There have been very few seasons in my life where I have enjoyed meal planning and cooking. The first is right after Nick and I got married. I truly enjoyed coming up with meals I'd cook for us as a family and putting together a grocery list, shopping (especially at the Trader Joes that was near our new home at the time), and preparing the meals day by day.
At the time, I didn't have a job. We just moved to a new place, and I really didn't have friends either. Pretty much, all of my energy could go into being a wife and preparing food, getting our apartment together, etc.
That didn't last long at all. Soon I was a full time English teacher, and started hating meal planning because it felt like I had zero time for it. I started getting bored with the meals I was making, too.
There was one other time, a few years ago, where meal planning was exciting to me. I decided to go all in and try the Paleo diet. It was fun to learn the new staple ingredients I'd shop for, the new meals we enjoyed, and a whole new way of shopping, cooking and eating.
But I still taught full time, and things got busy, and Paleo started to feel hard, along with meal planning, again.
Pretty much, since that point, I lost my love for meal planning, grocery shopping, and cooking. Not that it was ever actually a passion of mine, but more of something I just generally enjoyed.
Reflecting back on how I went from enjoying to despising of meal planning, I think the problem was my own life. Sounds extreme, I know. But I started overcommitting to things. Good things, of course. But still, overcommitted.
I was a full time teacher and took on a part time job event planning and working for Yelp. Then I started Crossfit and would go there after school with Nick. Then I started discipleship through my church. And a Bible study. Then I took on another part time job being a social media manager for a local small business.
All good things. But way too many of them. And my life felt overwhelmed.
Sometimes I did great at planning out our meals. Other times, we went out to eat or ordered takeout four days in a row.
Once I had Gemma (and three jobs still) I could absolutely no longer wrap my mind around meal planning. I started to feel like something was wrong with me. I sought help on social media, and then I felt even more like something was wrong with me. How in the world could I be so bad at such an important thing like feeding m family?! Everyone else seemed to have great ideas and have a hold on it. I pretty much had a meltdown about it, because I felt completely inadequate and overwhelmed by everything- not just the meals. They were just the last straw, basically.
Now, I find myself easily planning meals each week. We grocery shop as a family, and Nick takes one dinner a week and most breakfasts, and I take the rest. It feels so simple. And the other day I remembered that just at the beginning of this year, I couldn't plan meals for the week to save my life. Even though, at the time, I felt like maybe I was the only one with this problem, now I'm convinced that there are other women out there, just trying to plan out some dang healthy meals for their family, but feeling completely overwhelmed by the process.
So I'm here to tell you what worked for me. This is the resource I wish I would have found a few months ago when I was so. over. meal planning.
What Finally Helped
A few things happened to get me to the point that I am now with meal planning.
- We simplifed our home and our life. We got rid of a ton of stuff, and our home becamse 98% more manageable. I had more time for meals because of this. And my kitchen was easy to clean, so using pots and pans didn't feel like a burden. Also, I now have one part time job, and I work from home and stay home with Gemma. I also run an online business, so there is still a lot going on. But I'm not nearly as overwhelmed. I'm careful about what I say yes to. I know this might not be how everyone wants to live, and that's totally okay. It just wasn't working for me to be so busy- to the point where I couldn't do the most important things I needed to for my family. Now, I remind myself daily that not everything has to be done in one day, and whatever I get done that day will be enough.
- I discovered Food Prep vs Meal Prep and started to think about meals differently. I realized that I was thinking of meals as something extravagant. A delicious, hearty casserole. A main and side dishes that go together perfectly. Lasagna (I don't make lasagna). But meals don't have to be like this. They can be simple. And I mainly learned this while living with my aunt. She typically prepares a protein, a starch, and a veggie. What a novel idea, right?! They can go together well, or not. It really doesn't matter. Simple and actually doable is what matters. And healthy- that matters, too.
Now I like to think of it as food prep because I mainly plan for proteins and sides that will go together well, are easy to make, and can be switched up if need be. Not feeling brocolli with the burgers? Great, I can make it later in the week with chicken thighs.
- I gave myself grace to choose simple. Now I choose meals each week that we like, but that are easy for me. It doesn't have to be amazing. It kind of also helps that I have a baby to feed, and she likes the simple stuff better, anyways. As long as the food I'm preparing is healthy, I'm happy with the outcome.
The Simplified Meal Plan I am Actually Able to Follow
With a baby, everything is harder. Add more kids to the mix and I'm sure it's hard to get anything done. But we change and adapt and make things work, because moms are basically superheroes. Here's how I've found a way to simplify meal planning and make it actually work for me. Step by step, here's what I do:
- Create a master list. This is the first and most important step. Choose 10-15 meals that your family likes and are simple enough that you'll actually stick to. This is your master list. You can always change and add to this master list- it's a starting point. You can make one seasonally, which I recommend, as you'll probably want chili a lot in the fall and winter, but not as much in the summer, for example. Write them down,
- Choose a planning night that you'll stick to each week. Not prep, just planning. On Sunday night, I sit on the couch with my husband as usual. I count this as my prep time for the week ahead, starting with meal planning, because eating is important, right?
- Take inventory. I get up OFF the couch! This is the hardest part, I'm warning you. As simple as it sounds to go take inventory of your pantry, it will most likely be something you do NOT want to do. I don't know why, it's just one of those things, at least for me. Write down everything you have in your pantry, fridge and freezer that you could use for a meal in the upcoming week.
- Look at your calendar. If you have certain particularly busy evenings in your week, account for this! These are going to be days where you'll want to make a crock pot meal or plan something simple/ grab and go. This is key to making sure you stick with your meal plan!
- Choose your meals based on the work you've done so far. With your master list and your inventory list in hand, choose 5 dinners for the week. Or however many is realistic for your family. We do 5, and have leftovers, put together something random, or eat out on other nights. Obviously this changes based on our schedule. I can't stress this enough- make sure you are choosing realistic, simple meals that you enjoy cooking.
- Write your grocery list based on your meals. This is the easy part! Bonus points if you've chosen meals that use similar ingredients and you can buy some things in bulk to save money!
Other important things that help me actually stick to my meal plan:
- I write down my meals on a simple little list on my refrigerator each week so I remember what I have planned for.
- I set reminders on my phone to put meat into the fridge for thawing (there's not much I hate more than having to thaw meat in the microwave- not sure why, but it will totally screw up my meal plan every single time because I won't do it.)
- If I don't feel like cooking, I put on a podcast, pour a glass of wine or grab a beer, and count it as "me time." Obviously, if you cook before your husband gets home, this might be a little hard to do.
- If you are cooking before you husband gets home to be a helping hand, prep food for dinner during nap time if you can!
This feels so simple to write out. There's no big secret. This is it.
It seems obvious, that you would take these types of steps to plan out your meals. At least, looking back at them, I debate if I should even post this. Doesn't everyone know this? Why couldn't I figure this out just months ago?
But I know that someone out there is overwhelmed. Some mama out there is doing way too much and is overwhelmed in so many ways and cannot wrap her mind around meal planning and feeding her family, like I was.
Remember that I said the first step for me was to eliminate the overwhelm present in my home. Now my home is a manageable space and I am less overwhelmed with everything around me. I can now handle the grand task of feeding my family without having a meltdown.
The overwhelm of motherhood is so real.
Minimalism has helped me, in so many ways, control the overwhelm. Because of minimalism, I can spend time on things I enjoy or care about without thinking of ALL THE THINGS that I have to pick up around the house constantly. Feeding my family is important to me, and now I have the brain space to do it.
This is the template I use each week to plan out my meals. I actually do it on my IPad because I end up losing the paper, and you can use this template digitally on an app like Goodnotes if you're like me!
If you do want to grab this meal planning workbook, and you're interested in learning more about how minimalism has helped me simplify, I'll throw in my minimalist life freebie for you as well!
Cheers to meal planning that is so simple, we can actually follow through with it!