I never dreamed I would one day become a meal planner.
For years and years, planning meals sounded achingly dull to me, and also pointless: I just kept a well-stocked pantry and fridge, and spontaneity was my middle name. In truth, I did formulate a plan for the fresh stuff I bought, but it was a fluid, unwritten one that was often altered or nixed when something came up, or I changed my mind, or I was short on time, or we felt like eating out.
And then, I had a kid.
I stuck to the same non-system for months, until I eventually realized it was no longer working for me. Rather than enjoying the delicious freedom of improvised cooking, as I had since my early twenties, I was feeling stressed trying to find time for meal preparation between work and child, and worst of all frustrated that I always seemed to be in a rush, cooking basic things that required no forethought and gave me no sense of accomplishment.
My cook’s soul was shriveling up, and meal planning was the obvious solution. A few months later, I am a much happier and more serene cook. I don’t plan our meals in writing every week — sometimes the mental plan is enough for me to wing it — but doing so regularly enough has helped me regain a sense of peace and control in the kitchen.
How I Do It
First of all, I only plan for meals I take with Maxence — my lunches are either simply assembled at home or eaten out — and in my household, breakfasts, desserts, and snacks can be trusted to happen satisfyingly without the need for planning.
I draw up my meal plan on Mondays, after I uncover the contents of my weekly vegetable delivery, and I also take into account:
- A quick inventory of pantry or freezer items that I feel like (or need) using, plus leftover ingredients or dishes from the previous week (say, a container of homemade stock, some pesto, a few scraps of dough…),
- The current list of things I’m inspired to cook,
- A rough schedule for the upcoming week, to know when we’ll be eating in or out or having guests over, on which nights I’ll have time to cook, etc.
I give it a think, look through my recipe collections online and offline, do some research as needed for extra information or inspiration, and come up with:
- A list of dishes and the days on which I plan to cook them, factoring in leftovers nights and wildcard meals (see below), and outlining what part(s) of those menus should work for our two-year-old,
- A list of advance prep steps that can or should be done the day before (cleaning vegetables, soaking chickpeas, mixing the dough for a pizza or quiche crust, taking an item out of the freezer to thaw…),
- A shopping list of missing ingredients, with the days I’ll be needing them so I know when to go to which shop.
This gives me a clear picture of what I need to do and when, so I can squeeze prep steps wherever they most readily fit in my schedule.
Read on for more on the 9 benefits and 7 “Yes, buts” of meal planning.