Welcome to our Healthy Habit Challenge! Instead of focusing on (impossible-to-keep) New Year's resolutions, we challenged four writers to start a new healthy habit. These challenges aren't about cutting out sugar or going on a diet, or focused on the negative. They're about doing something new and good — and making it second-nature. Here's how they went.
Original challenge: My Healthy Habit Challenge: I'm Gonna Start Meal Planning
Back in January, I announced that I was going to take up meal planning because, as Benjamin Franklin maybe once said, "If you fail to plan, you plan to fail." Also, I was tired of spending so much of my life running to the grocery store. Also, I was tired of not having food.
The Rules of My Healthy Habit Challenge
I would plan out a week's worth of meals, and then shop once. (All shopping would be done on foot.) Supplemental trips were to be avoided. If they could not be avoided, I would atone by at least feeling reasonably guilty about them.
I would like to say I was utterly transformed by my newfound competence, and that with all my new free time, I finished my screenplay, which I also started. I did not. Still, it was, I would argue, a resounding success.
I Tried Meal Planning and Here's How It Went
Let us begin with my failures. The first week, I meal-planned with vigor — consulting several cookbooks and the internet — and put together a comprehensive and ambitious list, including several dishes I had never made before. A strong start! I went shopping. Then I got home from shopping and realized we were out of salt.
In my defense, I always forget it is even possible to run out of salt until it happens, and it is shocking every time. I went back to the grocery store, where, in addition to my salt, I picked up some other urgent necessities, such as carrots, and a refill cartridge for my Soda Stream. What? I was there.
During week two, I was a model citizen.
Then in week three, I needed an extra can of tomato paste. I had indeed bought one can — like my list said! — but my list did not reflect the fact that I had decided to double the recipe, thus necessitating two cans of tomato paste. "I am sure I will remember that I am doubling this recipe," I remember thinking, before forgetting. The lesson here is to write down everything, because the mind cannot be trusted. (On the bright side, this second can of tomato paste allowed me to make a truly staggering amount of stew, which fed two people for four days.)
This whole experiment taught me two other very important lessons.
What I Learned from Meal Planning
First, meal planning saved me money, as I'd anticipated. I was able to cut my grocery bill by at least $10 per week, and sometimes more. I was making fewer impulse purchases; more virtuously, less food was going bad. My produce was lasting, and, if it wasn't, we mostly ate it anyway. The one casualty was a head of cauliflower, purchased for a (planned!) pilau I never made.
I also learned to be flexible. Now, I am, arguably, a somewhat rigid person. I like plans a lot. I dislike failure. I am a person who will trudge back to the store if I am out of one small ingredient, because the meal just won't be the same. (It will be pretty much the same.)
But knowing that I wasn't going back to the store, even if we were out of sesame oil, was weirdly freeing. The food would probably be fine, mostly! If it wasn't, we would probably live anyway!
One fateful night, I discovered we were out of rice so I made couscous instead, and I realize objectively that they function nearly identically, but bear with me — we all move at our own pace. Weekly plans became a mix of concrete ideas and vaguer notions: tofu and greens with chili-peanut sauce one night, "whatever vegetables over some grain" the next. No one seemed upset about it, including me.
Will My Meal Planning Ways Continue?
Absolutely! Or at least, that is my intention. It is nice, not panicking every night when I have to figure out what to make for dinner.
I did not miss "spontaneity," as I feared I might. I did not miss the grocery store. I could do without buying 12 grapefruits at once — my arms, they are weak — but if, going forward, grapefruit-buying requires a special grocery run, so be it. One trip a week, after all, is supposed to be a liberating guideline, not an iron-fisted rule.
Have you tried meal planning? What did you think?