When I was a young girl, I remember my mother writing a shopping list each week before we went to the market. In hindsight I realize now that she didn't just pull the ingredients randomly out of thin air; she wrote down what she needed based on her meal plan Meal planning feels passe in today's fast-paced world of eating out and taking in prepared meals. 95% of my clients do not have a meal planning practice. When they come to me they are frustrated with the weekly cooking and lost about what to eat. Of all my culinary nutrition tips, tricks and tools, meal planning is the #1 tool I use to help clients succeed in the kitchen and in achieving their health goals. Research has even shown that those who cook their own meals, as opposed to eating out, are happier*.
WHAT IS MEAL PLANNING?
Meal planning is a way to organize the week's meals so that the shopping, prepping, and cooking are less stressful and more manageable. It involves a menu of what to cook, recipes (if necessary), shopping list, and some people write down how to divide up the cooking over the week so that it is not overwhelming. Like any habitual practice, one needs a plan to accomplish the task at hand. Without a meal plan it is easy to waste food, run to the store more often than necessary, derail from a nourishing diet, and forgo cooking altogether. A little time planning each week can solve these problems.
Plan on doing the bulk of your shopping on the weekend, with a smaller shop mid-week. On Friday or Saturday spend 10 minutes creating a menu for the week. This is something my husband and I do together and we've got it down to a science. We're so busy with work and a baby that my husband created a running list of all of our favorite dishes so that we don't have to reinvent the wheel each week. He divided out the dishes into categories ie. vegetables, mains, grains, etc. He even laminated it so we can write and erase on it. This is what happens when a chef marries a teacher.
Scour your favorite blog or cookbook. Use the time to sense what you might like to have depending on what is in season and how busy the week looks. If it's an intense week ahead, don't make lengthy meals like lasagne. Go for easy proteins you can quickly roast, pan sear or stir fry. And if something requires overnight preparation like marinating, slow cooking, or soaking beans, make a note for yourself as a reminder.
If you're cooking every night of the week, there's a simpler way. Pick 3 dinners, assuming leftovers for the next night. Vary the vegetables so there's a wide variety throughout the week. Lunch can be leftovers from the night before or easy pantry staples such as canned seafood, legumes and grains thrown into a salad. And for many people breakfast is usually just 1 or 2 meals in rotation, like oatmeal and smoothies.
Here's an example of our menu this week:
Monday and Tuesday: Fish Stew with Greens over Rice
Wednesday: Pork Chops with Sauteed Kale and Roasted Purple Potatoes
Thursday and Friday: Red Lentil Soup with Quinoa and Roasted Turmeric Cauliflower
Salad with canned salmon, hard boiled eggs, or local smoked chicken
Avocado toast with eggs
Eggs, greens, gluten free toast or plantains
It's easy to end up at your farmers market or grocery store and forget what ingredients might already be lingering at home. Before you leave the house to go shopping for your menu, take inventory of what's in your fridge and pantry. I actually do this when I'm first planning out the menu to see what I can use up.
Plan your meals to be eaten from most perishable to least. Fish is always on monday nights for us since we buy it over the weekend at the farmers market. My husband is a big meat eater and therefore I like to break up the week with a vegetarian meal halfway through, usually a soup, stew, or a black bean taco bowl. Friday or Saturday is a great day to throw together an easy meal using up any leftover vegetables and starches. Sunday: take a rest.
If you're not used to meal planning, I encourage you to try it for a couple of weeks. It may be just the thing to help you prevent culinary overwhelm. Clients report that it inspires more creativity in the kitchen, mindful eating, and family togetherness. And it just may bring a little more happiness to your week too.
Need help with your family's meal planning? Check out my Monthly Meal Planning Subscription. It's like having a chef and nutritionist right at your fingertips.
*Lu J, Huet C, Dubé L (2011). Emotional reinforcement as a protective factor for healthy eating in home settings. Am J Clin Nutr, 94(1), 254-61.