I really suck at indecision. Like, really suck at it. I find it paralysing, to the point that, if for example, I haven't decided which yoga class to stream before I've decided it's time to hit the mat, I'll burn through an entire hour going through all the available classes, changing my mind, second guessing myself, and then *poof* my hour is up and I haven't done any yoga.
It's the exact same thing if I've got a blog day planned and I don't know exactly what recipes I'm going to make. I'll go back and forth, change my mind, panic, wonder if I should do yoga instead, realize I'm too hungry to do either, and end up eating lunch and then losing the light I was going to shoot with.
If I haven't done any meal planning, it'll be the same scenario when I'm standing in front of an open fridge, tired and hungry, trying to figure out what the heck to make. But, if I spend a little time each week and plan, prep, and pack my meals, I know my meal times will be without stress, I'll have a packed lunch ready to go on a busy morning, and I'll generally make healthier choices.
Lately, I've talked a lot about intuitive eating, body positivity, and pushing back against fat phobia / diet culture. It may seem counterintuitive to talk about meal planning in light of that, but I truly believe that there's a healthy intersection between meal planning and intuitive eating.
I'm a long-time meal planner, both for myself and for my clients, and I employ a number of different strategies depending on the situation. I know that without a plan I find it more difficult to make food choices that are healthy and leave me feeling satisfied and energized.
I also know that my plan isn't scribed in blood, and if a spontaneous dinner invitation happens or if I'm just not feeling what I've got planned for a certain meal, it's cool to roll with it.
We've had big salads for dinner on Monday an Wednesday nights for as long as I can remember, which may sound boring, but they change seasonally and we load them up with fruit and nuts and cottage cheese and other delicious things. It works for us.
Last night it was a salad night in our house, and I was just not feeling it. When I checked in with myself I realized that it wasn't the salad that was the problem, but I was also craving warm carbohydrates. So I grabbed a couple of potatoes and whipped up a tray of oven fries to go along with our salads, which is out of the ordinary, but totally hit the spot.
I think that meal planning is the template for healthy eating, and intuitive eating is the tool you use to keep it in balance. Think of it kind of like a road trip. If you're driving somewhere, you're going to map out your route before you start rather than just winging it. But if you see a cool lookout or a funky spot to stop, you'd check it out. It's not like you'd say, "well that looks cool but it's not on the map so we're not going to stop."
Same with meal planning. That's the map. And intuitive eating is the part of you that points out the awesome viewpoints and suggests maybe you stop and take a look.
How To Plan
First, you want to set aside a bit of time and plan for your coming week. If your week starts on Monday and you're going to do your grocery shopping and possibly some prep on the weekends, then think about planning on Thursday or Friday the week before.
Take a look at what's happening in the coming week. Is there a night you know you'll be going out for dinner? Make a note of that. Is there going to be a particularly busy day where it's going to be extra tough to get a meal on the table? That might be a good night to plan for leftovers or to fire up the slow cooker. Any lunch meetings or field trips on the agenda? Figure this stuff out before you start doing any planning.
Think about your preferences. If you're someone who really doesn't like eating leftovers, it doesn't make much sense to make a big casserole that's supposed to parlay into several more meals. If you're someone who loves going out for lunch with colleagues, it doesn't make sense to plan for packed lunches every day of the week.
Do you prefer to follow exact recipes, or are you more of a wing-it person when it comes to cooking? If you're a winger, then batch prepping ingredients that you can mix and match into weekday meals may make more sense than creating a spreadsheet of recipes to follow. And conversely, if the thought of not having an exact plan to follow makes you break into a cold sweat, then get as many details organized as is necessary for you to face the week calmly.
I often suggest figuring out a schedule of theme nights to start from. For example, in our house Sunday is always soup, Monday and Wednesday are salads, and Thursday is a frittata. The soup changes from week to week, the salads change seasonally and weekly, and the frittatas really depend on what veggies we have in the fridge or what's inspiring us at the time.
We implemented take-out Fridays, which I freaking love, and Saturday is our pull-out-all-the-stops fancy dinner night where we take out several cookbooks, roll up our sleeves, and get down to business. On Tuesdays we eat the leftovers from Saturday.
This system works well for us. Knowing that Sunday is a soup night and I need to find a soup recipe to make is a lot less daunting than, "wtf am I going to make for dinner tonight???" and then starting to sift through the literal zillions of recipes on the internet. Narrowing it down to a category to work within is a lot more manageable.
(It's worth noting that I use the same strategy when I'm in one of those ice cream shops with like 100 ridiculous flavours. I narrow it down to just one case and choose from the 10 or so flavours in there, rather than spending an hour trying to choose from 100 flavours.)
I'll be back in the coming weeks with more specific strategies and recipes to help you get into your meal planning groove, but for now, the basics: use the map, but don't forget to listen to your intuition and stop and check out the cool sites.
You described what I go through in pretty much every day due to severe anxiety. Thanks for the suggestions. I'm training for Ironman in July and need to get meal planning organized as my workouts ramp up. I don't like standing in front of the fridge air conditioning the house while I try to decide what to make. Having meals designated cuts back on the indecision, I'm often not sure HOW to start planning, so this article was really helpful in that respect.
Glad you found it useful, Maki!
This is the mother of all motherly work. What are we going to eat today? And the current popularity and availability of all things cooking makes me a bit guilty that I am not doing a better job! Looking forward to your blog on this.
I love the designations for each night! I need to consider something like that, as right now I'm making a couple batches of food during the week, and then eating the same thing for 6 meals before moving on to the next.
Your system works for a lot of people I know! But if you like to create a bit more variety in your week, theme nights are a good option, too.