MEAL PLANNING MADE SIMPLE

Our meal plan: simple, but effective.

Our “meal plan”: simple, but effective.

J and I have never been particularly good at meal planning. There were a few occasions where we sat down and tried to draft a two-week meal plan, but I’m not sure that we ever managed to completely finish the task.

We also never managed to follow whatever bit of planning we had completed. In retrospect, we made our plans too detailed and our meals too ambitious for our lifestyle, so we kept finding ourselves in a position where we were lacking either the time or the inclination to cook whatever was detailed in the plan. Or we somehow couldn’t find one of the meal’s main ingredients in the shops that day, and were stuck having to improvise something else at the last minute.

For a while, we completely gave up on meal planning. Every morning, just before leaving for work, J would say to me, “Give some thought to what you’d like for dinner tonight,” and of course, neither of us would. Then at 5:00 PM, my phone would ring and inevitably J would be on the other end, asking the dreaded question, “What are we doing for dinner?” We’d both be at a loss for ideas and usually end up eating one of our five easy standbys. Which became incredibly boring. And caused us to order way too much non-Paleo takeout.

In the fall I had a flash of brilliance, and we created a meal outline. Whereas a traditional meal plan specifies the exact dish to be served, our outline gives only the basis of the meal (the main protein and/or the broad category of dish), leaving us the flexibility to adapt it to our needs on any given day. Our meal outline is as follows:

Mondays – chicken
Tuesdays – beef
Wednesdays – fish
Thursdays – pork
Fridays – ground meat
Saturdays – wildcard
Sundays – soup/stew/curry/chilli/etc.

You’ll note that there is some overlap, for example, ground beef could be used on Tuesday (beef night) and/or on Friday (ground meat night).

Underneath is a list of quick and easy dishes we can choose from, for example, on chicken night: roasted legs/thighs, chicken breast with mushroom sauce, fajita chicken, chicken stir-fry. Obviously we do not limit ourselves to those options, but it provides some basic inspiration for the uninspired. If we’re feeling more ambitious, we’ll look for an innovative recipe in one of our Paleo cookbooks.

Under the list of main dishes we have a list of vegetable side dishes. We serve one, or sometimes two, vegetable options at each supper.

Saturday night’s “wildcard” allows us the flexibility to eat something special (e.g. lamb or wild game), to order take-out, or to dine out. We aren’t doctrinaire about which day of the week is our “wildcard” night, so if we have an opportunity to deviate from the plan on a different day, we’ll just eat that day’s designated meal on Saturday.

Why this works for us:

1. It gives us a framework. At the very least, I know that when I go to the grocery store on Monday, I am to leave with chicken. While I’m there, I can figure out the rest of the details, according to whatever else is fresh and available.

2. Because of our proximity to groceries (we are lucky to have three major grocery stores, an indoor public market, and more than a dozen smaller food shops within 10 minutes’ walk of our apartment!), we really don’t have to plan our meals down to the finest detail. We do our grocery shopping daily, and we have access to a lot of food options.

3. We don’t have to plan for breakfasts and lunches. Breakfast almost always consists of a large number of eggs, some produce and some meat, in whatever form we feel like cooking (scrambled eggs, frittata, omelette, etc.). This carries J and me through until dinner, while Oliver simply eats leftovers from the previous evening’s meal as his lunch.

I have seen some truly amazing 30-day meal plans out in the Paleo Blogosphere (check out Whole Family Strong if you’re looking for inspiration), but such things seem to be far beyond J’s and my level of planning and ambition. The strategy we are using has served us very well over the course of the last six or seven months, and I believe we have found our sweet spot between rigid planning and total chaos.

Does your family follow a meal plan, or do you just go with the flow? How do you prepare fresh, healthy and affordable meals for your family, given the constraints of a modern, busy life?

3 responses to “MEAL PLANNING MADE SIMPLE

  1. This sounds like a great fit for your family. Having thawed meat is the hardest part about getting dinner ready for me. I have three kids and homeschool, so I have found that a meal plan is necessary to make sure we eat good foods. I plan for a week at a time. I made a rough meal plan of our favorite meals: four meals a week for 8 weeks. I use these four meals as inspiration, but I don’t feel locked in, it just saves me from having to come up with seven meals from scratch. I get my meal plan list and my calendar, a pad of paper and a few spare minutes. Looking at our calendar and what my days will be like, I plan a dinner for each day. If it is a soccer practice day, I have to have something we can picnic with at practice, so this is usually a salad. Other days need to be crockpot days for when we get home from an afternoon activity right at dinnertime. I also plan the two veggie sides to go with each meal. I only have time for one grocery trip each week, so I have to plan dinners fully. As I plan, I make my grocery list. I keep the meals on a weekly calendar on the fridge so I can look at it the night before and make sure I thaw meat and have it in my head before starting my busy day.

  2. I have a similar plan to yours…. A meal outline that gets filled in for the week, usually planned out the day I do groceries (which changes week-to-week). I took it a step further, keeping a index card file of recipes in my kitchen cabinet, and the file is limited to ONLY the recipes that are used often. That way, when I’m trying to assemble my grocery list, I can just yank the recipes out of one place and verify the ingredients and quantities easily. Then, the week’s recipes (when I need them to refer to) are stashed in the front of the box, so I don’t have to dig for them later in the week. With 2 kids that turn into monsters around dinner time, this really helps us eat well (almost) every day.

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