Meal Planning. The subject is either dreaded, beloved or completely foreign, depending on who you are. I know. I've been there. I used to consider cooking as simply an added step and waste of time between the moment I decided I was hungry to the moment I could start shoveling it in. "Besides," I thought, "how will I know what I'm going to be hungry for until I'm hungry for it?" Thus I would resort to chicken wraps, salad, cereal or whatever else was the pick of that week. And from talking to people, I don't think I was alone in this ideology. The thought of planning out what you're going to eat for the day, not to consider the entire week or month, can seem daunting and stressful, but I have found that once you get the hang of it, it has the opposite effect. When I first started my husband was a student and working. I was working one exhausting full-time job and a night job. Planning out our meals in advance was a lifesaver. I've heard people say they just can't mealplan, so I'm going to share some of my secrets and advice.
First off, sometime at the end of the month, I plan the entire next month. Every once in a while, I don't get this done in time and I'm scrambling and stressed. During the week it can be hard to come up with something to make, much less actually get around to cooking because of late work, wanting to have family time once I get home, going to the gym or other commitments. Having a plan alleviates that stress and keeps us from resorting to eating out. And when it comes to breakfast and lunch we tend to be creatures of habit and throw together of of our couple easy go-to meals. You could, however, definitely do this for any and all meals.
Since generally our evenings are the same, I can essentially fill in a template for when we're having big meals, fast meals ,and leftovers. This has changed several times as our schedules have changed but to give you an idea of how it worked when we were at our busiest, it looked something like this:
I make sure that I cook big meals on Saturday and Sunday so that each will last for at least one night of leftovers. I then make sure that my husband knows that it will be a two day dinner, and we need to only eat half and then fill up more on salad, fruit or other sides if we're still hungry. Then I only have to cook one (worst case scenario—two) nights during the week. I also know that by Friday I'm tired, my husband is tired and we're almost definitely out of leftovers. So, in my house, Friday is breakfast for dinner. Whoever gets home first can start whipping up some scrambled eggs with toast, pancakes, smoothies, oatmeal or whatever other breakfast we can think of. I follow a template that looks something like this:
Sunday: Big dinner
Tuesday: Something quick and easy
Thursday: "Experiment" (which means leftovers or use up whatever ingredients are left in the fridge)
Saturday: Big dinner
I open up my calendar and plug everything in, and I only have to pick 3ish things to make each week. Ta-Da! That's how it works for me. Your schedule is probably different so arrange it however works for you. Other things you can try in your template are pasta night, soup night, new recipe night, etc.This is just an example, and it makes evenings so much easier. Of course things are subject to change for various reasons, but at least I'm never surprised or feel like it's down to the wire and we're either going to starve or eat out.
The other question/concern that I want to address is "How do I know what I'm going to feel like eating on that day?" This is a valid concern and one I used to have. I can't speak for anyone else, but now that I plan ahead, I crave whatever I planned on making that day. I only cook foods that I like (for starters) and I switch it up so that I can look forward to things, rather than eating them so much for a week that I never want to see them again. I decide what I'm going to crave. I'm the master of food. Not the other way around. (Caution: I have no scientific basis for what I'm about to say, it only makes sense in my head.) Also, because I'm not eating as many highly processed, addicting foods, I don't have as many cravings. I enjoy food and feel pleasantly satisfied. End of caution.
My last plug for meal plans is the ease of grocery shopping and staying on budget. I just look at my menu and buy exactly what I need for the week (taking into account lunches and breakfast stuff). It makes the list-making process easier, I don't waste as much, and I don't overspend.
In a nutshell, I'm a strong endorser of meal planning. It seems daunting at first, but it is worth it on so many levels. Your stomach will thank you, your brain will thank you, your family will thank you, and your budget will thank you.