Usually I make food choices just one time during the week: Sunday. It’s the day I go grocery shopping — the most important activity in any given week when it comes to staying on track with a healthy eating plan.
But before I take my first steps into the produce section, I conduct a brief strategy session. It takes only about 20 minutes, and when it’s done I have a meal plan and shopping list. Here are the steps that I follow when making my weekly meal plan.
The 7 Steps of My Weekly Meal Plan
- Review the contents of the fridge, freezer, and pantry, making a mental note of anything that ought to be used up in the next couple days. Note what leftovers or ingredients we have stashed away that could be the basis of dinners next week.
- Take a peek at my "recipe inspiration" Pinterest board and any recipes I’ve ripped out of magazines and stuck to the fridge. Is there any new recipe I want to try this week? Do I have time any day to take a kitchen project on?
- Flip through my meals calendar, which I keep on Google calendars, to see if there’s anything I made a while back that I’d like to make again.
- Negotiate with my spouse about what sounds good — we try as best we can to anticipate cravings. Is it too cold to have salad for dinner? Are we sick of chicken? What irrational whims or aversions can we foresee this week?
- Fill out the calendar, labeling each day with its dinner, stacking more perishable stuff toward the beginning of the week and freezer fodder at the end.
- Compare recipe ingredient list to our inventory and make a shopping list.
- Shop, buying only what is on the list. No impulse buys.
That’s it. This is menu planning, and I cannot lose weight, or even simply avoid gaining weight, if I don’t do it.
Why I Make a Meal Plan
There’s a primal anxiety that sets in early evening if I don’t know what we’re going to eat. In my marriage, getting dinner together is usually my job — although my husband helps a lot with the planning and shopping, and he always does all the dishes — and leaving dinner unplanned is dangerous.
As dinnertime approaches and I get hungry, when I don’t have something planned to make and the ingredients on hand, I can think of only one thing: restaurants. Instead of scouring what we do have to improvise something to eat (I am capable of this, I do it for myself every day at lunch), I will go on Open Table to see where I can get a reservation.
And once I’ve pictured myself with a glass of rose and hamachi crudo, or a craft beer and a plate of french fries, or opening all the little salsas in my taco delivery, it’s done; I’m powerless over my own restaurant impulses. But almost all of those unplanned restaurant food costs and calories can be avoided with meal planning. I don’t have these same tempting thoughts when I know the drill.
The Importance of Great Recipes
One of the most important parts of meal planning for me is picking dishes that I like as much as or even prefer to a meal out. As a former restaurant critic and longtime food writer, I’ve eaten enough restaurant meals to know they aren’t always what you dream them to be in your state of hunger. If I plan meals like plain chicken breast with steamed broccoli or anything with an overdose of kale or quinoa, I’m definitely putting that stuff in the freezer and going out to eat instead.
I’ve spent many years stockpiling recipes that are reasonably low in calories yet still incredibly delicious. We have favorites that we return to almost every week. There are splurges — like a marvelous chicken and peanut stir-fry from Fuschia Dunlop’s Every Grain of Rice — that sets me back almost 900 calories when you factor in rice. But that’s OK — still way healthier and lower in calories than a restaurant meal, and I definitely don’t make something like that every day. When I cook, I know exactly what I’m dealing with. Having a core group of these kinds of recipes that I like as much or more than restaurant food is key for me.
Another thing that makes it work is looking ahead at my schedule and being realistic about what I will feel like doing. When I get busy, a week of dinners may well be more about assembly (precooked grain, plus lentils, plus rotisserie chicken) or reheating soup from the freezer than actually cooking. Knowing how much work I can put into cooking on any given week is all part of good planning.
When I explain my devotion to meal planning, I often hear from others that the process sounds overwhelming or that there’s no way to know what you are going to feel like eating four days down the line. And while it may sound a little daunting, I think it’s actually way less stressful than having to invent dinner from whole cloth night after night. It gives you a lot of control over your diet — exactly what you need most when you are trying to lose weight, maintain weight, or just stick to healthy food choices and a responsible budget.