Today’s Simplify post is about all things food: meal planning, grocery shopping, and cooking (oh my!).
In case you’ve missed the other posts in this series, here they are:
- Simplify Your Life: A Guide to Living Simply and Holistically
- Simplify Your Stuff: A Guide to Uncluttering Your Home
Particularly if you try to eat healthy, fresh foods (which I do), figuring out three meals a day, every day, can be a huge time suck and energy drain. I used to really love to cook, and so when I found myself frustrated by the constant cooking that goes along with a Paleo lifestyle, I wondered what was going on with me. I have no idea who said it, but somewhere down the line I heard this quote: “I love cooking, but I hate making dinner.” And everything clicked.
When time is abundant, I love to wash and chop vegetables, mince fresh spices, and take a few moments to breathe deeply while the onions and garlic (my base for just about everything) are starting to sizzle and give off their fragrance. But in the busyness of everyday life—coming home tired from work, taking Riley on a walk, working out, and then trying to get dinner on the table—making dinner is something I usually have no desire to do.
But if I’m not okay with ordering takeout, eating frozen chicken patties, or making a pot of pasta every day, how do I simplify the process of preparing meals?
Here are some of the questions that helped me get to the bottom of my hatred for making dinner and revealed the parts of the process I actually enjoy, plus some practices that have helped me stay sane and get into a solid rhythm with meal planning.
Questions to Ask Yourself
1. What parts of meal preparation do you enjoy? Consider everything here: planning the menu, shopping (shopping on a Sunday versus on a Tuesday night), prepping ingredients, chopping vegetables, the actual cooking, eating the meal around the table, cleaning up, eating leftovers.
2. Which parts of meal preparation exhaust you?
3. What do meals mean to you? How did you grow up eating? Are you the kind of family that wants to sit around the table together every night, or maybe just a few times a week? Is that not possible right now? How should your current reality change how you plan meals?
Practices to Help You Simplify Meal Planning & Preparation
1. Pick one meal to prioritize and simplify everything else. Dinner is the priority in my house. I eat the same thing for breakfast and snacks every day, and during any given week, I eat the same thing for lunch every day. (There’s more about how I make this work below.)
2. Keep an ongoing list of staples. Since the majority of what I eat doesn’t change week to week, I keep a Word document saved that has all my staples already typed (things like bananas, apples, and sweet potatoes). It may only save 5 minutes, but it’s just so nice to have my list halfway done when I start writing it.
3. Keep an ongoing list of go-to meals. I don’t mean your overcrowded Pinterest board with recipes you’d like to try. While this definitely has a place, it takes way too long to sift through Pinterest boards to find your tried-and-true recipes. Keep a Google spreadsheet, a Word document, or some other kind of list with your go-to, family-pleasing, favorite recipes. I have a list of about 7 meals that work great for making ahead to eat as leftovers for lunch, and about 10 meals I regularly rotate for dinners.
4. Create a weekly schedule. This could look a couple of different ways. If I cooked dinner every night, Dan and I would have way too many leftovers. But once we have multiple kids, I may need to cook every night. Right now, it works for us to plan three meals per week:
- One big meal to make on Sunday or Monday night as dinner, which yields enough leftovers to eat throughout the rest of the week for lunch.
- Two dinners to make during the week (usually Monday and Wednesday)
- We fill in the rest with random food we keep in the freezer, going out if we have plans, or eating leftovers.
Another weekly schedule method I love that I may use when there are more mouths to feed are themed nights. Each day of the week has a theme, and that theme does not change week to week. You may make the same recipe every Monday, or you may have a theme where you can insert a different but related recipe every Monday. The point is to save time on the meal-planning end. Here’s an example:
- Monday: Meatless (salads, soup, etc.)
- Tuesday: Tacos
- Wednesday: Dinner on the grill
- Thursday: Leftovers
- Friday: Pizza night
- Saturday: Out to eat
- Sunday: Pot roast
5. Choose meals that use similar ingredients. This doesn’t save much time—it actually takes a little more time and energy to plan meals this way—but it definitely saves money and food waste. For example, I have a few recipes that pair really well with sautéed cabbage. If I make just one of these recipes, I can’t use the whole cabbage, and it will go to waste. By making two or three recipes that call for the gigantic cabbage, I’ll get my money’s worth out of that produce. I also find I have the same problem with fresh basil, so I try to use it in as many dishes as possible when I do buy it.
6. Make big batches and use the leftovers. This is my go-to strategy for saving time on cooking. Like I said before, I make one big meal to eat for lunches throughout the week, and I try to make my dinners big enough to last 2-3 meals (for both Dan and me). Here are some of my favorite recipes for this:
- Buffalo chicken bake (This recipe isn’t totally Paleo, but I modify it.)
- Spaghetti squash and meat sauce (I double the meat in this recipe.)
- Meat lovers chili with roasted potatoes
- Stir fry (I don’t follow a recipe; I just throw in whatever meat and produce I got on sale that week.)
7. Get adventurous on the weekends (or another day when you have more time). I don’t have the energy to figure out a new recipe on a weeknight, because there’s usually something time-consuming in the instructions that I managed to overlook or an ingredient I forgot to buy. I stick to my tried-and-true recipes during the week. But on the weekends, when I have a little more flexibility, I love to try out new things that could become my new go-to meals.
8. Keep your freezer stocked with easy favorites. I keep a few packages of chicken breasts, several bags of vegetables, a few boxes of premade chicken or beef burgers (I especially love the chili lime chicken burgers and grass-fed beef burgers from Trader Joe’s), and some precooked chicken sausages in my freezer. This food becomes dinner when I get home and realize I’m out of fresh food or when I’m feeling too lazy to cook a real meal. I also keep a few frozen pizzas on hand for really desperate nights!
9. Bonus: If you can, outsource the parts of meal prep that exhaust you. This tip is a bonus because I know it’s not always possible to do this. For example, grocery shopping during the Sunday madness drives me insane because of all the people and the picked-over produce. When he can, Dan does the grocery shopping on Monday mornings to help me out and to save us time. If I know I have a busy night but need to cook, I’ll ask Dan to chop the vegetables during the day to save me some time. You could buy frozen/precut vegetables, prioritize easy slower-cooker meals, spend a little extra to get preprepped meals that are ready to be cooked, etc.
Cooking fresh, healthy meals for two people, let alone a whole family, is a lot of work. To be honest, if I could hire any kind of household help, it would definitely be a personal chef. But if you keep these practices in mind as you go about your weekly meal planning and preparation, my hope is that meal time will feel a little more simple, allowing you to focus more on the faces around your table and less on the work that went into it.Simplify #Meal Planning: Your guide to #stress-free meals every night of the week. #food Click To Tweet