How to meal plan (or “Learn to cook like a ‘Type A’ personality”)

For the first 6 years of marriage, my husband did the cooking. I’m not going to lie to you, it was freaking awesome. Then we had a kid and I wound up staying home with her, while said husband went to work outside the home full time. Though he offered to continue doing the cooking, logistically, it made sense for me to do it, so I began reporting for KP duty.

Again, not gonna lie–I hated cooking at first. I hadn’t done it in so long and I was mildly overwhelmed with just my kid-care responsibilities. (Though looking back, with my now 4-year-old litigator, I’m like DAMN life was easy then! She just sat there! And took naps! But I guess that is part of the emotional landscape of parenting–you’re always nostalgic/hindsight-biased about your kid’s previous phases and what life looked like then. Despite the fact that the reality probably didn’t look all rosy like you remember.) In any case, I’m something of a perfectionist, so the idea of cooking AND taking care of a kid at the same time sort of stressed me out, because I wouldn’t be able to devote my full attention to either task and be the Valedictorian of Everything.

Our v. fancy recipe collection and its v. fancy receptacle.

Our v. fancy recipe collection and its v. fancy receptacle.

So, like with everything I do, I had to get organized. (Pee ehs: If my husband had a dollar for every time I said the phrase “I need to get organized…” he would be extremely rich. But I guess that’s why I do what I do for this business–to say it comes naturally is putting it mildly.) Getting organized meant figuring out some sort of meal planning system. The idea of going to the fridge and casually deciding that night what is for dinner that night? Not for me. I needed to know, in advance, what I was doing and ensure I had the proper ingredients.

Here’s what we did/what you can do:

Step 1: Brainstorm a list of meals you and your family like to eat.

I had my husband write down a couple of our regular meals for which the recipes were in his head. I also started collecting recipes from Real Simple magazine–because they are literally real(ly) simple–as well as those recipes that come with our local food co-op’s flyer–nutritious, delicious, and (mostly) easy. Additionally, we got a few recipe apps for the iPad, including the aforementioned Real Simple recipes (which costs a few bucks but is worth it, IMHO) and Epicurious (which is free).

A word about Epicurious: Don’t necessarily believe them when they say a recipe is for someone who self-identifies as “I can barely cook.” I tried to make a fucking Croque Madame in the early days of my re-entry into cooking and nearly threw the damn frying pan out the window mid-sizzle when I realized how many steps were involved REALLY. Needless to say, there was a lot of swearing involved during the making of that recipe.

Step 2: Choose a regular grocery-shopping day.

Because I guess we hate ourselves? we go shopping on Saturdays. Sometimes I go by myself, sometimes my husband takes our kid, sometimes we all go. It just depends on everyone’s mood.

Step 3: Decide how many days a week you want to cook, then make a list for the week.

For us, it’s usually six meals with one day of leftovers. Friday night is leftover night at the McGee house, because the grocery week resets on Saturdays. So usually on Friday afternoons, I sit down with the recipe apps and bundle of recipes and plan out the meals for the week. I take a small piece of lined paper, write the list of meals on one side and any other grocery items we need on the other side. Very simple and not fancy.

It's what's for dinner.

It's what's for dinner.

For each meal, I think up an entree and a vegetable to go with it. Here is an actual menu*:

  • Saturday: Salmon with roasted acorn squash and roasted Brussels sprouts
  • Sunday: Pulled pork sandwiches and coleslaw
  • Monday: Squash soup with sausages and kale salad
  • Tuesday: Beef curry with brown rice and roasted cauliflower
  • Wednesday: Tofu stir fry with soba noodles
  • Thursday: Pasta with bacon, beans, and kale, and steamed broccoli
  • Friday: Leftovers

*Seriously, none of these are crazy-fancy recipes. They take less than an hour to make (except the pork, but that’s a short prep time). Some days, my kid helps me cook; other days we have what I refer to as my “Blue’s Clues Quickfire Challenge,” wherein I try to be done cooking by the time an episode of Blue’s Clues is over.

Step 4: Get a days-of-the-week white board and write out what you are having, when.

Regarding the order of meals, items that would do better not sitting around the house forever (e.g., fish, baguette that might go with a soup) come early in the week. Additionally, my husband actually enjoys cooking and will cook more elaborate meals, so sometimes we have more labor-intensive meals on Sundays, which is when he is home and has time.

For meats that freeze well (basically anything except previously frozen fish, or anything that is vacuum-sealed like bacon or previously cooked sausage), I might plan to have that meal later in the week and put the meat in the freezer. Another nice thing about having the white board is that you can write yourself a reminder to take meat out of the freezer to thaw a few days in advance. So say you’re having something with chicken on Wednesday, you would write “Take chicken out of the freezer” at the bottom of Monday or Tuesday.

This meal planning system is pretty simple and easy to use. It has helped me feel more in control of something that felt overwhelming and intimidating. I hope that you too may find solace in its structure and routine!

This is how I look when I'm cooking.

This is how I look when I'm cooking.