A few years ago, I didn't know what meal planning was. I thought it was something for people who had kids to feed, a budget to manage, and no interest in the triumph of a spontaneous dinner. But like any good assumption, I missed the nuance and gravity of what the practice of planning your dinners all at one could do for you — and certainly who it was for. It's why I went a very long time cycling through free-styling dinner, weathering the ripples the lack of planning created in my life, and finding a way back to it all over again.
Traditionally, the information around meal planning speaks to the two kids, a colonial, and a collie set. Of course that's an antiquated idea of what it means to be a family these days. Despite the fact that some of that information didn't speak to me directly — a single person with no children — I began to glean tips from the information that was out there. Eventually I created a system of meal planning that worked for me and my goals.
Through meal planning I knew what I was going to make for dinner, how I was going to use the leftovers, the magic of my freezer, and the necessity of a day off from cooking each week. I was meal planning with the best of them. We call it micro meal planning at Kitchn and it's my preferred method for feeding myself. Then I started talking about it and you couldn't shut me up if you tried.
Get to Know Micro Meal Planning
Micro meal planning asks and answers the question of what's for dinner, but on a much smaller scale. Forget about choosing recipes, shopping, and prepping for a full week's worth of dinners. Micro meal planning is the low-commitment process that cuts the lead time for planning. It commits to a single night of cooking per week, and definitely no more than three.
I told my parents about meal planning. At this point, all of their kids were out of the house and they went from having to feed five people for dinner to two. My parents are very much dinner-on-the-fly kind of people, so this concept of planning — for a week, nonetheless — was foreign to them. They got a crash course in the micro meal planning process to make things manageable. They figured out a few dishes they wouldn't mind eating in different permutations over the course of the week (a pot of curried chickpeas, hard-boiled eggs, cooked salmon, and broth ready to turn into soup ) and committed to a few nights of certainty.
Meanwhile, I was running like a meal planning machine in my own life. I was just cooking for myself, so meal planning didn't have to bend to the considerations of anyone or anything but myself. It's a bit of a perfect situation to learn how to do it because, beyond circumstances out of your control, you're the deciding factor. I didn't need to pick recipes that appeal to everyone, or stick to meals on particular days. I could be as flexible or strict with the plan as I wanted to be.
Still, when you're meal planning for one, a whole new set of challenges come up. If I roasted a chicken, I had to plan on having chicken for three days that week. It's that or the freezer. Eventually I ended up with a lot of chicken pieces in my freezer, which later turned into an epic bone broth that I shared with others. Most of the time I was fine with leftovers, but more often I invited friends over when something that served many was on the plan.
Meal planning encouraged me to have people over for dinner more often. The same went with slow cooker meals designed to feed six or more people. Now, I often share extra food with friends or family, store leftovers in the freezer for a meal to come, or turn larger-format recipes into portions that work for me.
When I began meal planning I experienced a certain degree of frustration with recipes that assumed everyone needed to feed so many people, but in cooking them I discovered that sometimes the larger recipes were an invitation to be generous. I'd plan game nights around recipes I wanted to try that fed more than my one-person household. I had a nice little system going. Meal planning helped me do everything from socialize more often to feel better about my health.
Then a series of circumstances flipped my living situation upside. My family experienced a health crisis. I began to travel a lot. I moved back in with my parents. And work became even more demanding. Then I forgot how to meal plan. How do you plan for a week of dinner with all these factors at play? How do you find routine and normalcy when the definition of normal has been shattered?
This isn't the part of the story where I tell you I got my life together perfectly. This is the part of the story where I tell you I had to experience all the problems a lack of meal planning caused for me all over again. But this time, it was to an extreme I wasn't prepared for. For about one whole year, I stopped socializing. I started to work even more. Then I became unwell. Problems like these are slow moving. They don't show up at your door with an invitation in hand; they slip in between the cracks in the foundation until you realize your diet is half cheese and half whiskey, and you haven't seen the best friend who lives around the corner for more than 10 minutes in the last few months.
So how are you going to save yourself?
How are you going to make it better?
You remember how you made things better in the past. You plan for the self you would like to be. The one who has food in the fridge and makes dinner one night, and then the night after that. But in order to do that, you've got to go to the grocery store. But maybe before that you need to check your pantry and see what's up for grabs. A roast chicken sounds nice, because maybe you could have some broth a few days later. But before you go to the store, you need to make a list. This isn't another one of those lists of things you need to do — this is a list of ingredients and possibilities. When you go to the store, you're going to walk past the cheese and frozen pizza and you're going to buy the chicken and broccoli on that list. You're going to roast that chicken. The next day, you make the chicken salad you planned for.
You'll save the bones for a future pot of broth. And when you finally make it, you'll have friends over because the soup you made in the slow cooker was intended for sharing. And the friend around the corner you stayed away from while you tried to figure things out is happy to come over and have a bowl of soup. She was waiting at the door, invitation in hand. And then tomorrow, you make a stir-fry, or a salad, or whatever it is. You make whatever's on the plan.