At some point, “meal planning” became code for “packing five or six identical lunches and pretending to be psyched to eat them all.” Of course, if you actually are psyched to eat them all, that’s one thing — but seeing as there are nearly as many articles on how to stick to a meal plan as there are meal plans themselves, something isn’t working. The solution could be as simple as putting yourself first.
I think selfishness is a criminally underrated life hack, especially when it comes to cooking, but it’s not the kind of take you broadcast; nobody wants to be seen as selfish, least of all women.
Imagine my delight when my longtime fave Deb Perelman advocated for exactly that in an excellent piece for the New York Times called “Family Meal Planning for Real Life.” The whole article is worth a read for anyone with kids, but to me, her very first tip is the game-changer: “Find a single recipe you really, really want to make.” She goes on to make a strong case for disregarding what other people want for once (emphasis mine):
I didn’t say, “Find a recipe your kids might, with some bribery, agree to eat,” or “Find a recipe that can be made in the six minutes you have when you get home before everyone collapses into a hangry meltdown.” ... It’s extremely hard to motivate yourself to cook something if it’s not a dish you genuinely want to eat. Focus first on your cravings. Be a tiny bit (gasp!) selfish.
Home cooks frequently put just about everyone else’s needs ahead of their own. Rather than asking, “Am I excited to eat dinner tonight?” it’s “What will my kids/spouse/deadbeat food thief of a roommate think?” Planning a weeks’ worth of meals takes a ton of mental and physical work regardless of how many people you’re feeding; you might as well be happy with the end result.
Instead of planning your week around what you should eat — which, of course, is code for the avoiding what you think you shouldn’t eat — try prioritising what you want.
This all sounds great in theory, but applying it is another matter. The most obvious hurdle is the fact that you can’t please everyone all of the time, least of all a table of picky eaters. But besides that, the concept of “meal planning” is so tangled up with diet and weight loss culture that “meal planning” has become functionally identical to “dieting” — big-batch recipes tend to feature lots of quinoa and steamed veggies and chicken breast instead of fun stuff like cheese and pasta.
In reality, there are exactly two requirements for a good make-ahead recipe: it must be easily scaled up or down and it must be able to sit in the fridge for a few days without a serious decline in quality. That’s it. No matter what your nutritional needs are, there are hundreds and hundreds of recipes out there that fit all of your criteria.
Prioritising recipes you’re legitimately excited about is more than a neat meal prep hack; it also happens to be the single best way to learn how to cook. Early successes make you want to stick with it and try new things, which can only help you improve. The more you cook, the better you get at it, and the easier it’ll be to adapt recipes to suit everyone in your household — but until then, there’s nothing wrong with being a little selfish.