I’ve gone back and forth on the question of how much meal planning to do for everyday cooking, or whether a plan is even needed. I’ve tried lots of approaches, but I’ve finally come back to the opinion that it is best to have a plan, albeit a flexible one.
For a long time, I planned a menu for every dinner in the week. However, with this approach, I often found food going to waste. The unexpected happens frequently enough that we should really expect it. Sometimes, we’d go out for dinner, or conflicting schedules required a meal on the run. I usually didn’t get a chance to cook every meal in my carefully chosen seven-day plan.
The other problem with this approach is that it was overwhelming. In my cookbooks alone, I have thousands of recipes to choose from, and that’s not considering the millions of recipes available online. Trying to pick just a handful of those multitudes to cook for the week led to decision paralysis. I do much better when I can choose from just a few options, rather than unlimited ones.
Next, I tried a looser menu plan in which we had roughly the same meal on the same night of the week. So Monday was chicken night, Tuesday was frittata, Wednesday was tacos, and so on. This plan certainly limited my choices, but I have to admit, it got boring fast. Roasted chicken breasts again? I found myself falling into a rut, and I lost the sense of creativity I get when I’m cooking.
Then, I abandoned menus altogether. I bought what looked good and was on sale at the store that week and then found recipes to use those ingredients, with the help of a searchable database. It was a good idea in theory, but it was problematic in practice. I was often scrambling to come up with an idea of what to cook each night. I wanted to make certain recipes but often didn’t have a necessary ingredient, so I’d fall back on what I know and bam! Back in the rut again.
Now I am back to stricter meal planning, but with some changes. I am planning the entire month’s meals in advance, but only four dinners per week. This builds in some flexibility to be spontaneous, go out to dinner, or just eat leftovers for dinner. To help me make recipe choices, I use a preplanned menu, usually from a magazine, for inspiration. Often I have to substitute similar dishes that my family will actually eat for their selections, but at least I have a starting point. This also helps me build in variety and, if I choose a current magazine, stay seasonal. And it seems more manageable to make the plan once a month, rather than every week.
Depending on the cook and the family, I think any of these meal-planning approaches could work well. Some people enjoy a more freeform style; others need a more regimented approach to make efficient use of limited time. I do think it’s best to have a minimal plan, so we don’t wander through the grocery store aimlessly, but we should build flexibility and spontaneity into the plan. In other words, if something looks delicious in the store, get it and fit it into the plan later.
Do you have a system for planning meals? What works for you?
Tagged: Meal planning