As much as I’d like to be sometimes, I’m not a spontaneous person.
I plan the shit out of everything. This is even true when it comes to feeding myself and making meals for my family. If you give me 15 minutes to decide what’s for dinner, I’ll spend 12 minutes opening the refrigerator and cabinets 18 times and the last 3 minutes looking up carryout restaurants within a reasonable driving distance because I’m now starving to death (and scouring their menus for potential vegan options that sound halfway decent at that moment in time) before deciding that nothing sounds good except maybe a box of donuts. Which would be fine because hey I’m 31 and an adult, but I probably couldn’t confidently tell anyone else I fed my two year old a chocolate glazed for dinner without feeling some #momguilt (not that he would have any objections).
So last year I started actually meal planning. Like, writing things down and scheduling them and making a legit grocery list that helped me, rather than created more chaos, for the first time in my life. Typically 5-7 days in advance. It made a world of difference in our pockets, time, and stress level — especially now vegan and with kids — so I wanted to share some tips for getting started!
Decide what your meal planning priorities are. Is it to save money and use up your coupon collection? To use the half-eaten boxes of food and spices in your pantry and reduce waste? To incorporate new variety and better nutrition into your routine? To make things easier for the busy weeknights when everyone is coming home from school and work? To reduce stress on the primary cook in the household? Determining what matters most to you (or maybe there are a few things) will help you to devise a more successful meal planning approach.
Decide how you want to collect recipes. Are you a natural born throw-things-together-and-it-always-tastes-good home chef who doesn’t need recipes, just ideas? Are you someone who relies on the inspiration of others to guide your food choices (holla at ya, Pinterest)? Do you have a collection cookbooks that you’d love to use but just never made the time for before? Is there a folder in your Gmail labeled “recipes” in which you’ve filed 300 meals but haven’t actually ever sorted through or tried? Perhaps it’s a combination of several things. Figure out what suits your fancy so you don’t get derailed by all the options out there. You can always try something one week and change it up the next.
Decide how you’re going to organize things. Do you prefer pen and paper? Do you like spreadsheets? Do you want to create a file box of colorful notecards that you could refer back to later for meal plans past? Do you want to find an app to help keep things in one place? I’ve tried it all and ultimately decided that spreadsheets stress me out, and writing it out on a piece of paper works best for me.
Figure out how many meals you need. Do your kids stay at their dad’s two nights a week? Are you working late at all this week and will either miss dinner or need to bring carry-out home for everyone? Do you need to plan for breakfasts and lunches, too? Your week looks like nobody else’s, so outline it and figure out exactly what the food situation needs to look like in order to mesh with your family dynamic and schedule.
Multitask. I know, I know – there’s all this research now about how multitasking is our demise and we don’t actually get anything done by doing more than one thing at a time and yada yada yada. But I’m telling you – you can create your meal plan AND your weekly grocery list at the same freakin’ time (all while secondarily saving money and cleaning out old ingredients in your cupboard that you don’t know what else to do with). And it’s amazing. In my house, I make my meal plan for the week, and then I write down only the ingredients I know I have to purchase under each day’s meal(s). Then next to those meals, I write the side dishes I’m going to make (usually something easy like sliced oranges or a mixed salad). BAM, grocery list done. Sometimes I’ll take it a step further and input that list into a grocery list app that I share with my husband so we can tag team it at the store. Because, toddler.
Start simple. Just because you’re meal planning doesn’t mean you’re suddenly husking corn from the farm across the street and making everything from scratch (unless that’s your thang). Meal planning is simply there to help remove the stresses and added pressures we put on ourselves when it comes to deciding what to feed our families. If your typical week consists of frozen veggie burgers, bagged salads, and pre-cut fruit, cool – go with it. Just write it down somewhere and assign it to a night so you can move on. If you like take out once or twice a week, put that in there too. Meal planning = not a punishment or New Year’s Resolution made to be nearly impossible to achieve so that you just end up feeling bad about yourself. Ain’t nobody got time for that.
Get input from the family. This is just a side note, but if you have “picky eaters” in the family and you’re trying on a new lifestyle hack, it can help to get their input and requests. Maybe your four year old pasta monster would be willing to try something new in his mac and cheese this week, if he had the opportunity to choose what it was. Little kids also tend to like finger foods and self-assembly foods aka giant messes, so getting their opinion on things like taco night or homemade pizza Friday could make for a huge win. Plus, then you don’t have to come up with everything on your own. Double win.
Stick to it. Let this evolve. Try things, change things, and see what works. But stick with it for a while. I promise that if you put the 15-20 minutes a week in that is needed here, this slight change in routine will make a significantly positive impact on your life in more ways than one.
Another option is to subscribe to a meal planning or recipe service, like the one offered in Ask A Plant-Based Dietitian! Here, you can sign up to receive weekly meal templates to help guide and inspire your family meals for the week ahead. Talk about easy!