It’s not a huge secret that I like to be prepared for things. I look up interviewers on Facebook before we meet, I check the weather every morning, and I make meticulous packing lists. I like to know what I’m getting into ahead of time, so I never miss a beat and I can roll with whatever ends up happening. Once I moved into my first apartment and had a full kitchen, of course I wanted to prepare meals ahead of time for not only practicality’s sake, but so I could dictate exactly every snack and meal that went into my mouth. That was also when I thought that I was smarter than my body, and needed to calculate all of the nutrients I was getting into a controlled plan or things would spiral out of control and I would gain weight and gosh, wouldn’t that just be the end of the world.
I purchased the tiny color-coded food containers, wrote the charts and graphs about what I “could” or “couldn’t” eat throughout the week, and selected all my snacks to be eaten at certain times of the day. This worked for about three days, then I would inevitably “fail” at my plan and eat outside of it because the plan provided inadequate calories and nourishment, and my body was telling me it needed more. But to me, it felt a lot like I wasn’t successful, or would never be able to control my cravings. Nowadays, I’m deeply grateful for the knowledge that my body knows what it needs and will steer me in that direction – and that it doesn’t always look like you would conventionally expect.
In an ideal world, we would all have unlimited piles of ingredients and snacks, and limitless time to make them and eat them. But as we all know, this is rarely (if ever) the reality. As unfortunate as that can feel, there are so many things we can do in terms of planning that provide structure and practicality to our lives while still creating freedom to respect our bodies’ cravings.
GET TO KNOW YOURSELF
One of the first steps to effective but flexible planning is to think about what’s currently working for you and what’s not. For example, I made myself big batches of chicken when I moved into my own place, with the intention of eating it throughout the week – but as it turns out, I hate most reheated chicken. It gets dry and weird and it’s not at all satisfying to me. So now, I usually buy myself frozen chicken breasts and cook them one at a time so I get a fresher end product that I don’t have to plan to eat more than once or twice before making a new batch.
Another thing I had to baby-step into when I started cooking for myself was the actual complexity of the recipes I was using. Some recipes take a billion ingredients that just aren’t plausible to purchase all at once, and then they take forever to make. Think about not only what you have, but what you’re willing to get and how much you’re willing to spend (there’s really no need to break the budget on a fancy recipe if you won’t eat it!).
CHECK YOUR SCHEDULE
Before starting to brainstorm a week of eats, I usually sit down with my planner (I love this one) and go over what I have to do and where I have to be in the coming days. It’s an obvious tip, but one that’s been a huge help in planning since I can cross off packing lunches or dinners on days where they’re provided through school or work, and I can note when I’ll have a lot of time or a little time to cook (and whether I’ll want something fast or want to take my time cooking). It makes life easier and I feel more prepared for the week overall since I took a second to remind myself of what’s coming up.
If you have the time, starting with just one or two meals (maybe planning out Monday-Wednesday) can help ensure that your food is fresher, that you are more likely to still be wanting it (nothing like planning a meal on Sunday that doesn’t sound good on Friday!), and that you don’t waste money on food since you can re-assess and go shopping again mid-week.
Giving yourself some grace on days that you’re too tired to cook or shop, not in the mood, or too busy is one of the best things you can do for yourself when it comes to meal planning. Freeze leftovers you’re not feeling that day and save for later, and stock up on frozen meals/shelf-stable options (sometimes, cereal for dinner is just what you need) and choose those when you need to. There’s no prize for having pretty meals 24/7 – or ever – but cutting yourself some slack when you need can be a powerful tool in making your whole week better, and in keeping meal planning from getting overwhelming.
On that note, it helps to not plan every little meal and snack down to a tee. Think about an entrée and a few sides that would all go together, and mix and match as you’re feeling it. Keep a supply of your favorite snacks on hand and let your body tell you which to choose. There’s no wrong answer if it tastes good and satisfies you.
Meal planning helpers are on the way! ;) But in the meantime... do you have tips and tricks for planning? Leave them in the comments below!