Monday, July 18, 2011

Not to get all Stepford-Wifey on you

--but meal planning is kind of changing my life.

This might sound silly, but especially on weeknights I often don't feel like cooking because I don't have the energy to think up what to cook. Yet somehow if the menu is planned ahead of time the cooking part seems a lot less daunting.

I've been resistant to meal planning in the past, in part because we cook vegetarian and I've never been able to figure out how to make a lot of the standard meal planning advice (have roast chicken one day, and then then use the leftovers for a chicken salad a few days later, etc.) work for us. And I really like to cook, and to try new recipes, so the approach of having one or a few weeks' worth of menus to cycle through over and over didn't hold much appeal.

So here is what I've come up with, a system of seasonal, vegetarian meal planning that actually works for the way I like to cook and eat:

1. Look at the calendar. My husband and I both keep events in Google calendar, and the first step is to look at this to see if either of us has any evenings out of the house planned. I know myself well enough to know that if he is out I am not going to cook, but I might try to make sure there are leftovers available for that evening.  This also really helps me avoid overbuying produce.

2. Take stock of what we have. In the following order: What's in the crisper drawer? (the spinach we didn't use up last week) What's in the garden and needs to be harvested? (so. much. chard.) What's in the freezer? (still one or two bags of last year's beets) What's in the pantry? (um, that green "bamboo rice" that I thought looked so interesting and still haven't used)

3. Brainstorm. I get a lot of my recipes from the Internet these days, and when I come across an interesting sounding recipe I pin it to one of several food related boards on Pinterest. So I scan through those boards and see if there are any appealing options to use up some of what we have on hand, or are likely to find at the farmer's market. I pull from my own memory too, to add recipes we make a lot (baked potatoes are easy; poached eggs on toast with some form of garlicky greens features most weeks), and just to generally balance things out (so we'd maybe have eggs one night, pasta another, then some form of lentils and rice--my version of "chicken, beef, pork chops").

4. Assign recipes to days. Once I have my menu for the week, I use a dry-erase marker to write it up on a cheapo IKEA plexiglass frame (I can't take credit for the idea), which lives in our kitchen. It helps to be able to just glance at it and be reminded what the plan is. If something needs to be taken care of ahead of time (take roasted tomatoes out of freezer for tomorrow's dinner) I write that down too. I generally plan for a homemade meal every night of the week, though we still end up ordering takeout about once a week. I'm okay with that.

5. Make shopping list. I print out the recipes, and go down the list of ingredients to see what I need to buy (a nice trick to get me to check whether we are running out of staples like olive oil). Then I go through the fridge/pantry/freezer and add whatever else we need (milk, oj, bananas, etc.)  My husband and I also have Our Groceries on our phones, and we use this app to jot down things we run out of or think of mid-week. I always end up transferring these things to a paper list, which seems insane, but hey, I'm making technology work for me.

6. Go shopping. I generally do the meal planning first thing on Sunday, and my daughter and I go grocery shopping later in the morning.

The system isn't perfect. I need a better way to access recipes that are in cookbooks rather than online; organize and remind myself of tried-and-true staples (the system works best when I'm taking on onlly 2-3 new recipes a week and the rest are familiar ones); and file successful new recipes so that I can make them again (currently they just become part of the general churn of paper clutter).

But even so, it's been really successful. We're eating healthier. We're wasting less food (I've started to take a weird sort of pleasure in seeing the refrigerator empty out towards the end of the week). We're spending less on food (not dramatically, but slightly). I'm cooking more, enjoying it more, and feeling less stressed out about it.

I'm also amazed at how sustainable a truly effective system can be. The above process might sound complicated, but it is actually quite intuitive for me, and it only took a few weeks before it became really ingrained and automatic. It doesn't feel difficult at all to keep up with.

Now, how to come up with sustainable, intuitive systems for the approximately four million other things that need to get taken care of around here?

Pictured above:
Summer squash gratin with salsa verde & gruyere
Snap pea & summer squash salad with orzo
Noodles & tofu with black sesame seeds; daikon green goma-ae (cheater's method)


  1. Reading this post is helping me dream that I can someday heal my relationship with cooking and menu planning. Everything you made looks delicious.

  2. Great tips. I think scheduling a time to plan is key, I'm still working on that part. Your cooking looks delicious.

  3. I agree, meal planning can make weeknight cooking seem less daunting (unless I unwittingly choose a recipe that takes way more time than it seems like it should). Our system is all paper -- we go through our cookbooks and write the menu and the grocery list out on little tiny pieces of note paper. Yes, I'm a Luddite. We only plan three meals for the week. Thursday is leftovers, and the weekend is up for grabs. Although I pencil meals into particular nights, we're flexible about what meal gets cooked when, depending on what happens during the week. My problems are a) sometimes taking the time to plan even three meals is beyond my capabilities on a Sunday morning and b) I get bored of the recipes in my cookbooks after a while, or I can't seem to find enough of them that take 30 minutes or less.

  4. Darcy and Lia--so glad that post was helpful! Lia, I agree, figuring out a time to plan is important. I also recommend finding a pleasant ritual (Sunday morning coffee!) to go along with the drudgery.

    E, re: getting bored with your cookbooks--I think that's what the library is for! ;-)

  5. Wow! Two friends and I were having a chat about meal planning this very morning, I was saying how I thought it might be the way for me to go, to get over that heart-sinking 'What shall I cook???" feeling. I cook vegetarian too so enjoyed this post enormously - thank you! Miriam