt a little too public (I like keeping my notes to myself; then I can change them at the last minute and no one in my family is the wiser).
2. Look at your calendar.
How many nights will you be home for dinner that week? How many people will be joining you? I usually cook five nights a week and leave the other two for eating out or ordering in. Sometimes, I'll check the weather, too. If it's going to be cold and rainy I'll make something like soup or baked pasta.
3. Keep the bar low.
When people hear I work all day and cook dinner for four people most nights, they think I might be nuts. But here's some real talk: most of the weeknight meals at my house are essentially some variation on a main ingredient + olive oil + salt + pepper. For example, pork tenderloin roasted in a hot oven; chicken thighs under the broiler; cod fillets pan-fried. Sides follow the same formula. On a recent Monday night: broccoli sautéed with garlic and olive oil; and, potato wedges roasted with olive oil and salt. Here's another: cut-up raw carrots and celery; baguette slices spread with garlic butter and warmed. You get the idea. Lemon juice and herbs also figure prominently in this no-recipes playbook.
4. Make a shopping list.
I assess my pantry and fridge, to make sure I have the basics, then I write all of the ingredients I need for the week's meals on a list and grocery shop once a week.
5. Do a post-mortem.
There's one more thing that has been a big help to me in planning my meals: a dinners journal. It is totally nerd-tastic and I love it. A few recent entries:
Keeping a dinners journal ensures that great recipes don't disappear into the black hole of my culinary memory. It reminds me that drumsticks work really well with that crispy ginger-lime chicken recipe. It also keeps other dishes from getting too much play (my apologies to the sausage/spinach/white bean soup I made so often that none of us can eat it anymore).
Lastly, paging through my dinners journal kind of makes me feel like a boss. Even if my inbox is still a disaster.