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Meal Planning for People Who Hate Meal Planning

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Once a day at roughly five o clock I text my husband, “what are we doing for dinner?” and he texts back “I don’t know – what do you feel like?” and then I throw my head in my hands because we have failed again. I’m not being hyperbolic when I tell you that we’ve tried ALL OF THE THINGS. We’ve tried meal delivery services, weekly meal planning meetings, crowd sourcing ideas from friends, giving up and ordering takeout – you name it. What to eat for dinner has been a constant pain point for our busy family.

To add to the challenge, we have two very picky children, and since we don’t want to cook multiple meals we have limited options. As much as I love to plan and organize other aspects of my life, meal planning is an area where I get a big fat F.

I’ve preordered the new book Bare Minimum Dinners (by Jenna Helwig, the food director for Real Simple) which I’m pretty sure was written for me, but in the meantime I have devised a simple strategy that’s been getting us through.

Ready? Once a week, on Sunday, I go to the store and I pick out five proteins, five bases, and five veggies. We always stock basics like eggs, herbs, garlic, cheese, and seasonings, so this enables us to shop once and have five easy improvisational meals for the week – no planning required!

Here’s the basic idea:

Pick a Base

A base can consist of anything – a rice, a grain, a pasta, pizza dough, barley, lentils, corn tortillas, mixed greens, etc.

Add a Protein

We typically opt for lean animal proteins like chicken or salmon, but you can stock up on any proteins you like – beef, turkey, pork, tofu, tempeh, beans, quinoa, etc.

Eat Your Veggies

Our kids would rather skip the veggies altogether, but we’ve had good success with roasted cauliflower, crispy kale, or an assortment of root vegetables. We have incredible farmer’s markets in the Bay Area, so I love to grab an assortment of whatever is seasonal and fresh.

Put It Together

Jordan is a natural chef, so as long as I properly stock our fridge and pantry with these staples he can whip up a quick and delicious weeknight meal without a recipe. I’ve also been able to use these staples to create simple and tasty meals that feel easy to execute – fish tacos, fried rice bowls, and pasta with veggies are current favorites. The best part is shopping is a breeze and requires zero planning, and we can mix it up each week to create new and creative combinations.

Have you cracked the code on weeknight dinners? I’d love to know what’s working for you and your family!

Photography Credit: Vivian Johnson

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30 comments on “Meal Planning for People Who Hate Meal Planning

  1. This is our biggest stressor as a family too. And I was 100% totally with you until “Jordan is a natural chef.” My husband and I are anything but. I can get the ingredients, but what to do with them, how to put them together? That’s where I end up in a fetal position in the corner of the kitchen crying each evening. Maybe Jordan can contribute 10 easy dinners using a base, a protein, and veggies? I love your stuff Shira! You’re a genuine inspiration!

    1. Ha! I know – so lucky to be married to someone who loves to cook. For my part, I can always resort to pasta with roasted veggies or taco night which is always a hit. I’ll get Jordan working on a recipe roundup too! Xx

    2. Yes, would love this too! While I’m a decent cook, my creativity and inspiration lack big time. Would love some easy favorites ♥️

  2. I hate it, I hate it, i hate it! Every Sunday cortisol levels are on a rise because 1) we eat the same 10 dishes all the time, 2) I hate grocery shopping, 3) I cry when I have to look up meal ideas for a family of 4 with two picky eater. When I win the lottery, hiring a chef is #1 on my list. Getting Jordan to share an easy meal roundup sounds like a great idea.

    1. Ha! The struggle is real. I’ll tell Jordan he’s been nominated to help us all with easy recipes. Stay tuned! Xx

  3. This is genius! It lends itself well to leftovers too. I just texted to my husband with a suggestion we do “bowls” like this 3x/week. I had the same thought as the other commenter – I think to bring it together we can just use or make a favorite vinaigrette or make an Asian style dipping sauce once we find one we like. My son hates sauces but that’s healthier anyway so will leave him out of the sauce-choosing equation. An easy sauce is “creamy pesto” (rather revolting to think about, I know, but Blue Apron repeatedly uses a creamy pesto that is a crowd fave; simply consists of pesto plus mayonnaise). I also have a friend who swears by a rotation of seven exact dinners and exact dates (Monday is curry, Tuesday is veggie burgers, Wednesday is burritos, etc.). They might sub a new one in occasionally but it’s rare. Their kids just got used to it!

    1. Love these suggestions! Pesto is always a good idea, and bowls are a brilliant. We’ve also tried the themed meal night strategy which also help give us a little guidance each week. Xx

  4. This is why the 5 o’clock hour is called “the Bewitching Hour” to all tired mom’s-what to put on the table for dinner. To me, the secret is a well stocked freezer full of easy meals, soups, etc. What’s wrong w/a baked potato and a salad for dinner? Picky eaters are very challenging. Who wants to be a short order cook in your own home? Dinner is the biggest challenge w/kids.
    The urban farm I used to volunteer on taught me how to cook w/every vegetable we grew. It made whipping up a meal so much easier.

    1. Agreed about not wanting to be a short order chef in your own home! And love the idea of a baked potato and a salad for dinner. Simple is best! Xx

  5. I anchor my meal planning around a cuisine. It helps create variety and if I want to try something new, I know the general vibe I’m going for. The cuisine dictates my dish selection, but within each cuisine I have several recipes that I can reach for. I like only having to think about it once a week, not a daily, “what’s for dinner?” Mondays are Indian, Tuesdays Mexican, Wednesdays Take out night to support local restaurants through pandemic, Thursday vegetarian, Fridays are Pasta Night, Saturday is Middle Eastern Night, Sunday is Easy Night anything from hamburgers to pizza. Without planning we’d probably end up eating pasta all the time! Having take out and easy Night helps give me breaks from cooking.

    1. Loved the idea of anchoring around a cuisine although I would probably want “easy night” every night – Ha! Xx

  6. I’m a decent cook and a bit of throw it all together gal, but some things take time and its so much more easier if I plan ahead. Most days I plan the night before and often dinner leftovers work well for lunch the next day too.

    I want to create a list of what we eat and then then have it ready for reference because its so easy to forget and think “Omg what do I cook today”. Been meaning to make this list forever !!!

    Love your articles Shira !! Cant wait for your book!!

    1. Thank you so much! I used to have an easy breakfast list on our fridge – great idea for simple suppers as well! Xoxo

  7. hello shira!

    we are italian!! we cook and we cook and we cook. lunch and dinner and in lock down 5 meals a day!

    but i learnt to bake a lot o veggies once a week to make a lot of different meals and it works!!

    s.

  8. I love this idea, Shira. And I have one addition to the plan. I always make a little more than is needed of the basics… protein, basics, or grain.

    When it’s 5 PM and I don’t have a brain anymore, I find one or two ingredients left in the fridge and Google those ingredients adding the word “recipe”. Last night leftover black rice and carrots created an amazing salad with a bit of hummus and lettuce on the side. That’s my hack for easing 5 PM stress.

  9. I love this strategy! Meal planning can be so tricky. I usually spend 15 minutes on Thursday or Friday jotting down 3 or 4 dinner ideas for the following week. I order groceries online for Sunday delivery and I know I’m set for at least most of the following week, leaving some flexibility for going out, ordering in, or (gasp) spontaneity. I’ve discovered that the key for me is having some sort of list/Pinterest board (I also use the Paprika app) of meals we like that I can choose from when I’m planning. I have to keep adding to the list, but then I’m never at a loss for what to cook.

  10. This is exactly how I finally found a way to get away from this exhausting way of “what to eat today“ along with changing from emotionally eating style to intuitively now and the possibilities are so endless. Thanks for sharing and cheers from Heidelberg, Germany

  11. Fresh and Fast by Kristine Kidd and Melissa Clark’s Dinner Changing The Game are perfect cookbooks for your farmer’s market/pantry philosophy!! Both have helped my little family (complete with picky teen) navigate the dreaded dinner dilemma time and time again:-)

  12. Cook Once, Eat All Week is a GREAT GREAT book!!! A little heavier on the meat then we like but we just cut that down and buy more veggies. It is absolutely Fool Proof!!!!

  13. This is actually an area that I have figured out in my life!! WOAH!! I meal plan on Sunday mornings and shop in the afternoon. I usually plan 5 meals, one leftover night & one eat-out night!!

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