How I'm Planning My Meals This Year

Last week, I wrote about my reading plan for the year. That plan is put together for a single purpose: keep me on track, ensuring I have a plan that allows me to accomplish what I want to accomplish, and reduce the amount of time spent thrashing about trying to figure out what I should be reading next.

Well, I’m taking the same approach with eating this year as well. Meals are something that all of us do daily (unless you’re on some hippy fast), and it’s a critical part of our lives. What we eat determines our health, determines a big part of our cash flow monthly, and determines the amount of time we have to spend daily tending to that task. Most people do this ad hoc, asking “So, what do you want for dinner?” sometime around 5:00pm, leading to last-minute trips to the grocery store, inefficient use of ingredients, or extra money and calories spend on ordering something from the taco joint down the street.

All that changes with a solid meal plan.

I’ve put my meal plan for the year together, and you can look at it here. Let me walk through my thinking on this, and perhaps it’ll inspire you to do something similar.

This spreadsheet is set up as follows: every day in the year is accounted for, and for each day, a meal (dinner) is planned. Because I tend to eat the same thing for breakfast and lunch (Nutrigrain bars or eggs, and a ham/turkey sandwich), those don’t need to be as explictly planned. YMMV. For each day, I have a theme. That theme helps to drive the meal selection for that day. You’ll notice that for us, weekdays are always low calorie meals. Because I’m doing Stronglifts and working to trim up a bit (check out my food diary on MyFitnessPal), eating low calorie, healthy meals is important to us. For other days - like my wife’s birthday on the 24th of this month - we put that in, so we can plan accordingly.

Additionally, we have blackout dates. These are dates where we know something special will be happening, we’ll either be out of town (or out of the house and eating out somewhere), or we’ll have company in, which means a break from normal.

So, for each day, we have a theme, and a meal. The meal is broken into an entree, two possible sides, dessert, and two miscellaneous slots. For us, we almost always just do an entree and side for weeknights, so usually those extra slots aren’t used. That said, they’re available for special occasions or more complex meals, should we need them.

Lastly, each meal has an optional contributor - that is, the person who initially told us about the recipe, so we can give due credit (have a recipe you want us to try? Drop it in the spreadsheet!) - a “Repeat?” column, which we fill out after the meal indicating if we’d want to repeat it or not, and notes, in case we need to jot down a few thoughts on how to make things better next time.

This might seem crazy to you, but here’s the deal. Planning out meals like this is a game changer for a few reasons:

Weekly Planning and Cooking are Vastly More Efficient

With things planned out in advance like this, we can do all our shopping on a single day (Sunday or Monday), and eliminate weeknight trips to the store. That means more time to do valuable things, like reading, spending time with the family, or catching up on some work.

Ingredient Utilization is Optimized

We’ve been guilty in the past of having piles of ingredients that take up residence in our fridge or pantry, with only 20% of it being used and the rest going to waste. By planning out in advance like this, we can look for ingredient overlaps between meals, and more efficiently use things up. Fewer half-consumed fridge residents means a neater space, and a more cost effective approach.

Communication is Better in the Family

No more “So, what are we doing for dinner”, “Do we have chicken available for tonight?”, “Did we think of something the kids can eat too?” questions. Because there’s a plan, and everyone has access to it, everyone knows what’s coming down the pike at any given time. That means less kvetching about meal choices, and more communication harmony in the household.

We get to try more things that we’ve wanted to try

Weekends are generally reserved for special things (that are almost always NOT low calorie). When we find great recipes that look interesting, instead of forgetting about them, we drop them into the plan, ensuring that we’ll get to them. I can’t wait to try this General Tso’s chicken on Saturday that my buddy Josh recommended a few weeks ago!

A few frequently asked questions that I sometimes get about this kind of planning:

Doesn’t this take a long time?

Not really. The first few weeks, it’ll take some concerted effort, but it’ll become quicker as you go. In our plan, the “Repeat?” column is important. If we’re struggling to come up with meal ideas, we can look back through the plan, find some we want to repeat, and drop them in. Mindless, quick.

How do you have time to cook full meals every night?

By planning it out. Seriously tho, once it’s planned, and ingredient procurement is consolidated into a single day, prep and cooking becomes much quicker. Additionally, planning it out like this enables you to do things like do all your prep on a Sunday afternoon (chop, dice and measure, store in baggies in the fridge, rubber-banded together by meal) so all that’s left to do is toss it on the stove or in the oven. Having prep out of the way vastly speeds things up. In our house, we have a bit of a deal. My wife (who stays home) does the prep in the afternoon, and I swoop in like a TV chef with mise en place at 7:00pm and cook it all up. TBH, we can do this faster than we could order something (and it’s much healthier).

Isn’t this expensive?

Again, not really. Certainly not compared to ordering food every night, or taking an ad-hoc approach. By working to use up ingredients with meals that have overlapping requirements, you can get far more utilization out of your fridge or pantry, and fewer fuzzy things growing in the bottom of a drawer somewhere. More utilization == less per meal cost.

Why do you eat so much white rice? Isn’t that bad for you?

Dunno. I like white rice. Doubtful it’ll kill me. Bonus, it’s cheap, super easy to make, and goes with just about anything.

I hope this inspires you to take a more proactive plan on your eating this year! Everything in life becomes easier when you have a plan, from reading, to eating. Do you have favorite recipes you think I should put on the plan? Drop ‘em into a day (according to the theme, of course), or leave ‘em here in the comments. Can’t wait to try it!

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