Maybe you are not looking to change the specific content of what you put in your mouth; maybe your goal is simply more sanity in the process. A little less of the “six o’clock scramble”, a term I learned when I first discovered the meal planning scene. I am certainly aiming for a little more of this in my life. By the time I enter my kitchen at the end of the day… heck, by the time I get to lunch, I have made hundreds, if not thousands of decisions, some of them way more important than what to eat. The last thing I need is a confrontation with more choices.
I’ll let you in on a little secret. One of my other passions is productivity. Not just Getting Things Done, but the real science, and at times art, of achieving more with the finite resources we are all given. So let’s just say I consume a lot — I mean a lot — of information on studies, experiments, and just plain old human experience with habit change, among other things. A major figure in the productivity world, Charles Duhigg, breaks down habits pretty simply in his book Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. Not surprisingly, it comes down to a loop of a cue (or at trigger for the habit), followed by a routine, then a reward. Changing the habit comes down to breaking the loop.
Easier said than done, but without getting into all the details, changing the way you eat comes down to breaking old habits. I’m no scientist, nor a dietician, but they all seem to agree on one thing — planning what you are going to eat in advance works when you are trying to make a change. It also has the side benefit of checking the box on another generally agreed upon proven tactic for weight loss, if that is your goal — writing down what you eat.
So if you are still with me, you are probably sold on the idea of meal planning. But my guess is you are not quite sure where to start. You probably find the general idea simple enough — I mean, how hard can it be to write down a few meals for a few days? But if you are like me, you start to get overwhelmed quicker than you expected. Do I optimize ingredients to minimize waste? Am I aiming to batch cook on weekends or use a next-over strategy? Are my kids eating the same food I am? Wait, does husband have a work dinner that night? Do I want to drag an empty lunch container of tuna fish on NJ Transit? Oh forget it, pizza is ketogenic right?
photo by jenn kosar [and yes, this pizza is ketogenic]
Deep breaths. Don’t give up. I have been in that meal planning spiral. Confession, in the past, I have given up, resulting in either a lot of pizza, or the complete outsourcing of the process. No judgements. Outsourcing continues as a key strategy for us during certain “seasons” of family life. I particularly love Terra’s Kitchen for the ability to turn it off or on week to week and I regularly use it to supplement two or three meals a week.
But given my 2018 food goals, I am committed to more home cooking for now, and that requires more meal planning. A few weeks in, I have had some success. And of course, I always share my success strategies with you. Here is how I do it, and the Meal Planning Template I designed (and use myself) to get you started.
General tips for meal planning
Remember you are changing a habit, no different than any other habit. You will not be successful 100% of the time. My success strategies:
- Meal planning success strategy #1: Do not try to achieve too many things at once. There are many reasons to meal plan, and trying to focus on all of them at once will set you up to fail. What is your primary goal?
Healthy eating – planning ahead for successfully sticking to your plan is a known strategy for changing dietary behavior.
Sticking to a budget – using up what you have is a great way to stretch your grocery dollars. This goal is a great way to get started with meal planning; Gary and I once did the “use up everything in your pantry challenge” and it was a lot of fun!
Eating out less – generally cooking at home more has lots of benefits like improving your comfort in the kitchen and higher control over ingredients.
Less weeknight stress – a “game plan” for dinner and more advanced preparation to make evenings more pleasant.
Stick to one of these goals, maybe two at most, in thinking about your plan.
- Meal planning success strategy #2: Leave some room for last-minute changes, surprises, and yes, failures. Assume you will be too tired to cook at least one (or two) nights. If you work outside the home, know that your colleagues will grab you to go out to lunch.
- Meal planning success strategy #3: Plan for at least one “leftovers” night. There are always some anyway, and it helps address the “too tired to cook” problem.
- Meal planning success strategy #4: If you like to eat out, do it. Make it part of the plan. If you have known plans, add them to the schedule. If not, make it a flexible plan for one of those nights you just don’t feel like cooking.
- Meal planning success strategy #5: Prepare as much as you can on the weekend. This avoids decision fatigue later in the week. “Prep” can be anything from writing down the plan, to sorting ingredients into groups, doing some chopping, or actual cooking. Do whatever level of preparation you want, in the time you have available, but do as much as you can. Your future self will thank you.
- Meal planning success strategy #6: At least initially, keep it simple. Rotate between one or two breakfasts. Keep all the recipes really simple, especially during the week. Do not add in more than one or two “new” items (things you have not made before) each week.
- Meal planning success strategy #7: Make the planning process itself simple and go analog. You can graduate to the technical solutions later and invest in logging your favorite recipes into a tool if that’s your thing. Here is a roundup of some of those, but I have found them more trouble than they are worth.
meal planning strategy session
Just a few more steps before we get into the weekly plan. A little “big picture” thinking and a few key decisions up front will save you some stress as you dive into the details.
- Meal planning key decision #1: First, have you decided upon your primary goal for meal planning? Stay focused on that as you work through the remaining steps.
- Meal planning key decision #2: If you have children, are they included in the plan? For example, in my house, kid breakfasts and lunches are an entirely separate meal plan, with their own standing grocery list and recurring set of meals. If you are super-intimidated by meal planning, consider a mini-plan just for their needs, it is far simpler!
- Meal planning key decision #3: Do you have a tradition or routine you want to honor in the process, like Pizza Fridays, or Sunday Roast?
- Meal planning key decision #4: Are there a few favorite meals you must work into the schedule on a regular basis, for yourself of others?
- Meal planning key decision #5: Do you need a stash of snacks at home or on the go to fit your eating goals? Add them to your grocery list and plan to check the stock each week as part of shopping.
For my more advanced home cooks or those who have attempted meal planning before, here is a meal planning 201 tip I implemented long ago. If you gather your most often prepared recipes and know they will be in regular meal plan rotation, identify the most common ingredients within those recipes. That is your regular grocery list. For pantry items, just make sure they are always well stocked. For fresh items, assume you need them every week. For the rest of your shopping, You will generally find you only need to add unique fresh items and any restock required from your standard list.
photo by jenn kosar
Meal planning step by step
Alright, let’s go! Get out your note taking device of choice. In my view, initially, analog is the way to go. Print my Weekly Meal Planning Template to get you started, intentionally with seven blank days, because it doesn’t matter which day of the week you like to start with. Just start!
- Weekly meal planning step 1: Determine which meals you need to prepare at home, and for how many people. I know most NYC area folks purchase and consume a significant number of weekday meals outside of the home; make sure you are only counting what you will really be preparing at home.
- Weekly meal planning step 2: Decide what you will prepare for each meal. Each week should include no more than one or two “new recipes”. I am an experienced home cook, but I find adding more than two creates resistance (read: pizza delivery) at the point in the week I planned to execute on that “new thing”.
- Weekly meal planning step 3: If you are on a roll, do 2-3 more weeks. You won’t shop all at once, so you can always tweak the plan on a rolling schedule. I revisit my plan every few days, as my family’s schedule changes and last-minute things come up.
- Weekly meal planning step 4: Make your grocery list. As you get into a routine, this part becomes far less difficult. You will find you generally have all but the fresh produce on hand if you stick to consistent meals or diet types (especially if you stock your freezer with your most common proteins). Just like when you plan to cook for a big meal , shop your freezer, fridge and pantry first to make sure you use things up. The Kitchn made a great list of 10 things to have on hand to serve most meal planning programs.
- Weekly meal planning step 5: Sort the grocery list by shopping date. If you are doing serious advance planning, build the grocery list in order the meals will occur so it is pre-sorted by “when to buy”. I love Instacart and Fresh Direct for this strategy. You can pre-shop your order a few days in advance, and even have multiple orders set to arrive a few days apart.
- Weekly meal planning step 6: Share the menu with your fellow eaters. For those with kids (or picky eaters), I find it helps to let them in on the plan. I have no idea what the science is here, but it seems to go better when they know what they are eating in advance. Post a schedule, use a dry-erase board, find a cute printable on Etsy, whatever works.
Now all that is left is to stick to the plan! For me, this is the hardest part. The world is full of advice on how to overcome the resistance, but here is the part our little corner of the world can help with: telling a friend. The good old accountability buddy.
Are you going to meal plan in 2018? What’s your goal?
Well there you have it, the basics of meal planning. Good luck to all of us! Follow me on Facebook to and Instagram see how I do, and I’d love to hear from all of you how it is going. Feel free to leave questions as comments as I am sure they are not yours alone, or I am happy to help one-on-one via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you are also really into the science of productivity, follow me on Facebook – I’ll be sharing my favorite resources for the science (and art) of achieving your personal best all week long!