Dear Chef Emily, I want to start making a meal plan for my family but I get overwhelmed and don’t know where or how to start. Can you help? –Busy Parents Everywhere
Meal planning sounds great, right? Set up a plan and boom, familial bliss! I wish I could tell you that it really is that easy. Like most things worth their salt, this too is worth working for and the payoff is worth the investment. That I can promise with a straight face!
How to Meal Plan in 8 Steps:
1. Consider your family’s eating habits
If you are regularly chomping down some kale salad and quinoa, awesome! If its more like frozen chicken fingers and a box of Near East, that’s great too. Whichever it is, knowing where you are starting from will make the journey that much more likely to succeed. If you aren’t sure, consider writing down your dinners for a week just to see. Maybe you are closer than you thought.
2. Aim for consistency, not creativity
We all want to be eating something creative and exploratory every night, right? I too am easily distracted by the whim of my creative thoughts in the kitchen but that’s not what a meal plan is, for better and for worse. A meal plan’s job is to keep you fed though the work week without much thought or consideration on the nights that your brain is spent by five o’clock. Leave the creative indulgence to weekends, school or work breaks, or the third Thursday of the month. The rest of the time, let your plan do the work.
3. Schedule a Time to Make the Plan
For me, this is the hardest part. It feels like such a moving target but when I get it right, I meal plan the week on the Friday prior. I release desire on spontaneity and say, “This is what we are having.” You can share that dialogue with your family but as the person doing the plan, I can tell you that it is way more successful if you just… don’t. Too many cooks as they say (but don’t tell my husband or my kiddo!)
A Sample Week from My Life:
Monday: Whole Roast Chicken with sweet potatoes and Brussels sprouts
Tuesday: Roast Salmon, lentils, red cabbage slaw
Wednesday: Chicken tacos & slaw (uses the chicken from Monday and the slaw from Tuesday)
Thursday: Turkey Meatballs with pasta or spaghetti squash (by the family-size pack of ground turkey and use half here)
Friday: Turkey burgers (with the other 1/2 of the ground turkey) with quinoa salad (this the remaining rubbed kale, diced up peppers, lentils, etc.)
Nothing fancy, nothing exotic, pure comfort and reliability. It’s the minivan of cooking, and there’s millions of those on the road for a reason.
4. Consider a Chalkboard Paint Wall
This has been a game-changing innovation in my kitchen. Write M-F down the left side, then write across each meal and its components and boom, everyone knows what’s for dinner.
5. Put Together Your Shopping List
By doing this, really doing this, I saved $500 in one month on groceries. And it wasn’t even hard! I didn’t feel like I’d made a sacrifice because the time I got back in the evenings each week was worth 10x that.
6. Consider a Service That Delivers Groceries
Doesn’t matter which one, but saving yourself a trip to the grocery store (particularly if you work a 9-5 and are only available to shop when the rest of the town is there too) is worth its weight in gold. Amazon is in the grocery game, as is Fresh Direct, Peapod, Whole Foods and lots of other services are out there and worth exploring.
7. Dedicate Some Time to Meal Prep
On Sunday afternoons, I spend about 2 hours getting ready for the week. Two hours?! I’m front loading my week here so that I’m not spending an hour a night trying to put out the whats-for-dinner fire every single night. If it is nice out, my hubs takes my kid to the playground, I blast some pop anthems and actually relax and enjoy myself.
Here’s my Sunday to-do list (and here’s a printable version for you to print out and use at home!)
☐ Massage Kale (this goes into a big container in the fridge)
☐ Cut up rainbow peppers (because my kid won’t eat eat “peppers.” Only rainbow peppers will do.)
☐ Cook 1 cup quinoa and/or lentils (Usually both)
☐ Cut up melon/fruit (whatever you’re in the mood for/is on sale/in season)
☐ Make iced tea (usually only in the summer, or when I want it to feel like summer)
☐ Make energy balls (a chocolate chia concoction I came up with after spend too much money on Clif bars)
☐ Assemble salads (if it is going to be a grab-and-go lunch kind of week)
☐ Run dishwasher
☐ Compost out
Sometimes I even bake a batch of cookies.
8. Stick to It
You’ll fall off the meal planning routine, and that is okay. The world will keep turning. But you’ll see that by doing it you will be a more calm, centered person who can focus on proper relaxing in the evening and not seeing dinner as one more thing to slog through in the routine of daily life.
Do it for one week, I’ve given you the menu! Then, get in touch at chefemilypeterson.com and let me know how it went – I’m excited to hear!
This story was originally published in January 2017.