Meal planning is an aptly named technique that simplifies the refueling of your metaphorical tank.
As fun as walking into a grocery store and letting your heart lead you to dinner is (for those who like cooking, anyway), daily grocery shopping just isn’t feasible when 5pm rolls around, the last coffee’s magic has worn off, and all the fresh produce is gone. That’s why we should save our culinary adventures for a spontaneous trip to the farmer’s market on a Sunday and plan our other meals before we’re hungry.
Planning an entire week’s breakfast, lunch, and dinner is daunting when done with zero foresight, but it doesn’t have to be. Just remember that you’re not looking to create an elaborate 12-course meal to challenge Gordon Ramsay – but an efficient, effective, and tasty way to feed yourself or the family.
Before thinking about the actual meals you’ll be preparing, ask yourself these macro-sized questions to guide your menu:
What meals do you actually need to plan?
Sometimes, meal planning requires no plan at all. If you’re fasting intermittently, then you can immediately cut one meal from your rotation, or swap a full meal for a light snack. And if breakfast is poached, scrambled, or hard-boiled eggs and fresh veggies, then you’ve already planned your first course!
How much do you really eat?
After a typical meal, is your body telling you to eat more, or yelling, “please stop!”? Is the fridge stuffed with leftover leftovers, or perpetually barren? Are you a chronic over or under-eater? Studies have found that portion size is correlated to decisions made long before you actually sit down to eat. So by deciding what you’ll be eating when, you save yourself the hassle of leaving food to spoil, or having nothing to eat but condiments.
Are there food allergies or favourites in the family?
Mentioning this may be redundant, but take your dietary restrictions and preferences into consideration before hunting for recipes. Going gluten-free? Vegan or vegetarian? Cutting out red meat or dairy? Managing your blood sugar? Any regards you made yesterday should transfer into your meal plans and find its way onto the shopping list (unless today is the day you’ve decided to make a change).
Actually figuring out your menu.
An easy – and fun – first step is to theme every night. Meatless Monday, taco Tuesday, French Fry-day, saucy Sunday. And no, they don’t need to rhyme. If you have kids or a playful spouse, they can add to the fun while doing the heavy lifting for you! Once you have your themes set, you’ll know precisely what style of ingredients you’ll need for every night. And feel free to leave a day unplanned to satiate your creative side with a trip to your local butcher or fishmonger.
Once a broad theme has been set for the days, search for the recipes. After (not) sifting through roughly 135 million links to “dinner recipes” on Google, here are three sources for any theme or cuisine on your calendar:
|Jamie Oliver||Yummly||The Kitchn|
With your themes in mind and your recipes in hand, it’s time to raid the store. You’ll want two things when you walk in: a list of ingredients for your nightly meals, and this handy chart of bunker-level-shelf-life items to keep stored in your pantry and freezer to avoid unexpected trips to the grocers and spontaneous nights of ordering-in or dining-out.
|For the pantry:||For the fridge:||For the freezer:||Seasonings:|
|Pastas, quinoa, brown rice, buckwheat, rolled oats, couscous, dried lentils||Cheddar, gouda, or whatever cheese you fancy||Sausages and/or hamburgers of any meat||Spices: allspice, chili powder or flakes, ground cumin, curry powder, turmeric, nutmeg, paprika, cayenne pepper, ground cinnamon, cinnamon sticks|
|Canned: beans, tuna, chicken broth, lentils, assorted beans||A good quality parmesan||Frozen fish||Dried herbs: bay leaves, dill, thyme, oregano, basil, tarragon, sage, parsley|
|Canned or jarred tomato sauce||Fresh garlic, onion, and ginger||Assorted frozen fruits||Honey|
|Extra-virgin olive oil||Mayonnaise||Assorted frozen vegetables||Maple syrup|
|Balsamic and/or apple cider vinegar||Unsalted butter||Pizza dough||Brown sugar and granulated sugar|
|Grapeseed or coconut oil for cooking||Large eggs||Pastry dough||Almond and/or hazelnut butter|
|Jarred green or Kalamata olives||Anchovies or anchovy paste||A bar of dark chocolate|
|Jarred capers||Greek yogurt||A variety of jams|
|Low sodium soy sauce||Lemon and lime||Teas and coffees|
|Hoisin sauce||Black peppercorn|
|Oyster or fish sauce||Kosher salt and coarse sea salt|
|Worcestershire||Unsweetened cocoa powder, bittersweet and/or semi-sweet chocolate|
|Ketchup and mustard|
|A variety of nuts and dried fruit: walnut, almond, hazelnut, peanut, pine nut, pecan and apricot, prune, cherry cranberry, date, raisin, fig.|
If you’d like to simplify meals even further, cook all your protein at once. On a Sunday night, bake or grill all your chicken (the most versatile of the proteins) for the week and freeze them. It’s important that the chicken is frozen – not refrigerated – as mold may start to grow as early as two days after cooking. Then simply defrost and season to match the night’s theme as the week goes on. Now you’ll have a substantial base for any cuisine that may come to mind like burritos, pasta, chicken burgers, stir-fry, and even good ol’ chicken and potatoes.
Despite the emphasis on managing the volume of leftovers, they’re an unavoidable consequence of casual cooking. When you’ve got full meals in containers, it’s easy: reheat, maybe add some extra sauce or seasoning if they’ve food has become too dry or bland. But what about when you’ve got crisper drawers brimming with mismatched ingredients? There’s a resource for that too. Supercook lets you enter the ingredients you have and they’ll scour the internet for recipes that match your list.
If all else fails…
And meal planning and prepping just isn’t your thing, as a backup, look for either a meal delivery service that does everything for you except eat, or check out a premade meal plan and grocery list that only needs shopping and cooking! Our favourites include the worldy selection from Whole Foods and three healthy weeks from the Heart and Stroke Foundation.
You’re now set to go out and feast like an adventurous bureaucrat. And if you’ve come up with your own master meal plan, help others out by sending them to our Facebook page to get your folio featured!