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?