I do not like meal planning, Sam I Am, I do not like meal planning—even with green eggs and ham.
That’s the next part of the story. You didn’t know that, did you?
We like the food, we like to eat. A lot of us even enjoy cooking—or maybe we just tolerate it—but we don’t enjoy the planning.
So what do we do?
An awkward question for me as a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner for sure. Over the years I have developed coping skills to accommodate my lack of desire to plan ahead. And that is what I will share here.
As I evolve, I realize that underneath my refusal to plan lurks actual planning. It is such a way of life and way of being for me to support my nutrient-dense, whole-foods lifestyle, that it is as easy and simple as breathing at this point.
And that includes accommodating my family members who do not choose to eat the same way I do.
May it become this way for you, as well, in your own rhythm, your own routine, your own style. The most important thing is to lay the foundations.
I keep a fully stocked pantry and shop once a week for produce whether I need to or not. Oh, and I buy bulk beef and keep plenty of chicken in my freezer.
My pantry has the basics, so that whether it be Thai, Indian, Mexican, Italian, or good old American, we can generally rustle it up.
I have cans of tomatoes, cans of beans, coconut milk, coconut oil, avocado and olive oil, and plentiful herbs and spices. Back up bottles of mustard, jarred sauces that are “clean enough”. I have salad dressings made with clean ingredients. And I have mayonnaise that is good enough, for when I don’t have homemade on hand.
My basic template for a meal is to build it around the veggies.
Yep. The veggies. Because they take time to prep and they get to rest for at least five minutes before I cook them—ten minutes for the garlic, remember that?—in order to develop the fresh enzyme activity we want in our bodies.
I plan for half a plate of veggie items. I plan for a quarter of the plate with a protein. Ah. There’s the rub. And, yes, using a rub is a quick way to add good flavor. But we tend to focus on the protein, don’t we?
I’ll throw out several reasons for that:
1) We do need a moderate amount of protein to properly run our bodies.
2) Frequently it’s frozen and we need to thaw it to use it. Or it’s dried and we get to soak and pre-cook. Basically there’s a deeper layer of prep involved with the protein in a meal.
3) We are obsessed with meat in this country!
To the first and third points, we only need a big enough piece of meat to comfortably fit in the palm of our hand—and about the thickness of a deck of playing cards. If we’re using a legume source, we’re talking about ½ cup of beans per serving.
In general, we don’t need a ton of protein.
Why is this important in my non-meal-planners-planning world?
Leftovers. I cooked a nice grass-fed sirloin the other day and was easily able to get four servings out of it. If I had more people at home right now, I probably would have cooked two steaks because I quite like having leftovers to just heat and eat.
With the steak, I was able to serve it as a 3-4 ounce slab the first day and slice it into a stir-fry for the second.
Now, if you’re anything like me, you have eaters with restrictions. I have a vegetarian living at home. I personally avoid grains and heavy carbs. I do not eat wheat at all or dairy. And I rarely eat tomatoes.
So the basic plate is a protein, two vegetables, a fat (meaning 1-2 tablespoons of a healthy one, such as extra-virgin olive oil, coconut oil, avocado/avocado oil, butter…you get the idea), and then either another vegetable or a starch.
Starches can be grains, sweet potatoes, white potatoes, peas/corn, winter squash.
Starchy vegetables are starch.
So that’s the plate.
But which actual foods to put on it?
Which evenings do you have the most time?
When do you have time to do a spot of pre-cooking or prepping?
Plan your leftovers for the other nights!
In our house, we tend to cook the first three nights of the week and then skate by on reheating for the fourth and fifth. Weekends usually take on their own, ah, flavor, but I get to do a modicum of planning for these evenings as well.
And, I get to add in the occasional We’re Getting Food From Somewhere Else nights. Not every week, but as a treat. And that’s a decision we each get to make. Some of us have so many dietary restrictions that eating out is an Almost-Never thing. But most of us can make do with a take-out menu every now and then. Or every week. Up to you.
The key here is intentionality. Choose to eat restaurant food. Don’t do it because you didn’t take the time to think through which nights were going to be hella busy.
Plan it so you know you’ll have a rest and you have that to look forward to. These little steps support us in keeping the big picture healthy and nourishing.
And that, ultimately, is the goal: Big Picture Healthy and Nourishing. The forest is healthy and some of the trees are maybe a bit less so than some others. Or maybe they’re shrubs. And it’s all good.
I’m not suggesting we eat trees, so how about we choose a theme for each week. Get your family members to contribute ideas.
A Mexican-themed week would look like cooking a batch of chicken in the instant pot, slow cooker, or buying it pre-cooked. It would look like pre-chopping veggies or buying them already chopped. It would look like buying avocadoes that are almost ready to eat or having guacamole on hand.
Day One is the precooked chicken rubbed with chili powder and re-heated in a buttered skillet. Serve with a vegetable which you have batch-cooked—roasting is great as we can roast two heads of cauliflower as easily as one. Or a vegetable you have bought frozen. No shame in that. Frozen can be fresher than what’s available in the “fresh” section.
Serve a salad with each meal. Serve with corn mixed with salsa or spices, as a starch. If family members want more fillers: add a quickly-made refried bean dish* and/or “Spanish” rice.*
Day Two is, hopefully, leftovers! If not, let’s use another round of chicken to make fajitas. I like to use scissors to cut up meat—less clean-up for the win. I cut it right into the hot pan after having cooked the onions and peppers. Salt, pepper, appropriate spices and Boom. Serve it with everything you’ve got and folks will have fun mixing and matching their own meals.
Day Three I’m going to thaw a pound of ground meat using the quick-drip method because I forgot to get it out of the freezer over the weekend. Set it in a bowl in the sink and run a thin and steady rivulet of cool water over it. It wastes water, yes, so hopefully we don’t need to do this often.
I slice onion and garlic and let that sit while I gather the taco seasoning and all the fixings I want to fix. Then sauté the aromatics, bung the ground into the pot with the spices and cook it up. Boom.
Pro-tip: If the meat isn’t thawed all the way, no worries. As one side of the meat cooks scrape that bit off and flip the block in the pan. Keep flipping as it browns and scrape the cooked portion off. It will finish thawing on the job. Another Boom.
Day Four we can craft an easy tortilla soup because we have a quality store-bought stock in the pantry, along with cans of tomatoes. Fire-roasted are yum. If you’ve thought it through, you may even have a lime and cilantro on hand. Big flavor win. Otherwise, compensate with dried cilantro or, in a pinch, parsley. It’s all good. It’s healthy and nourishing and maybe not quite Mexican, but tasty nonetheless.
Note to self: think of a theme for the week and buy assorted and appropriate items to match.
Day Five we can eat whatever is left from the adventures of the other days. Or, hey, if we need more ideas there is an internet’s worth of them out there. If you are a cheese and chips person—nachos. If not, cauliflower with huevos rancheros.
It’s all good. A little bit of planning goes a very long way.
Switch themes as you switch weeks. Jot ideas on a calendar and rotate away. This little injection of excitement will keep things fresh for a good while. Perhaps it might even inspire full-on cooking nights with music and décor to match the theme.
For a Thai-themed week, one of my stand-bys is a coconut milk curry.
I have a curry powder I like. I cook it with a base of onions and garlic. I add freshly grated ginger. Then a protein of choice—this is a dish I can separate out to prep some for my vegetarian and some for the rest of us. I add veggies and peas and, easy-peasy (sorry, couldn’t resist) dinner is on the table.
I usually cook rice for the rice-eaters.
Pro-tip: I always have a knob of ginger in the freezer. It grates beautifully from frozen and I know it will be fresh when I want it rather than wilted and moldy from the fridge.
There’s more I could go into, but I think this will suffice for now. Let me know if it’s been helpful!
*Refried beans in a hurry: Drain a can of black, or pinto, beans while a dollop of coconut oil (or good quality lard) heats up in a small pan. Add the beans and either water or stock to keep from burning. Heat through and then mash in the pan with seasonings. Boom.
*”Spanish” rice made simple by substituting canned tomatoes as part of the cooking water for the rice. Add seasonings of choice—taco mix, chili powder, cumin, cayenne—and perhaps even some drained beans or frozen corn or…stop before I add a kitchen sink.
Meal planning does not have to be a bogey-man. Meal planning can be done even by those of us who would rather not. Because it saves time, saves food, and saves—most importantly—sanity.