Desperate times call for desperate measures. Yesterday evening, I ran out and got XY some Chinese takeout for dinner before the babysitter came over. Why? Because we couldn’t get into the kitchen to feed the kid. We’ve been having the kitchen floor re-tiled, which is a three-day job. The last-minute scramble, minus the tiles, probably sounds familiar to a lot of working parents. But it’s a very unusual thing for us, by design.
Avoiding situations like last-minute takeout food, with its high cost, extra packaging and often dubious nutritional value, is exactly why we make a meal plan every week.
Well before we became a three-person family, Lindy and I were both in graduate school at night and on weekends while working full-time during the day. I’m the sort of cook who likes to throw things together, while Lindy tends to need a recipe. She took over cooking during those school days. This is how the meal plan was born.
Once a week, usually late Friday or early Saturday, I’ll pull up two Google Docs. The first is our listing of favorite recipes. (Leave a comment below if you’d like me to email it to you.) The second contains our grocery list for the week and a day-by-day listing of any evening or weekend plans. The daily listing also includes who will be eating lunch and dinner that day (including any guests), and either a web link or a recipe book page number for the dinner recipe.
http://peasandcrayons.com/2012/02/veggie-loaded-baked-potato-soup-in-the-crockpot.html (AH to prepare)
Sunday’s recipes tend to be a little more elaborate, because we’re all home and have a little more time to cook. Mondays tend to be crock pot nights, because XY has ballet and comes home late. (I usually set this up in the morning and start it before I go to work, or ask our dog walker to start it at midday.)
We usually do a pasta dish, a bean dish and a tofu dish, or some permutation on this idea. Weeknight dinners should never take more than a half-hour to prepare. Recipes come from a handful of vegan cookbooks we enjoy, mostly by Robin Robertson. We try to cook at least six servings of each recipe, so we have enough leftovers to cover my lunches and Thursday night’s dinner. So on a typical week, we’ll cook Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights, eat leftovers Thursday and Saturday, and go out for dinner on Friday.
Using the ingredients from the recipes I’ve chosen, I build the grocery list. I add things like salad greens, fruit and snacks for lunches. I check the white board in our kitchen for any staples that have come up empty during the week. I segment the list into categories: produce, dry goods and cold stuff. And then, usually no more than a half hour after I’ve started, I have a grocery list and weekly meal plan. Then I pull up the Google Doc on my phone before I go into the store. Lindy pulls it up on her phone when it’s time to cook.
The meal plan keeps the cost of shopping down, because we’re shopping for what we need instead of just what looks good at the store. Done right, it cuts down on the number of shopping trips — though I occasionally forget something from my list. It cuts down on the cost of weekday restaurant or takeout lunches. It eliminates the stress of the cooking parent (usually still Lindy) having to assess ingredients, choose a recipe and get dinner on the table in time for a hungry partner returning from work and a grade-schooler who’s supposed to be in bed by 8. And it means the three of us are eating balanced, fresh, plant-based meals together almost every night of the week.
In short, it’s a family anchor. It’s the kind of thing that seems like a bother, an extra chore during a week that only has 168 hours available. But I’m not exaggerating when I say meal plans have probably saved us hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars since we started the practice years ago.
You can alter a weekly meal plan to meet your own family’s needs. If you’re single and work 80 hours a week, a meal plan can help you save time and money and eat healthier. Try cooking just once a week for the whole week, maybe. Trent of The Simple Dollar builds his family meals, mostly vegetarian, around what’s on sale at the grocery store. His schedule and his focus on extreme frugality lead him to cook and freeze a whole bunch of stuff some Sundays. I’ve never managed to do this. You can skip the weekly meal out if it’s a hardship, or add another one if restaurants are a priority in your life. You could use Google Docs like we do, or a shopping app, or a simple sheet of paper with lines on it that you take to the store and clip to the refrigerator.
There isn’t really a downside, unless you count the lack of spontaneity in the weekly meals. But I would argue that the last thing we want is spontaneity in the roughly 2-1/2 hours between getting home and XY’s bedtime, especially when we’re trying to strike a balance between her trying new things and eating enough to grow healthy and strong. Much like when I’m getting dressed, sticking to what works for weeknight meals frees up time and mental space for the other important things in life.
Also published on Medium.