For years—maybe my entire adult life, definitely since Emme was born nearly four years ago—I’ve been attempting to stick to a realistic meal planning system. I’ve diligently saved recipes, made lists, and shopped weekly, only to let too much food go bad when I didn’t actually prepare the meals I had planned. I’ve spent too much money on takeout, relied heavily on frozen burritos for lunch, and defaulted to pasta + bottled sauce as my go-to dinner more times than I care to remember.
When traditional meal planning fell short of my expectations and energy, I switched up my game, trying strategies that should have helped me lighten the load—services like Blue Apron and Fresh20, freezer meals, and locally prepped dinners that you just have to heat up in the oven. They all had their merits, but nothing stuck.
But lately, I’ve found peace and some actual success with meal planning. With a few tools and one secret weapon (Spoiler alert: It’s my husband), our family manages to get dinner on the table most nights of the week (not to mention having several work-week lunches prepped for me and plenty of do-it-yourself breakfast options for everyone). How did we do it? The first step might surprise you and will definitely bring to mind therapy sessions and support groups rather than grocery lists and recipes. To make meal planning work, I had to find some acceptance.
Let me explain: Last year, I worked with a health coach for a few months. In talking to her, I realized that meal planning was a source of anxiety for me. That made me realize I had to let go of both perfection and control in the meal planning process. After years of feeling proud that I wasn’t a perfectionist, I finally realized that I mayyybbbeeee had some perfectionist tendencies and I mayyybbbeeee was an eensy, weensy bit controlling. Having a young child who makes so many things feel out of my control can do that to a person.
But I digress… Anyway, I know all of this sounds awfully intense for, you know, dinner, but when I finally accepted that meal planning, meal preparing, and meal eating didn’t need to be perfect, shit got easier. Then I found some tools to complement my new breezy meal planning attitude.
PLAN TO EAT
In some ways, Pinterest might function the same way for many of you that Plan to Eat does for me. But with Pinterest, I find often myself lost in the weeds—I log in to get that one recipe I saved six months ago and three hours later, and I’m pinning lake houses to a new board, cleverly titled Lake L-I-v-I-n. Plan to Eat doesn’t offer me that kind of distraction, and while the interface leaves something to be desired, the functionality works for me and my brain.
First, it gives me a place to save all those recipes that I randomly come across. It allows me to look at a calendar, compare it to our family’s shared calendar, and schedule an appropriate amount of meals for the week (which is not seven, it’s more like two or three). And, it compiles a list of ingredients based on the recipes I choose. Is it perfect? No. But Plan to Eat gets me farther in the meal planning process with less pain than anything else has.
This isn’t earth shattering. The amount of legwork I do varies, but spending time prepping meals for the week on Saturday or Sunday always makes me feel like I’ve done something productive. This usually includes two to four of the following: Making 3-4 lunches for the week (see next section), cleaning and chopping vegetables for weekly dinners, making a breakfast casserole, and prepping sauces, meatballs, or other meals that have a longer fridge and freezer life.
MASON JAR SALADS
You know how mason jar salads were totally a thing a few years ago? Well, I discovered them like six months ago! And let me tell you: Game. Changer. Not only do they make it easier for me to eat more green stuff, they are perfect for advance planning and portable. I also figured out my optimal number of mason jar salads for the week–three. I bring the same salad three times, then do my best to make a different salad for the following week. This seems keep me from suffering from lunch fatigue. I end up buying my lunch one day a week, which feels like a treat, and I usually work from home on Fridays, so I just eat leftovers or something.
If you haven’t already, I highly recommend investing in a set or two of mason jars (wide-mouth, 32-ounce jars are key). We have started using them to store everything. As for salads, they have to be filling and tasty for me to actually eat them. Here are a few of my favs right now:
Chicken, Apple, and Pecan Salad (I ditch the kale and use something like Pullman or Boston Lettuce.)
TRADER JOE’S FROZEN MEALS IN A PINCH
In an effort to eat better, my default is to think that our family should be making all meals from scratch. It’s a lovely idea, but it’s not realistic for us at this point. Trader Joe’s to the rescue. We keep a stockpile of a few TJs frozen meals on hand. Our favorites are Shiitake Mushroom Chicken and Kung Pao Chicken. We serve both with rice, and often add whatever extra veggies (or for the Kung Pao Chicken, some pineapple) we have on hand.
MY (NOT-SO) SECRET WEAPON: MY HUSBAND
Remember that thing about control? In the division of labor in our household, meal planning, prepping, and cooking has always been my thing, but when I went back to work full-time in January after freelancing for a year, something had to give.
It’s not so much that my husband expected me to be in charge of all things kitchen; we just had very different ideas of how to manage a week’s worth of meals. He would eat out every meal without a second thought, while I wanted us to be eating home-cooked meals every night. Once we had a conversation about it, we found some balance. I plan our meals, do some light prepping on the weekend, and typically do the grocery shopping; he cooks.
Cooking on the week nights was always been the point at which my whole meal planning system breaks down. I walk in the door after a 8+ hours of working and 1.5+ hours of commuting, and I would struggle to find the energy to actually prepare the dinners that I had so diligently planned. My husband’s work day tends to end before mine (it also starts before mine), and his commute is less than 10 minutes on foot. When I come through the door at 6 p.m., to dinner on the table, it’s a relief, for real. In many ways, it’s the best of both world’s — I get to plan what we eat without actually having to cook it.
Anyway, I’d love to hear: Do you have any meal planning secret weapons?