Create a Meal Plan That Will Save Your Life and Make You Pretty
Before a meal plan.
After a meal plan.
See? It's basically science.
The single greatest stress of the day is not cooking dinner - it's figuring out what to make for dinner. And since stress causes wrinkles, weight gain, and headaches, we can assume that eliminating the biggest stress of the day will prevent us from rapidly aging and becoming dependent on a cocktail of Ibuprofen and wine.
This meal plan strategy is not based on one method. If you make dinner in the crockpot every night or like to cook 37 freezer meals at once, do your thing. But this isn't that. It's more about how to cook every day without losing your mind.
There are three main steps:
Have two master lists: recipes that are brainless workhorses and recipes you'd like to try one day.
Have dinner components ready to go.
Spend ten minutes a week jotting down a possible plan.
Step One: Have two master lists.
For your workhorse list, think of the meals that fit three criteria - brainless, little hands-on time, and well liked. Our family's list includes: grilled cheese and tomato soup, spaghetti and meatballs, chicken tikka masala, chili, homemade pizza, curry rice, hot dogs and tater tots, and stir-fry.
At least two of our weekly meals are from my workhorse list. When I don't have to think about a recipe or worry about how intensely my boys will reject dinner, I relieve stress and add margin. Plus, these recipes need only basic ingredients and even freeze well for later.
For your "one day" list, keep it simple. You can use a Pinterest board, a box of tattered index cards, or a piece of paper filled with cookbook page numbers. Whatever you use, keep the list simple and, if you can, short. We all have good intentions when it comes to trying new recipes, but be honest if your life doesn't allow a lot of experimentation. Maybe the weekend is the only time your brain can reasonably engage in a new recipe, so keep the list manageable. Otherwise, you'll read through dozens of recipes every time you make a meal plan and will be inevitably overwhelmed. Overwhelmed = stress = headaches. No thanks.
Step Two: Have dinner components ready to go.
Many of our favorite dinners freeze well, so I'll often make a big batch and get at least three dinners out of it. It takes virtually no extra time when it happens but saves so much time later. Extra liquid-y things like soups, curries, sauces, etc. are ladled into gallon freezer bags, frozen flat, and then stacked upright in my freezer.
Meat in Bulk
You can use your freezer to help with bulk buying as well. Those big packs of chicken? Don't put them straight in your freezer; that only leads to an epic battle between you, your giant chef's knife, and a frozen block of chicken parts. Not pretty.
When you get home, cut the chicken into bite-sized pieces, divide them into little freezer bags, and add various marinades to them for quick meals.
- Teriyaki for stir-fry and noodle bowls.
- Oregano, lemon juice, and olive oil for green and pasta salads.
- Ginger, garlic, and yogurt for curry-based stews.
- Chili powder, cumin, and lime juice for burritos, taco salads, and enchiladas.
When you're ready to cook, pull out the bag, drop it in a sink of cold water, and the meat will be defrosted and ready to cook in less then 30 minutes. This same idea works for ground beef when it's cooked and sliced steak when it's raw.
Bread in Bulk
I buy French loaves from CostCo and slice and freeze them immediately after I get home. Now I have fresh bread at the ready, and I don't have to defrost an entire loaf. Garlic bread for pasta night, grilled cheese sandwiches, open faced French bread pizzas, or cubed and toasted then tossed with fresh tomatoes, cucumber, red onion, basil, and olive oil.
Vegetables in Bulk
When you're in a hurry to make stir-fry for dinner, trying to pry a handful of broccoli out of that giant bag is a very specific kind of torture. Instead, portion out those big bags of frozen vegetables... broccoli, green beans, snap peas. Do yourself a favor and have them ready to grab and go.
Make It All Grab-and-Go
It might seem silly, but even something like immediately freeing your onions from their weird red net is super helpful. When you've got your sister on the phone and your kid is screaming for you to wipe his butt and all you want to do is [grimace face] get. that. [ripping it with your hands] onion. out of. "MOMMY! I'm done POOPIIIIING!!!!" the. [skin is being cut open] BAG. [onions bounce all over the floor].
[Aaaand pour more wine.]
This scenario is easily avoidable. Before you put away your groceries, make them grab-and-go.
Step Three: Spend ten minutes a week jotting down a possible plan.
Grab your brainless meal list, your one-day list, a list of what you have stored in the freezer (if you have one which I don't), and your calendar for the week. Here's what you consider:
- How you want to feel: Relaxed? Productive? Excited because you cooked something new?
- The weather: Is it super cold? Super hot? Rainy? How can food complement the weather?
- Your schedule: A busy day at work probably doesn't need to be followed by a meal that requires four pans and two hours. Be gentle with yourself when it comes to your schedule, and always assume you can't handle as much as you think. It's better to shortchange yourself and stay relaxed than to set high expectations and want to burn everything to ash.
- Extra ingredients: I don't always have lemons, fresh herbs, and fancy vegetables around, i.e. leeks, asparagus, etc. So if one meal needs cilantro, I'll choose another meal that week that also needs cilantro. Think through ingredients you'll need and consider how you might use it all up in a couple of ways before it goes bad.
Now that you've thought through those four things, start plugging meals into certain days. Or you can even make a general list of five or six meals and choose whatever recipe makes the most sense on the day you need to make it.
My Plan From Last Week
What I considered and basically said out loud to myself:
It's the first week my oldest starts kindergarten (sob face), so I want him to enjoy dinner in case he's overwhelmed from school. Make spaghetti and meatballs (his favorite). I'll still have my youngest at home since preschool won't start yet, so I'll be low on alone time. Don't try new recipes this week. It's hot during the day but cooling down a little quicker, and there's no rain in the forecast. Make hot dogs and tots inside, but eat outside since it's finger food and easy. I have kickboxing class from 5:30-6:30pm on Thursday. Cook rice before I leave, and pull out curry from the freezer so my husband can heat it up when they're ready to eat. We all love Pizza Friday, so pizza on Friday. I'll have basil and sausage for the pizza but won't use it all. Toss extra sausage and vegetables from the entire week with Israeli couscous. I don't have anything for Wednesday yet, but it's the middle of the week so be kind. A bag of marinated meat from the freezer to make stir-fry. Oh! And I'll need rice on Thursday for the freezer curry, so I'll just make double rice on Wednesday for both meals! Score!
Seriously, that's exactly how it went. So here's my plan.
Monday: spaghetti and meatballs
Tuesday: hot dogs and tots on the porch if it's not too hot
Wednesday: freezer meat stir-fry // make double rice
Thursday: freezer curry with leftover rice while I'm gone to class
Friday: homemade pizza
Saturday: bits and pieces Israeli couscous with everything leftover from the week
I usually only plan six meals because inevitably we get invited to the grandparents' house or go out for burgers or have enough leftovers to make an entire dinner.
You Can Do This
You make your lists once and add to them whenever you'd like. You choose a consistent time to spend ten minutes planning; I recommend Sunday afternoon simply because most of us are still full of margin then. Then you stick your meal plan on the fridge and eliminate all the stress.
Don't you feel prettier already?