Writing out a weekly or monthly menu plan has never worked for me. I don’t think it is because I am not organized. Ask the people who live with me. My attempts to organize around here are nearly continuous. No, somehow it is usually impractical for me to plan out meals more than a day or two ahead of time, so the times I have tried it has never lasted more than a couple days. After that, I am back to my tried and true two step meal planning system:
1. Keep a supply of basic ingredients on hand.
2. Think about the next day’s dinner as I am cleaning up for dinner on any given night.
Following the first step doesn’t mean always having exactly the same ingredients, though I always have some things on hand, like
- baking ingredients. One never knows when making cookies will solve the world’s problems…
More than specifics, it means I always have some of things in each category. I have a variety of
- meats and eggs,
- green vegetables,
- complex starches,
- dairy products, and
- fruit, for instance. If I missed a category, you still get the idea
- Yes, I also usually have ice cream, snacks like nuts, and wine, but those aren’t necessary for meal planning, so I’m just mentioning them so no one gets the wrong idea me having a strictly no-frills diet.
The point is that if I have some basics in each category, I can come up with meals, particularly dinner, from scratch. Some items are harder to store long term than others, but almost everything benefits from dating the packages and rotating them. I’m not even preparing for the apocalypse. I just find it convenient to have back-ups of things, rather than run out and not have what I need. This can’t be done all the time for everything, but it can be done a lot, and enough to make meal planning less of a hassle.
Thinking about the major meals of the next day the night before is not (usually) stressful if supplies are on hand. Do I want to take chicken or beef out of the freezer? If I have recently been to the grocery store, do I already have some things in the refrigerator that need to be used. If it is fish in the freezer, I probably just plan on thawing it the next day. Just a few brief moments of surveying the possibilities usually stimulates my thinking about what to cook.
This is in large part because I am not planning complicated meals very often. Unless you have a particular desire to cook 12 hours a day, there is no need to be chained in the kitchen over a boiling pot on a daily basis. This doesn’t mean you have to default to prepared foods. I don’t. It doesn’t mean the meals are expensive. Chicken is pretty cheap, comparatively. So are many of the basics.
Also, I am not afraid to have a repertoire of common meals that can be frequently replayed. Martha Stewart takes a lot of flack for unrealistic perfection, but this is an idea that was reinforced by an article I read in one of her magazines years ago. According to her sources, including her own childhood, a regular pattern of meals was much more common in days gone by and it made life very simple. It’s Monday, so we are having meatloaf and mashed potatoes. Thursday? It’s soup day! You get the gist. When I thought about it, I recalled something similar in my early childhood. Then, for some reason, I think people got caught up in the idea that every dinner has to be unique and exotic. They forgot that a familiar menu is good in many ways.
If you are new to the regular responsibility of the kitchen, don’t be misled into thinking dinner is either a huge burden or boring. It is also important to remember that kitchen management and cooking do get easier with time and experience. If you feel overwhelmed, don’t let someone convince you that “you don’t like to cook” or that “you don’t have that skill.” That’s like saying you don’t like to read and can’t because it’s just not your thing. It is so useful and so possible to learn it, that it should be pursued as a basic life skill. It may not start out as your favorite thing (it wasn’t mine), but you can learn to enjoy it more as you get more familiar with it and have more success!
Take making home made bread, for instance. I chose to learn how to make home made bread about 30 years ago, because it sounded healthy, not because I was interested in the process. Along the way, I discovered not only what could be enjoyed about it in ways I hadn’t expected, but I accidentally got good at it. Through PRACTICE. Now, I can be thinking about other things while I make it, and fitting other activities into time spaces open during the process. So, while I am making bread, I usually also do anything from write to slip out for some gardening. All of this is done without rushing around, but with a rhythm I am used to. Okay, sometimes I clean the kitchen when there is time between kneading and shaping, but I usually have other extra time, too. Sometimes, I even ask another family member, who happens to be home for a while, if they can handle something like putting the bread in the oven. Then, that gives me about 90 minutes and I can even go for a run.
There are other smallish things that can make cooking less intimidating. Like, trying to recognize steps that are just for looks. I rarely roll out and cut biscuits. Shaped biscuits are fun and all, but they are going to be eaten about 2 minutes after they come out of the oven. I just pat the dough into discs and slap them on the baking sheet. Less mess, faster, and no left-over dough. If I want to imagine a shape as I eat it, I can. Mostly, I just enjoy the taste.
Having my master grocery list makes it more likely I will check my stock of basic supplies and ingredients. I have used a master grocery list saved as a .pdf for years, that I could print on demand. Then, something on the computer got updated and it wouldn’t open easily. This prompted me to try one of the apps that people are always talking about. So, lately I’ve been using the highly ranked Shopping Pro app, which works on either my phone or iPad. I have great fun naming my dated shopping lists things like:
– After the Marathon I Was Really Hungry
– Nothing Sounds Good in January
My master list on the app is titled
– The Cupboards Are Bare
which is something I hope they never are, but it has a ring to it and stimulates how I want to think about the list.
We all have to find what works for us. I just want to encourage you that just because you don’t have a month’s worth of menus planned out doesn’t mean you need to give up on the idea of planning or cooking from scratch. And cooking from scratch doesn’t have to mean that you do nothing other than cook all day. Find a few simple meals that you can learn well. Introduce a new one or new cooking adventure once in a while. Pretty soon, you will be humming along in the kitchen, on a manageable schedule, and wondering what you were so intimidated by.