Meal Planning for Non-Planners

I have such love/hate relationship with meal planning. I know that it’s the best way to reduce food waste, manage grocery spending, minimize stress at dinnertime…which are all good things. BUT, I am a food lover for whom variety and (at least some!) spontaneity are the spice of life. Rigidly planning out meals and assigning them to each day with no flexibility just isn’t my jam. Also, I’m in a stage of life where it can be hard to predict how every night is going to go, and exactly how many dinners we’re going to eat at home. It’s just the reality of kids, jobs, and life, am I right?

All of that being said, trying to feed a family with no plan at all is just a recipe (ha!) for disaster, stress, and wasted money and food, so I’ve had to get into more of a meal planning flow as a mom. I feel like I’ve finally landed on a process that works for, and since I LOVE reading about how others plan meals and grocery shopping, I thought I’d share!

I’ve had friends and family say things to me like, “Oh, you’re always cooking” or “you’re such a gourmet chef!” And TRULY, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Yes, I love cooking, but I’m just your average exhausted mom (lol), and trust me, there is a ton of chicken nuggets, mac and cheese, and too-expensive takeout happening at my house more often than not. On an average week, I’m only cooking a couple of nights, and I’m relying on four categories of meals to get me through. The categories are:

  1. No-Brainer Meals
  2. Staple Meals
  3. Sunday Dinners
  4. New Recipes

No-Brainer Meals and Staple Meals are the nuts and bolts of my weekly meal plan. Let me explain the difference between these two terms (that I totally made up, lol). No-Brainer Meals are dinners that are flavorful, satisfying, semi-healthy and give the experience of a homemade dinner, but are largely assembly/heating things up with very little chopping/real cooking. No-Brainer meals should take about 15 minutes to make. I’m going to give some examples below.

Staple Meals are those tried-and-true dishes that you’ve made so many times that you don’t need a recipe. These involve some real cooking (aka chopping veggies, dealing with raw meat), but should take around 30 minutes to make and are easy and crowd-pleasing. And, of course, delicious. 😉 Examples here are your favorite spaghetti and meatballs, the black bean tacos that everyone loves, super-quick tofu and veggie stir fry, and the chicken noodle soup you could make with your eyes closed. I’m realizing I have lots of recipes in this category that I need to add to the blog, so stay tuned!

Sunday Dinners (a bit of a misnomer, because of course they can be prepared any day of the week) are like your Staple Meals, but are a little bit more involved and have a few more steps. These meals are great for entertaining, because they’re dishes that you’re familiar with, but are a bit more impressive to serve to company. Some of my favorite meals in this category are chicken and dumplings, my butternut squash enchiladas, baked ziti, roast chicken, and risotto.

The last category needs no explaining: New Recipes! Honestly, I rarely cook new recipes these days, maybe a few times a month at best—but I always have recipes on Pinterest, Instagram and in my (extensive, ha) cookbook collection when I have the time and energy to try something new.

So, when I make a meal plan, here’s what I’m taking into account:

  1. Plan to cook 3-4 dinners at home (on the other nights, we might eat out, get takeout, have a date night, eat at a family member or friend’s house, or do leftovers/truly brainless stuff for the kids like chicken nuggets or mac and cheese)
  2. Heavy on the No-Brainer and Staple Meals, with maybe one Sunday Dinner and possibly a new recipe
  3. A mix of flavor profiles (aka, Italian-inspired, Mexican-inspired, Asian-inspired, etc.) to make sure my taste buds don’t get bored
  4. A mix of meat-based and vegetarian meals
  5. Meals that are delicious and satisfying and semi-healthy

Here are a couple of meal plans ideas that would reflect a sample week at my house:

Example Week 1:

Butternut Squash Enchiladas

Pasta with pesto, chicken sausage, tomatoes

Tofu stir fry

Example Week 2:

Portobello parmesan

Hacked British Night (below)

Sheet pan nachos

Example Week 3:

Black bean tacos

Tortellini and crispy broccoli

Indian food packets w/ fixings (below)

Finally, as promised, here are some No-Brainer Meal ideas! Will add to this list as I think of more. And of course, if you had options for me to add, please send! 🙂

  1. Tortellini or ravioli with crispy roasted broccoli (another option with tortellini is a quick soup: Simmer tortellini in boxed broth or stock, and add greens, extra veggies + leftover meat or chickpeas for protein. Top with olive oil, red pepper flakes and parm!)
  2. Packets of Indian food (poss with extra veg added. They have these at Trader Joe’s, and I’ve also seen them at my local Stop & Shop) over rice with some yogurt and cilantro on top
  3. Pesto pasta with chicken sausage and grape tomatoes
  4. Hacked British Night: fish sticks or frozen beer-battered fish filets, tartar sauce, rice, frozen peas, lemon to squeeze over top
  5. Hacked French Night: lazy Croque Monsieurs (grilled cheese with ham, swiss or gruyere and dijonnaise), side of cornichons
  6. Flatbread pizzas: store-bought naan or flatbreads topped with all the good stuff
  7. Sheet pan nachos! Tortilla chips, canned refried beans, cheese. Bake at 350 until melty. Top with…you guessed it…the good stuff haha.

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