Disclaimer: I am hoping this post doesn’t rub anyone the wrong way!  I have GREAT respect for people who meal plan, and this is by no means a “better approach”.  It is just my humble, personal approach because I know what works for me.  If you struggle with menu planning or even wanting to cook at all, hopefully this will be encouragement to start simply and not be discouraged!

I am amazed that people can plan their menus and grocery lists in advance.  But, I have a confession.  I fail at menu planning.  As much as I try, I am totally incapable of following a meal plan.  In fact, I pretty much hate planning my meals.  (This should surprise anyone that knows me because I am the most plan-obsessed person there is.  I love plans so much that we should call this “How to Plan Not to Plan Meals”.)

I thought I would spend a few posts trying to put my approach into words.  I am going to do this in two parts.  Today I will cover the principles behind my “no meal planning” approach, and next week I will give a real-life example of how I execute this approach.
 

My Meal Plan Non-Negotiables

  1. For me, cooking is a non-negotiable.  I always cook.  We rarely eat out.  If I don’t “feel like cooking”, eating out is still not an option.  We eat out maybe once a month.  Maybe.  And, when we eat out, I want a nice date – not a fall-back because I didn’t have time to cook.  Also, we rarely eat fast food, and never pick something up on the way home.
  2. I always grocery plan.  I never go to the grocery store and just randomly buy everything I see.  This might seem impossible if I don’t meal plan, but hopefully soon you will figure out how I do it.  I shop smartly, and this will never change. I also always buy things on sale.  Saving money is pretty key for me.  This is a non-negotiable.
  3. We eat healthily.  I don’t buy lots of pre-packaged meals at the grocery store just to make this possible.

 

Why don’t I meal plan?

 
There are a few reasons why I don’t like to menu plan.  I hope this makes sense.  These are just some of my random thoughts:

  1. I never feel like eating what I planned five days before.  This seems pretty selfish, but I don’t like to cook by rote.  It hate knowing that I am supposed to make fish, when in fact I just want to make a pot of soup.  It is pretty much impossible for me to actually want to cook what I planned.  This might be a personal problem, but there it is!
  2. I never know how much time I will actually want to spend in the kitchen.  I might plan to do a lasagna, but only feel like spending 30 minutes making dinner. It might even be too much to plan on making a lasagna on a certain week. I am much better having the ground beef on hand, and I will tackle a lasagna if I feel like it.  If not, I can do something easy like burgers or meatloaf.
  3. I shop sales and can’t work more than one week in advance. Because my budget is limited, I cook what’s on sale.  I never find recipes and shape my shopping around them, I shop sales and shape my recipes around them.  If ground beef, frozen vegetables and rice are on sale, guess what we are eating this week?  We will be eating meatloaf, red beans and rice, and Mexican casserole – all with veggies on the side.  I might vary it up, but my options are limited because I didn’t buy the more expensive fillets over the ground beef. I have to have the weekly grocery sales before I shop.
  4. I am a very simple person and I don’t need a million recipe options.  I don’t prefer lamb to meatloaf.  I don’t need the perfect wine to compliment my Filet Mignon.  I just like basic food.  This helps when I cook on a whim.  I don’t have a million different options in my head, just the basics that we love.  We also only like a few kinds of meat.  We don’t prefer pork, turkey or lots of red meat, so we mainly stick to chicken, ground beef and fish.  This makes it easy to wing a good meal.
  5. I use whole, clean foods and try to stay away from anything processed – which makes my meals simple and not very time-consuming.  This makes my decisions easy. We eat few casseroles (to my husband’s dismay) and I try to keep things simple.  This keeps me from having to prepare my meals ahead.
  6. Menu planning works well if you want extreme variety.  But, variety can really imply tons of ingredients.  Sometimes I just don’t want to buy all those ingredients!

 

Some Examples:

Most menu plans:

  • Monday – Lasagna, salad, bread
  • Tuesday – Salmon and couscous
  • Wednesday – Pork Loin and Rice and Veggies
  • Thursday – Grilled Chicken and Roasted Veggies
  • Friday – Hamburgers
  • Saturday – Leftovers
  • Sunday – Soup

This menu plan has 5-6 different meats going on.  That is too much for my budget!  I am a poor grad student’s wife and we are doing well if we have 1-2 different meats per week. 
 

My Menu Plan:

  • Monday – Meatless option #1
  • Tuesday – Chicken Fajitas (chicken meal #1)
  • Wednesday – Jamabalaya with chicken & Veggies (chicken meal #2)
  • Thursday – Leftovers
  • Friday – Barbeque chicken over rice & Veggies (chicken meal #3)
  • Saturday – Homemade pizza (meatless option #2)
  • Sunday – Soup (possibly meatless, possibly with leftover chicken, possibly canned)

Did you see what I did there?  I made a whole week of meals on one bag of frozen chicken breasts.  This might seem crazy.  But, this is my life so welcome to the crazy!
 

Common Questions:

    What about meal planning when it’s the 5 o’clock rush and you need to eat and have no idea what to make?

My response: I love food.  I wake up thinking about food. By 5 o’clock, I have thought about dinner and what my general options are.  I might not have an exact plan, but I will run a few options by my husband and my 5 o’clock urges.  Actually, by the time I go to work in the morning, I have already decided on 2-3 options. I can postpone the actual planning, but I have confidence that I won’t be clueless come 5 o’clock.

    How do you avoid that last-minute grocery store run?

My response:  I also hate that last-minute grocery store run!  So when I grocery shop, I shop for all my basics and standards.  I work around some basic meal options, get my standard ingredients, and prepare for a normal week of meals. I might not have enough ingredients for that awesome Pinterest food inspiration, so if I want to try a new recipe (or need to bring something to a party) I will get these ingredients during my weekly grocery run.  I do plan those exceptions.

If you made it this far, you probably think I am crazy.   Or, maybe you keep reading to see if I actually get to the point!  Or, maybe you kept waiting for my disclosure of “the basics”.  Well, come back next week and I will give you the run-down on all my basics.  Please leave any thoughts, comments, questions – and feel free to challenge me! I promise to answer any questions next week.

In case you are wondering, tonight we are eating salmon, black bean burgers, Falafel or leftover lasagna.  I haven’t decided yet!

When you are done, you can read Part Two here!

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