January is the month for getting your house in order, and no aspect of one's life gets quite so revamped as the culinary. Meal planning is often seen as the key to it all, but the plan won't accomplish anything if it's not implemented.
In order to make a meal plan you'll actually follow, you need to be honest with yourself. Below you will find some strategies and tips for assessing yourself as an eater, and then creating a list of foods you actually want to eat.
Determine why you want a meal plan
When embarking on a new plan, lifestyle change or "unfucking" of some area of your life, it helps to know why you're making these changes. Do you want to meal plan to save money? Have you forgotten the taste of a carrot? Or are you the top of person who won't eat until 3 pm unless they make their lunch the night before (this is me and I'm a food writer who works at home).
Some people meal plan for weight loss, and that's fine, but I urge you to use your plan to reach additive goals -- like "eating more vegetables" and "trying new, healthy recipes" -- rather than subtractive -- like "robbing yourself of egg yolks and full-fat sour cream," or "taking up less space."
Once you have a clear goal (or goals) defined, write it down, and let it shape and influence your plan.
Know your eating and cooking style
A meal plan is not going to change who you are as a person. For example, I have always like cheap, soft, flavourless sandwich bread, and writing "Ezekiel bread" down on my shopping list is not going to make me a person who eats sprouted-grain bread. Nay, it is going to make me a person who buys expensive bread, eats one piece, then lets the rest sit in the fridge while the sprouted grains (and mould) continue to grow all over the loaf, because Ezekiel is an eco system, not a vehicle for my fried eggs.
Unless you're still in a your lower twenties - which is a time for explorations of all kinds - you know what you like, so sit down and answer these questions with brutal honesty before crafting a plan.
- Am I a morning person? Not "Do I want to be a morning person?," as this question will set you up for failure. Morning people are capable of cooking before they leave for work, and non-morning people are not, and these two people have to meal plan quite differently for this meal of utmost importance.
- Do I even like eating a big breakfast? One of my favourite "hilarious misunderstandings" from Star Trek is when Dr. Crusher keeps trying to feed Picard new and interesting breakfasts and he's like "eh, ok" and then they get kidnapped and mind-linked and it turns out they'd both rather have a coffee and a croissant (and Picard has loved Bev since she was married to his best friend). My point is some people can't stomach a heavy breakfast first thing in the morning, and it's ok to eat a piece of toast and an apple instead of overnight Instant Pot oats with yogurt and sous-vide-stewed-fruit compote.
- How much cooking or prep can you do at work? Some offices have microwaves, some have little kitchens, and some have nothing. Even if there is a microwave, really think about whether or not you want to spend 10 minutes waiting in line to use it. Proper seasoning also means you're more likely to enjoy your food so, if you don't have access to a cafeteria with seasonings and condiments, consider stocking a drawer with your favourite flavoring agents. How much time you like to take for lunch also plays a huge role here. Though I have full access to my entire kitchen "at work," I don't like stopping in the middle of my work day to cook, so I keep lunch very simple.
- Will you eat leftovers? And if you won't, will your partner or roommate? Some people simply do not like leftovers and these people should not make big batches of one thing with the plan to eat from it all week, as it will lead to a particular kind of sadness. (I thought I was a leftover eater until I got divorced and realised it was my husband who was eating them, not me, and I have since adjusted my cooking appropriately.)
- Do you like to cook during the week, or would you rather do it all at once? Some people would rather sit through a three-hour Power Point presentation about synergy than chop vegetables on a weeknight, but some people find the slicing and dicing rather zen. If cooking on a weeknight stresses you out, you'll probably want to carve out some time on a Sunday to do either all or part of your prep work and cooking for the week.
Once you have answered these questions without lying to yourself, you are ready to choose or craft a plan.
Don't feel boxed in by any one plan
There are a seemingly infinite number of ways to plan the way you fuel your body, which is both helpful and overwhelming. Putting "diets" aside, there are apps, meal kit services, templates, and many, many articles on the subject. If you find one you love, stick to it, but don't feel like you can't pick and choose your favourite aspects from each, or combine plans.
Also, just because a plan has seven days worth of meals for you to make and enjoy, it doesn't mean you have to make and enjoy all of them. Especially if you are cooking for a small household -- or a household with teens, who may eat out with friends or cook for themselves -- cooking and eating a whole new meal every night may be unrealistic. Meal plans will also never have "popcorn and wine," "a fancy cheese plate," or "cereal for dinner," as options, but these are completely valid choices if you want them (and provided you didn't also have popcorn and wine for breakfast and lunch). Keeping at least one day unplanned gives you a chance to chill, eat leftovers you're worried about wasting, or simply order a pizza because you feel like it and you're an adult who can do whatever they want.
I like to leave two days free -- one "fun day" (aka "cheese plate day") and one "leftover day." This means I only have three days of weekday meals to plan, and also leaves room for schedule shuffling, should an unexpected social eating opportunity present itself. Planning doesn't mean dedicating oneself to a joyless, spartan-like existence, so pencil in snacks, beverages you enjoy, and a dessert or two to keep you excited about eating at home. (I find every meal to be infinitely more enjoyable with a Diet Coke or tangerine La Croix, and clementines bring me much joy.)
Plan and attack
How exacting you want to get with this is up to you, as is the system you use for your planning. Some people like to be fully digital (here's a very simple guide on how to do that) and some people prefer a pen and paper approach (or a bullet journal). No matter what format you use, the process is roughly the same:
- Using the strategies above, determine how many days you want to have fully planned, and gather your recipes, limiting new recipes to one a week. If you're a big-batcher, you made just need one, huge recipe; if you hate leftovers, pick three or four small ones. If you want to eat more vegetables, pick at least one meat-free (or even vegan) recipe to try. (If you need some ideas, here are some for freezer-friendly breakfasts, breakfast bowls, vegetarian meals, salads that will keep their crisp, easy meals that can be made in a cake pan, Instant Pot ideas, and casseroles.)
- Make a shopping list for everything you'll need to make your meals, checking your cabinet and pantry beforehand to make sure you have basics like oil, salt, and spices. Also make sure to include beverages that bring you joy, snacks to stave of hangriness, and condiments that make anything edible (for me, that's sour cream and liquid aminos). Remember: you're not a damn Spartan -- you're a human adult who is allowed to enjoy food.
- Go shopping and buy the things.
- Do any prep work you can't be bothered to do during the week. For some, this may be chopping and portioning, for others, this may be all of the cooking.
- Eat the food.
If you "mess up" and eat out on a day you weren't supposed to, or toss a chicken carcass rather making it into stock, don't beat yourself up. To err is human, and just having a plan other than "winging it" will improve your cooking and eating habits, and make you feel just a bit smug, which is always nice.