A Meal-Planning Primer

Author | Nicole Hostetter

A brown paper bag full of Indian food arrived at my front door the other night.


And even though I’d ordered it, this small mid-week miracle — appearing like magic just as my kids were starting to whine in tandem — I felt a bit guilty as I spread the bag’s fragrant contents out on the table. We had plenty in the cabinets to throw together 3-bean chili, or pasta with simple


tomato sauce. Why had I chosen to order out and spend half a week’s worth of our humble grocery budget on one dinner’s worth of food?


The answer was simple: I didn’t meal-plan for the week. And when I found our family nearing dinnertime on this particular day, I‘d scrambled to answer the question of all questions: What’s for dinner?


With nothing up my sleeve, my cravings got the better of me, and takeout was the answer.


Meal planning keeps things running smoothly in our household, and on the weeks I shirk it, for whatever reason, I pay dearly. Both in money spent on takeout orders, and in my health, because if I’m honest, I never order a salad when we get takeout (I salute those of you who do).


So what does meal planning look like for me? In our house it consists of “The 3 Ps”:

  • Planning

  • Purchasing

  • Prepwork

I have to admit that I had help getting into this routine. A little over a year ago, I subscribed to Vegan Family Kitchen as a birthday gift for my husband. He wanted to eat more vegan meals, and my gift to him was a year’s worth of support by way of cooking for him (because I love cooking, and I love him), something I couldn’t have done without guidance and explicit instructions.


For $98, it felt like a steal once I began receiving the plans Brigitte Gimme, the Vancouver-based mom and food consultant behind VFK, sent out every two weeks. Meal plan overviews for each week, along with grocery lists, and step-by-step recipes gave me everything I needed to be successful. And the year of following her plans (which I now keep in a binder and refer to often), trained me on how to rethink my time in the kitchen, and the food I prepared for my family.


I’m not saying you need to subscribe to a meal-planning service. I’ll try to provide a foundation here to get you started. But looking at different recipe subscription services (which differ from meal-in-a-box kits as they don’t send you the ingredients and tend to cost much less) can be a wonderful way to explore new recipes and streamline your kitchen. And if you’re really struggling with getting into a planning routine, having some detailed help can really jump start this positive habit.


Planning


On Friday night or Saturday morning, I look ahead to the next week’s meals. In general, my meal plan follows this format:

  • Monday: Cold salad with grains/veggies (like a quinoa salad or couscous with pre-roasted vegetables)

  • Tuesday: Crockpot meal (chili or stew)

  • Wednesday: Pasta

  • Thursday: Soup

  • Friday: Veggie burgers or homemade pizza

  • Saturday: Order out or leftovers

  • Sunday: Sandwiches and popcorn

I always make enough to ensure there are leftovers, which we eat for lunches and on the weekends when sometimes we might get takeout, or just have popcorn for dinner with PBJs.


As I look over the week, I compare my usual format to our schedules: On days when there might be late evenings for one of us and only one person will be with the kids at dinnertime, I’ll prepare the crockpot meal. Now that fall is upon us, and as more of us are working from home with easier access to our kitchens, more days than not might have a stew or soup simmering on the stove all day.



For everyday life, it’s not necessary to comb through cookbooks and find elaborate meals. It’s pleasurable to cook this way for a time, but as the weeks wear on it’s hard to keep up. I know, because before having kids and changing my process, that’s how I cooked. I have more than 150 cookbooks in my collection (can we say habit?), and I’d be leafing through them every night, picking whatever caught my eye. It got expensive, and it got exhausting.


These days I know what I can cook easily and well, and I’m content to have the old standbys around each week, and add in something new if it’s a special occasion. Think of what you can make easily and what you love to cook and eat. Using these classic recipes makes life simpler, and isn’t that something we all want?


Purchasing


Once you sit down, look at your schedule for the week ahead and think about your culinary repertoire, you’re ready for the next step.


We humans are really good at filling our lives with clutter. And our diet. All day long we’re tempted by treats and cravings, and avoiding them is hard if you don’t have a plan. There’s no place this plays out quite like the grocery store.


I love the grocery store. I love slowly walking the aisles, reading labels, finding treasures. All the beautiful fruit and vegetables and their rainbow of colors. Foods from around the world. Deli spreads with fresh cheese and other tasty treats. It’s just my wonderful happy place to be.