There’s a time and place to figure out what you’re having for dinner, and it’s not five minutes before dinner is scheduled to begin, while staring at an empty fridge, wondering how on earth you’re going to feed four people with half a leftover chicken breast, three zucchini, and a bottle of mustard.
Enter meal planning. This doesn’t have to mean spreadsheets and calendars and alphabetized collections of index cards: after all, the whole point is to save you time, not to turn your kitchen into some kind of culinary Library of Congress. Meal planning doesn’t have to be complicated, and you don’t have to be some kind of uber-organized kitchen prodigy to make it work.
Here’s how to start meal planning, in 3 steps.
Step 1: Assess
Before you can fix the problem, you have to know what the problem is. And you need to get a little more specific than “I don’t have time to cook.”
To make the most effective meal plan, the first step is to figure out your pain points. A “pain point” is the thing that always trips you up, the problem that destroys all your good intentions. Some examples:
- You don’t have a fridge at work, so you never know what to pack for lunch. You end up just getting fast food.
- You get home from work late and don’t know any recipes you can cook quickly, so dinner always takes forever and you end up just ordering takeout.
- You always forget things at the grocery store, so you spend way too much time running back and forth for just one or two things. Eventually you get sick of it and just go out to eat.
Think back on any times when you just couldn’t face the thought of cooking again so you gave up and ordered pizza. Why did you end up in that situation? Was it that you had no food in the fridge? Or the only recipe you had was too long and hard? Or that you didn’t feel confident about making it?
Try to focus on situations you can control, not reasons like “I was tired.” All of us get tired, and yet some people manage to stick to the plan while others stumble. The problem is not being tired; it’s that you didn’t plan for being tired. Takeout restaurants plan for that possibility very, very well: it’s their entire business model. So to beat the takeout demons, you’ll just have to plan better than they do.
Before you move on to Step 2, quickly jot down your top one or two (or more) pain points so you’ll have them for reference.
Step 2: Find your Style
Found your pain points? The next step is to find a style of planning that addresses those particular points. If your pain point is “I don’t know any recipes simple enough to cook in a rush,” then a meal plan full of complicated four-course dinners is not going to help! You need a style of meal planning that addresses your particular problem. Some suggestions…
The casual planner
Good for: “I’m fine with cooking; I just run out of food halfway through the week because I forget things at the grocery store,” “I’m single and I don’t want to spend too much time on this,” “I don’t mind cooking on the fly sometimes.”
You will need: paper and a pen.
How it works: Write down however many pounds of meat, servings of vegetables, servings of fruit, and servings of starch you eat in a week, plus any miscellaneous items (e.g. cooking fat, vinegar, spices/herbs, etc.). That’s your shopping list. It doesn’t matter what kind of meat you get; get whatever looks good or is on special. As long as you buy everything on the list, you’ll have enough food to tide you through the week.
When you eat what is up to you: that’s why this one is the casual planner! It’s great if you live alone and eat a lot of very simple meals, or if you have a knack for making a meal out of any random collection of ingredients, so long as there’s something in the fridge.
Good for: “I have time to cook but can’t afford to eat this way.”
You will need: the weekly flyer from your grocery store, a calendar or planner, a separate paper for your shopping list, and your computer, to look up recipes.
How it works: Every week, get your grocery store’s sales flyer. Pick out the Paleo foods on sale, and look up recipes based on those. Grab a calendar or weekly planner and write down what you’re having for breakfast, lunch, and dinner each day. As you write down each meal in your planner, put the ingredients on your shopping list. Head to the store before the sales end, stock up, and get cooking!
Good for: “I’m struggling to find time for shopping and cooking between everything else in my schedule”
You will need: your weekly planner or day organizer, a separate paper for your shopping list, and your computer, to look up recipes.
How it works: Every week, grab a calendar and write down any events that might interfere with cooking. Working around those events, pencil in the time that you’ll spend on meal prep, whether that’s all at once on the weekends or spread throughout the week. Then do some searching for quick and easy recipes, slow-cooker recipes, or recipes that make a lot of leftovers. Plan those into the schedule, and put the ingredients on your shopping list as you add meals to your calendar.
The low-effort plan
Good for: “I don’t know any Paleo recipes that I can cook in a hurry,” “I don’t feel confident cooking Paleo food,” “I’m always tired when I get home and don’t have energy to cook all this fancy food.”
You will need: a calendar or planner, a separate paper for your shopping list, and your computer, to look up recipes.
How it works: Every week, start by hunting through your favorite sources for Paleo recipes to find simple breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. It helps to find recipes that make multiple servings, so you can have some leftovers and not cook something new for every single meal. Write them down on your calendar, and as you write down each meal, add the ingredients for it to your shopping list. You’ll only have to shop once during the week, and you’ll always have something quick and easy to make.
The custom blend
None of the above sound quite right? Or are you struggling with a different problem? That’s OK; just experiment with methods until you find something that works. You can mix and match methods, or come up with something completely unique by starting with the “best match” and modifying it until it fits your life perfectly.
Step 3: Just do it!
Reading a list of tips on meal planning will not help you plan your meals. Only planning your meals will help you plan your meals. Instead of clicking back over to the next tab, grab your day planner right now and pencil in a time to sit down and work out a meal planning system. Or write an email to yourself, write it on your hand, put up a sticky note - whatever you like; just do it now before you can forget.
It doesn’t matter if it’s not perfect the first time. Paleo is a lifestyle change, not a “diet” that you go off in two weeks, so you’ll have plenty of time to fine-tune your system. If you're still nervous about jumping with both feet, here's a sample 14-day meal plan for you to start with; copy it exactly or modify it to fit your needs. Or come up with something entirely original. Even if it's not perfect, it'll still probably be better than what you had before. Just go for it: you've got nothing to lose!