Perhaps you are a lucky soul who lives in a time and place where, during your day, each day, you get to take a lovely stroll through stalls or shops selling fresh vegetables, fruits, breads, cheeses, meats, etc. You carefully inspect each in-season fruit or vegetable to pick out the highest-quality combination of tastes and textures. You aren’t harried or overly hungry while you’re shopping. You wind your way home, where you tie on a beautiful apron, take a glorious deep breath of fresh air, and prepare a masterpiece of a meal.
If that is your life, I envy you. I dream of a time and place where we all have the time, energy, and opportunity to engage in food preparation as you do. I think we should all aim to adopt more of your habits. If that is your life, this post is not for you. This post is for the rest of us.
The rest of us need a plan for our meals. The rest of us, if we grocery shop any given day after an overly long day at work or with the kids, find ourselves standing in the grocery store with feet aching in uncomfortable shoes and a headache behind one eye that just won’t go away while we stare at the 112 varieties of salad dressing, reality show contestants in the paradox of choice, trying to decide if we really do want a salad for dinner, and, if so, if we think the lettuce we bought a while back, sitting at home in the bottom of the fridge, is still good or is maybe too old to eat now, in which case maybe we should make something else entirely, or maybe just pick up fast food Chinese while we hope this headache goes away. Ah, there’s the plan–Chinese take-out, and an early bedtime. Skip the workout, too.
When we leave grocery planning and shopping to chance, when we fail to make it a priority, several things are likely to happen:
1. When we do grocery shop, we wander through the store and discover all sorts of desirable goodies. We buy many of them—even more so if we’re hungry while we shop. We get home and realize we have purchased 8 billion calories of expensive, carbolicious foods . . . but nothing to make for dinner. Our children, if we have any, grow accustomed to being able to pick out random junk food goodies at the grocery store, and their taste buds adopt strong preferences for microwave meals and fast food. Our, and their, health suffers, and our finances suffer.
2. We are too tired to hit the grocery store and figure out meal plans, so we end up eating out more often than we intend to, or we end up eating unhealthy food combinations we can just throw together at home. (Frozen breaded chicken strips and frozen fries? Sounds like a meal.) Our finances or health (or both) suffer.
3. We are never quite sure what we will end up eating, or did end up eating, from week to week. Our health suffers.
4. We don’t grow in our kitchen skills because we find that it’s easier to eat out, microwave frozen meals, or combine easy standbys than it is to make sure we have the ingredients we need to pull together something more interesting. Our devotion to healthy eating suffers.
5. We are more likely to feel overwhelmed by food choices and less likely to feel engaged in healthy options. Our health suffers.
When your finances and your health are suffering, it’s time to make a change. In this case, planning meals and groceries on a weekly basis is that change. When we plan our meals and grocery shop on a weekly basis, a few things fall into place:
1. We know what we’re eating, and what we’re feeding our loved ones, because we have a comprehensive plan in mind for how the foods will work out on various days.
2. When we grocery shop, we carry a list. We can make our way through the store, sticking to our list, avoiding the siren song of random store items with the knowledge we have everything we really need on that list. (A good ground rule? You can purchase one special item, not on the list, in the grocery store each week. A bottle of wine on special, an organic chocolate bar: one item lets you feel treated and generally won’t ruin your budget or health. Twelve items is a different story.)
3. When we plan our groceries, we can look at the calendar of the various family members to tell which days are going to be harried. We can plan simple meals for those days, we can cook for those days in advance, we can plan to eat out those days, or we can—in advance—enlist other family members to cook on those days.
4. We figure out how often we can afford to eat out and plan when we’ll go out to eat, which means we get to have the anticipation of watching the restaurant meals approach without stressing out about those meals blowing the budget.
5. Over time, we start to see patterns in our diets through our meal planning. Buying citrus fruit every winter week? May be time to invest in a whole box of clementines. Eating two pounds of red meat each week in a family of four? May be time to make an alteration to a healthier plan.
6. Our children, if we have any, learn that it’s important to make and stick to plans that allow us to lead healthy, affordable lifestyles. (Raise your hand if you wish you’d learned that lesson a bit more from your own parents.)
7. Our children, if we have any, get to look forward to meals that they love the most, because they can see when they’re coming up on the plan.
8. By synthesizing our meals and a few of the ingredients they use, we make sure we are planning meals to use up ingredients that might otherwise go to waste. (For example, if I’m making a recipe that calls for half a container of coconut milk yogurt, I’ll try to plan another meal that will use up the other half of the container.)
8. If we’re people with food allergies or other food restrictions, through meal-planning, we are able to rotate the foods we eat so that we don’t develop further allergies.
Of course, as with nearly anything worth doing, planning meals and grocery shopping weekly doesn’t come without a cost. It requires you to sit down on a weekly basis and come up with two lists: your meal plan list and your grocery list. You have to ask anyone else you prepare food for or with what their plans are, and you have to look at your own schedule. You have to think about what you might be in the mood for, and look up recipes or ideas for certain ingredients. You have to check the fridge, freezer, and pantry to see what you already have that you need to use so that you don’t waste food. It’s a new habit, and new habits require effort and energy to develop. It’s also a change, and even if you’re all for the change, you may encounter resistance from family members who are invested in things going back to the way they were.
Honestly, though, it’s worth it. At least, that’s what I’ve found. I spend far less time and energy and money, overall, on meal-planning and grocery shopping when I do it in weekly chunks than I do when I’m stressing out about it while I’m already hungry on a given day. And I definitely eat healthier when I’m planning my meals than when I don’t.
Why plan weekly? Why not monthly or bi-weekly?
In my case, there are a few reasons I plan weekly:
I have down time on the weekends, which make them a natural time for planning.
I order from my CSA weekly.
If I shop bi-weekly (or longer), fresh food goes bad before the end of that two weeks.
If I plan meals bi-weekly (or longer), our schedule changes, or my energy level changes, and suddenly, my plan doesn’t fit reality anymore.
Each person has to tweak a system individually, but I’ll tell you how weekly meal-planning and grocery shopping generally works for me. (I say ‘generally’ because there are occasionally times of great stress or busyness or travel when I don’t get the meal planning done. One week off won’t kill me or my budget. But after that week, I’m inevitably craving the knowledge and healthy foods that come with meal planning, even if getting back into the swing of it feels difficult from the inertia.)
This is what I aim to do. It’s long, written out, but that’s because I’ve tried to think through all the small details of what I do.
All week long:
As I come across meal ideas or recipes that I want to try, I save them in my email, on my del.icio.us page, or in a blog post draft that I never publish.
We also keep a marker board in the kitchen where we write down kitchen staples as we run out of them.
Usually on Saturday:
I create a basic meal plan sheet in my word processing program on my computer, like this:
(You get the idea.)
I fill in the ‘to-do’ section of each day with anything that I or my husband need to remember to do that might change my meal plan for that day: evening classes, doctors’ appointments, morning work-outs, etc. Then, I can easily see if there is a particular day that I want to plan to make something very simple or go out to eat. If I have a particular easy meal in mind (Melissa’s walnut hummus in lettuce wraps is a staple quick meal for us year-round), I may go ahead and write that meal in the appropriate slot on my sheet.
Also, in my to-do section, I put in any food prep that needs to be done for the following days—’Bring flours for bread to room temperature,’ for example.
I ask my husband if he has anything he particularly would like to eat that week. If he has a suggestion (usually it’s lentils, his favorite food other than cookies), I try to work it into the meal plan.
I’m big on purchasing foods locally when it’s possible. We belong to a CSA that delivers to Atlanta (more about CSAs in the resources section of this post). On the weekend, I flip through the ideas I’ve saved to see if they match what the CSA has available. (This process is easier now that I have learned what generally shows up in what season in Georgia.) I look on the CSA website to pick out fruits, vegetables, and occasionally meats to order, flipping back to my meal-planning sheet and my general calendar to see whether there are any upcoming events (like a weekend trip) where I should be particularly careful about the volume of food I’m ordering. I can set up my order pick-up for either Wednesday or Thursday, so I know going into my meal planning that I’ll have certain foods joining our fridge midway through the week.
I take my list of fruits and vegetables that will be delivered. I look at them and see if I get any clear meal ideas from them—if any ways of highlighting the local foods pops into my mind. If so, I add them to my meal-planning sheet.
(For many people, this is the point in the planning at which they get the local grocery sales circulars and maybe coupons and figure out what meals will be inexpensive to make this week. I buy nearly entirely organic groceries (and grass-fed/pastured meat), so sales circulars don’t help me much. I also find that coupons generally encourage me to buy processed food I wouldn’t purchase or eat otherwise, so I don’t usually use those, either.)
I look in the fridge, freezer, and pantry to note if there are any items I should try to incorporate in my meal plan.
I look at the meals I’ve already added to my sheet, and I consider whether those meals tend to use expensive ingredients. If they do, I may plan inexpensive meals for a couple of other days of the week. If I see that I’ve planned a high-calorie dinner for one night, I’ll plan a much lower-calorie lunch to balance it out. If I see that I’ve planned a particularly elaborate or time-intensive meal for one night, I’ll put easy meals on the two nights around it, and/or I’ll plan for us to eat leftovers for lunch that day.
Speaking of leftovers: it’s good to plan for them, and it’s good to have an alternate, staple meal in mind if the leftovers get eaten at the first meal or the first meal doesn’t work out. We eat leftovers from the night before nearly every day for lunch: it cuts down on my prep work, it saves us money, and it keeps us from wasting food. I’ll write more about that in another post soon. But I mention it here because I do think it’s good to account for leftovers—either with a plan to use them up for lunch nearly daily, or with a plan to have a leftovers night once a week to finish off what’s hanging around.
After I’ve planned our basic meals on all the days, I consider when I think I want to make us a special dessert that week—a higher-calorie treat that requires a bit more effort than our usual fruit-based desserts. The one, special dessert a week can be a moveable feast: if I’ve planned it for Tuesday night but we’re full on Tuesday after dinner, or if I’ve planned it for Thursday night but I end up with free time and extra energy on Tuesday night, I may move when I make and serve the dessert. (Leftover dessert goes into the freezer as soon as we’ve eaten our portions, because I know if it’s sitting on the counter, it will beckon to me to pull a bit off here and there until I’ve unconsciously and often unenjoyably eaten way more of it than I intended.)
When my meal plan is complete, I make a grocery list using the recipes from the meal plan. At this point in my relationship with my grocery store, I generally know what is located where in the store, so I put the list in the general order of the aisles, starting with the fresh foods. While I’m making my list, I position my husband in the kitchen. If I am not sure whether we have an ingredient, I call out the ingredient for him to look for it. I also have him call out to me the list of needed kitchen staples from the white board so that I can type them into my list.
I know that I am setting us up to eat well when my grocery list and CSA shopping order combined contain far more fresh and frozen vegetables and fruits than anything else, followed by vegetarian protein and whole grains. The list a concrete visual to indicate to me whether I’m providing us with solid nourishment for our bodies.
I save my grocery list and meal plan as one file so that I can look back at it later if I want. Then I print the two on separate pages. The meal plan goes under a magnet on the fridge. The grocery list goes into my purse so that I know I won’t end up at the store without it (unless I’m sick, in which case it goes into my husband’s hands for him to shop).
At the grocery store, I generally stick to my list. I cross off items I find as I shop. If I realize that the store doesn’t have an item I was expecting, I draw a box around the item to remind myself to pick it up somewhere else. Some weeks, if I have the time, I’ll shop at as many as three grocery stores to get the best deals on things—but I also don’t mind paying more to shop at a store where the employees are paid a living wage and given decent benefits. Also, I remind myself that it’s more important that I shop imperfectly and get it done than put off shopping because I can’t do it in the best way.
When I get home, I am set with the knowledge that we are prepared to engage in healthy eating that’s appropriate for the energy level and time we’ll have on different days. The rest of the week, I can pull together the meals without making additional effort at shopping or planning. (If I’ve somehow forgotten an ingredient—which happens occasionally, of course—I usually ask my husband to pick it up on his way home from school.)
Do you plan your meals and shop for your groceries weekly? If not, and you’re following along in the Year of Self-Care, now is the time to start. This coming weekend (or the next time you have a day off), set aside a block of time to work on your first meal plan. If you haven’t made one ever or in quite a while, give yourself a large block of time—even 3 or 4 hours—and be patient with yourself as you develop a system that works for you. You can start with a favorite meal or two, but if those meals aren’t too healthy, balance them out with healthier meals the rest of the week. If you’re feeling energetic, get out one of those cookbooks you don’t use often enough, and pick out a special meal to make one night. If you’re feeling exhausted, plan easy meals. Make it work for you.
If you already plan meals weekly, look at your meal plan, and figure out one step you can take toward making those meals healthier and more satisfying. Do you need to buy a few spice mixes to make your meals more interesting? Should you add more leafy greens to your diet? Choose one change, and make it.
For Your Edification:
The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less —a book about how overwhelming large numbers of choices are, and how we’re actually happier if we narrow our options. You can also watch the author’s 20-minute video from the TED to get you interested. When I first watched the video, it gave me a concise explanation about part of the reason that focusing on shopping for locally grown, healthy foods makes me feel content instead of restricted.
For Locally Grown Food:
Local Harvest—Local Harvest contains an explanation and directory of farmer’s markets and Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs that provide various areas of the US with local agricultural products. You may also find a CSA in your area by googling your geographic region, state, or city plus “CSA.” We adore using a CSA because we get far fresher fruits and vegetables (grown without pesticides) than we can from any other source. The price of being in the CSA compared to grocery store shopping varies greatly from city to city.
Fly Lady’s Food for Thought—Fly Lady provides various systems for organizing your life, and this page is her starter spot for meal-planning. I have never used her program, but several of my friends swear by various elements of it.
Creating a Weekly Meal Plan—a blog post at Unclutterer that includes a spreadsheet that may help you plan your meals
How to Grocery Shop With a List: Weekly Meal Planning—further tips and links
For Healthy & Delicious Recipe/Meal Ideas:
The cookbooks found in my Resources for Self-Care (under ‘Pages’ on the right-hand side of my blog) are some of my favorites for balanced, mostly healthy cooking.
Simply Recipes—Elise’s broad set of reliable recipes won’t let you down.
A Veggie Venture—Alanna offers a wide range of vegetable and fruit recipes, many of them easy to make and healthy.
Karina’s Kitchen—Karina truly is the goddess of gluten-free and allergen-free recipes, as many of her blog readers will attest.
Diet, Dessert, & Dogs—Ricki’s vegan food blog offers a bunch of healthy, often easy, often gluten-free, delicious recipes—and she’s coming out with a cookbook in 2009.
The Great Big Vegetable Challenge—Charlotte’s a brilliant (and now famous) mom who has catalogued her way through the alphabet of vegetables (from asparagus to zucchini) with her son Freddie, who at the start of the project was a picky eater. If you’re struggling to broaden your own palate, check out Charlotte’s beautiful photos and recipes (with Freddie’s comments and critiques included). Not all the recipes are healthy, but they’ll all get you thinking about the huge variety of ways you can include more veggies in your diet.
This post is Step Two in the Year of Self-Care—a series of 26 bi-weekly steps toward better self-care in 2009.
Previous Posts in the Year of Self-Care