3 Happy Years of Meal Planning

Photo: Toy Story movie merchandise

Photo: Toy Story 3 movie merchandise

Yup, February marked three full years of meal planning at our house! I still remember being intimidated by the process. Some of the things I was afraid of:

  • I would schedule a meal and then “not feel like” making it
  • I would plan a meal and not have time to cook it (or we’d have to eat at 8 pm)
  • I would actually have to cook every day
  • It would be Rom or Link’s turn to cook and something would come up so they couldn’t do it
  • We would end up in a rut like grilled cheese on Mondays, eggs on Tuesdays…
  • Choosing in advance would be boring – we’d always know what we were having
  • I wouldn’t be allowed to have fun food any more like frozen pizza
  • We would never spontaneously go out to dinner

But then I looked at what our meals were really like, and I knew we had to improve. Here’s a sample of weekdays from 2010:

  • Monday – frozen cheese ravioli with bottled tomato sauce; frozen peas
  • Tuesday – chili and rice
  • Wednesday – breaded chicken fingers, oven fries, cubed mixed vegetables (all from frozen)
  • Thursday – pan fried sausages, mashed potatoes and canned corn
  • Friday – microwaved salmon, packaged rice mix, and broccoli
  • Saturday – frozen pizza

I didn’t like using frozen and packaged food all the time, and although it looks like there was variety, we usually had the same meals most weeks in a different order. I would always think, “I would love to make lasagna” or “We’ll have baked chicken later in the week,” and I would throw out pounds and pounds of fresh food when I was too tired to come home and cook from scratch. I was always so mad at myself when I threw out boneless, skinless chicken breasts that cost a fortune, or a lovely crisp romaine lettuce that sat in the fridge long enough to go soggy. It was always easier to make some spaghetti or throw some fish sticks in the oven!

So we met as a family and agreed we would cook every day, be prepared to wait for dinner, and eat what was planned without complaining. We all voted on our favourite meals, and then I scheduled them throughout the month. A typical week in the early days looked like:

  • Monday – Chicken and veg stir fry with rice
  • Tuesday – Chick pea and veg curry with couscous
  • Wednesday – Meat loaf, baked potatoes and canned corn
  • Thursday – Pan fried haddock, potatoes and carrots
  • Friday – Chicken pot pie (from frozen – couldn’t resist them!)
  • Saturday – Stuffed peppers

There were weeknights when the meal wasn’t ready until 7:30 (not something you could do with small kids), but otherwise, it worked. As a bonus, Link learned to meal plan and cook (which they still do), and Rom took on a fair share of cooking. In his early days in Canada, he thought of it as “Dar’s kitchen” and I had to disabuse him of that notion!

What I didn’t expect is that I would look forward to each day’s meal, knowing what we were having. I’d look forward to cooking my choices, and look forward to my nights off. It was a win-win-win situation!

About 18 months in, after Link had left home, Rom and I gave vegetarian eating a try, and decided to stick with it. Since we didn’t have a stockpile of recipes, we each chose a vegetarian cookbook and cooked from them for about three months, until we gained some confidence. Now we have a good repertoire, and we still like trying new recipes from cookbooks. We usually cook enough for two meals at a time.

A sample two-week period for this month is:

  • Monday and Tuesday – Rice Carrot Casserole (has eggs and cheese, tastes like quiche)
  • Wednesday and Friday – Vegetable Tagine (new recipe from One-Dish Vegan cookbook)
  • Thursday – I work late so we both fend for ourselves (beans and toast, probably!)
  • Saturday – Popover (Dutch Baby pancake)
  • Monday and Tuesday – Pasta with Red Lentil Tomato Sauce
  • Wednesday and Friday – Indian-Spiced Risotto (another new recipe from One-Dish Vegan)
  • Thursday – same as previous Thursday
  • Saturday – Veg and Nut Stir Fry

Thanks to Katie at The Pursuit of Paulson for the cookbook recommendation!

It’s no lie that meal planning changed my life. It has changed my relationship with food.

  • We eat Real Food now – almost no packaged (KD once a month!)
  • I buy only the groceries I need to make the meals – virtually no waste
  • I cook less because we cook for two nights at a time, and Rom does a full half of the cooking now
  • We have enough recipes that we don’t get bored, and we still try new ones
  • We go out for meals once or twice a month, and focus on foods we don’t make at home

If you don’t make meal plans, why not?

If you’ve been “on the fence” about meal planning, my advice is: Just Do It!

28 comments

  1. Fiona

    It’s just so true that you wind up throwing out pounds of fresh food without meal planning. And it feels terrible.

    It’s interesting to see how your meals have changed in this three year period! Packaging changes, no child at home, meat to vegetarian. A lot of adaptations!

    We’ve been meal planning for about 2 years. It’s funny to see how many of our friends come straight into the kitchen and read our chalk-board where we write meals for the week! Many of them have also caught the habit and we all swap recipes. I still go through phases though where I “can’t be bothered”…it’s amazing how quickly the costs, food waste and household organisation go of the rails when I have a “week off.”

  2. Meal-planning sounds like a great way to reduce waste AND save money 🙂

  3. EcoCatLady

    Hmmm… well this is something I’ve never tried, and honestly I just can’t wrap my brain around it. Of course, most of the time I’m only feeding myself – I think it would be completely different if you were feeding a family or even a couple. Come to think of it, the closest I get to meal planning is dinners when CatMan comes over – we have a small repertoire of dishes that we both like and that fit into both of our crazy eating restrictions. So, I guess I can understand it from that standpoint – but I have to admit it sorta takes the fun out of cooking for me, and I find I’m much more likely to stress over it because I have to worry about having all the right ingredients on hand.

    Generally speaking what I love about cooking is the adventure of it… everything from perusing what’s fresh, in season or on sale at the store to inventing meals from whatever I happen to have on hand. It’s not that I never use recipes, but I view them as more of a general guideline than a strict plan to follow. But often I’m not entirely sure where a meal is going until it’s done. I almost never cook the same thing twice, and I almost never waste anything. I sorta decide what I’m eating based on a combination of what I feel like and what needs to be eaten up. When there’s too much to eat up, I toss it in a pot and make soup. I’m also fond of making enormous batches of things and freezing them in meal-sized portions so I can just grab something when I don’t feel like cooking.

    Anyhow, that’s what works for me, but I can see how other folks might not get the same thrill that I do out of the “catch as catch can” approach.

    • If you have good ingredients in the house, cook often, and use things up, that’s what counts! I probably started meal planning because I DIDN’T do those things, and I needed some structure to make myself do them!

  4. Meal planning (and making enough for two meals) definitely works for me- otherwise I decide I can’t be bothered to decide what to eat and end up just eating bread and cheese..

  5. Well you know I love meal planning! I love that I, like you, have virtually no food waste, our meals are ‘better’, and it’s stopped us automatically grabbing a frozen pizza…although we still do that occasionally!
    I really dislike cooking and meal planning seems to put me onto automatic pilot in the kitchen – if that makes sense!

    • I like cooking most of the time, but when I’m busy and tired, I like knowing there is something I “have to” make, and if I don’t make it, the ingredients might go to waste. That keeps me motivated and I just do it without thinking too much!

  6. I don’t really follow meal planning, but over the years I’ve become very adept at keeping a fully stocked pantry and am always able to make meals without having to do much thinking or planning. I buy when things I use are on sale and keep what we need in stock. Part of this is just that I really dislike shopping!

    • I try not to “overstock” and have ingredients on hand for years, but I do keep all the basic dry goods in the house, and would never run out of rice, lentils, pasta, oats, etc. Every week I buy fresh fruit, vegetables, dairy, and “special” ingredients needed for recipes. I like food shopping and I try not to buy too much on impulse!

  7. Love menu planning. I do flexi-menu planning. Consider my plan a scaffold to give guidance. I’ve got even better with this scaffold so that I can now extend a two week menu plan to three weeks, with only a visit to the green grocer needed each week. Yah! No visit to the supermarket for three weeks. Less waste. More money saved. Less time wasted shopping.

    • We usually buy the ingredients for two recipes each week (four meals) plus food for breakfast, lunches, snacks, and occasional baking. Since we have a stock of dry goods, it’s usually a weekly trip for fruit & veg at the farm stand, and some milk & cheese. We can make the two meals in either order, or make something else that requires minimal/basic ingredients (like pancakes). If we don’t make a planned recipe, we carry it over to the next week, and make sure the ingredients don’t go to waste.

  8. Lisa

    We meal plan weekly now and try to only shop once per week. I cannot believe the number of years we spent after work standing around the kitchen saying, ‘what do you want for dinner?’, ‘I don’t know what do you want?’. This lead to some pretty crappy meal choices and more processed/packaged food than I want to remember. Now, like you, most everything we eat is made from real food.

    • I know; I got tired of those conversations, too! Now it’s like, “What are we having?” “The meal plan says you are making carrot and ginger soup.” “Great!”

  9. Awesome! I have messed up our weekly meal plan by turning veggie again and I am still trying to work it out!

  10. Lane

    Nicely organized!

    I plan Mon-Thurs and count on leftovers. MLane makes salmon usually on Tuesday which lasts him 2 days. I have something else– eggs and veg or leftovers. We have meat less than once a week at this point and only local meat at that. We are lucky to live in an area with lots of farms so organic chicken and grass fed beef /farm raised pork are easy to obtain. We keep hens and bees and have those available; huge gardens in the spring thru fall supply veg and some fruit( although it’s hard to imagine we will ever have our month of asparagus in May after this winter!). Mark Bittman has great vegetarian recipes we use regularly.

    • Wow, you have a great system and your own food supply! When we chose our two start-up cookbooks, Rom used How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, so we’ve had lots of Bittman’s recipes!

  11. I grew up helping my parents cook (and doing a good portion of the shopping and weekday cooking during my high school years) so I had a leg up when I left home. I think it’s good that Link had a similar experience – so many people I met in college could barely make frozen pizza, let along something like pasta! 🙂 We meal plan, but it’s a little looser because there are definitely nights where I do not want what’s on the plan or an unexpected work schedule change. A big cook-a-thon on Sundays is usually my best bet for busy weeks.

  12. I tried to comment yesterday but my phone wasn’t playing ball!

    I grew up thinking it was normal to wander the grocery store, pick items, come home and then know what to cook every night. Once I realised mum’s way wasn’t my way, or the only way, I was fine. Even moving from the ‘per meal’ shopping when I lived on top of a grocery store, to once a week shopping, I’m pretty good with it. There’s seldom ‘top up shops’ unless I decide not to buy certain fresh produce on the weekend, knowing the meal will be later in the week.

    The current menu plan is helping, though I’m still catering for a few too many meals, and we’re ending up with ‘hangover’ veggies each week. So I need to refine that. IN the meantime, what can I do with 2 cucumbers, I don’t even like cucumbers!! OH and the upside of this meal business for the BF is it’s about 95% me cooking, 5% him, up from 20%/80% split before (his claim!) He does non recipe cooking as a preference, whereas I like a recipe. He’s happy to customise the meals I’ve prepared (like last night added bacon to an otherwise vego meal) though, and will cook the recipe if I request nicely (ie twice in six weeks I think)

    • Are you OK with that amount of cooking? Wonder if you wrote on the meal plan that he comes up with something two nights a week, recipe or not – would that work? I like cooking, but I appreciate some nights off, too! The way I eat is nothing like my parents’ – they have meat and potatoes every day, and don’t like spices (not uncommon for their generation) so I also had to make up my own way. I usually make a recipe a few times, and when it becomes a “regular” meal, I improvise more, or I’ve memorized it.

      • I’m a touch overwhlemed (see today’s post in a few hours), but I did ask if we could have leftovers last night, and he said yes, and ended up cooking a meal for himself (something I don’t eat, not cause I don’t like it, but it’s not ‘healthy’ enough – gluten pasta, feta, bacon, spinach).

        He can and will cook, I just need to work out how to mix it up with this weight loss meal plan with many veggies that he’s not a fan of…

  13. I find having a plan is better for all the reasons you give. I buy a lot of fresh food but without a plan I would over buy and I would have more waste. I am a life long vegetarian and some of my recipes I have used for over 40 years but hardly ever the same twice. Congratulations on your 3 years.

  14. What a wonderfully helpful post! I’ve been thinking about doing a post on meal planning but yours is better than I was contemplating… so I may have to provide a link for others to come here and read what you’ve put together so clearly. I love how you share where you were when you began (list-wise) and how you and your family and your menu plans/lists have evolved. So important for us all to remember ‘baby steps’ really work! Just do it, as you’ve pointed out. Thanks for the encouragement to look more closely at my haphazard menu plans/lists and see how I can plan ahead and enjoy the freedom (and nutritional benefit) that comes with that. 🙂 Cheers, Gina

    • Hello and thanks! I have to admit I read about meal planning for a long time before I actually tried it. I thought it would feel confining, but it’s quite the opposite. It saves time grocery shopping and cooking, and cuts out waste – what’s not to like 🙂

  15. Pingback: Link Love (April 2014) | NO MORE SPENDING

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