Let's face it, meal planning can be very frustrating. We see perfected plans everywhere about meal prep and cooking all day Sunday for meals throughout the week and those are great ideas, but maybe not for everyone. While I am in no way knocking these plans because I agree that they are a great way to be organized and
still get dinner of the table every night, sometimes they just aren't as practical for everyone. Maybe it worked for a week or two, but then you lost steam and it was back to cereal for dinner, maybe you don't want to spend a whole day prepping, whatever, I get it because I can't do it either, though I envy those who can. What I can do is still get dinner on the table every night. How you ask? By avoiding meal planning paralysis. What?
MEAL PLANNING PARALYSIS!
It's a term I have invented for when you desperately want to be able to meal plan so you try to do it using all the many ideas you have found, then you are just overwhelmed by so many ways to do it, so many recipes to make, and then wanting to make them all to perfection that you end up not getting any of it done. Maybe this only happens to absolute perfectionists, but it happens to me and I don't consider myself a perfectionist, I'm more of a functionalist, just make it work. So how do we avoid this pitfall and still eat healthy? I can only tell you how I have figured it out for our family of 4 and hope it can work for you, so I'll lay it out.
First, I make a list of the things I need for at least 2 (or 3 if I'm feeling ambitious) recipes we will have during the week and a side to go with it. The recipes are usually simple, take 30-40 minutes, and ALWAYS have a vegetable. Side items are generally also another vegetable and/or fruit. (Read the blog on MyPlate, this my visualization tool for meals). This part does take a bit of thinking ahead of time, but once you start you will build up an arsenal of recipes that you can rotate. Then, I double everything. If I want leftovers for lunches, I make even a little more and put it aside just before serving, this also avoids overeating at dinner.
Our general pattern goes like this:
I make one thing on Monday, doubled, then we eat leftovers Tuesday, make 1 thing Wednesday, doubled, leftovers Thursday, and Friday is our day for fun meals like pizza or a particular restaurant favorite. Saturday is flexible with sandwiches, any leftovers, etc, which is great for food waste and we tend to have leftovers from our fun Friday. Sundays are the day to test recipes to possibly put into the rotation, sometimes making extra for leftovers for Monday lunch. What I'm really doing is an on-the-fly type meal planning because I don't know which day we'll have what recipe, but I know I have what I need to make it. It's still a form of batch cooking, but it's not all day Sunday and for myself personally, it helps with not facing having to eat the same thing all week. I can break up some days with another meal and then come back to any leftovers later on.
Another thing we do is leave a lot of the less nutritious stuff at the store. Along with meals, we know there are also snacks, which can be a pitfall of their own when dinner is delayed or even falls out completely. What we can do, however, is still frame our snacks in the same way we do meals, just on a smaller scale. So any snack type foods must still fit into our MyPlate frame of reference. This also indirectly helps with our meal planning because let's just say on our "cooking" night, we ran out of time to actually cook. Or we ran out of leftovers and haven't gone to the store again yet. No problem, anything we grab from the pantry will suffice because we know if we brought it home, it can go on our plate. Then even if it does turn into a cereal night (check those labels for fiber and added sugars, I see a future blog on these!), the kids can also still have maybe some raw veggies or fruit, or even a snack bar (again, checking labels) and they're still getting a healthy meal, even if you didn't cook. I didn't say it would always look perfect or pretty, but perfection is not to goal here, nutrition is. Who cares what it looks like if you are all getting what you need? It can be the weirdest combination of food, but if it's nutritious food that fills up tummies, then do it.
I know many might say this method is still "work" and you're right. It does still take a little forethought, a little recipe searching, and a little studying up on some more nutritious food options, but once you get all these tools in your toolbox and some go-to recipes you all enjoy, you'll feel less stressed about meal planning. If possible, it helps to get both parents in on the go-to recipes so either one can throw it together based on what's happening at the time. If it's only 1 person that does the meals, it's still manageable. Due to deployments and long TDYs, I have experienced both one person and two person schedules during times of full-time working and part-time working, and it has worked (for us) in all situations. It can be rocky at times, but we live in the real-world, so that's expected. Overall, it helps avoid meal planning paralysis because it's broken up into smaller chunks of cooking (less overwhelming than all day cooking) and with only about 2 (maybe 3 if you want) recipes to work with each week instead of 7 and provides some flexibility for evenings when you change your mind about what you want to eat or something happens that causes your schedule to shift. Realistically, I can't promise NO stress because hungry kids exist in the first place (haha), but I can say you might feel less guilt about letting them forage for their own meal sometimes because you have left the less nutritious stuff at the store and you can feel more comfortable about any food choices they grab.
I hope this at least gives you an idea for a meal planning system if you aren't able or don't want to do giant batch cooking in one day or have trouble planning 7 days worth of meals with something different each day. For more ideas about healthy eating check out the Read page and don't forget to listen to the Playing With Food-Eat. Play. Balance. podcast. Thank you for reading and we'll chat again soon!
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