Thought of Meal Planning Raises Dread for Reader

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Dear Miriam,

I’m having a meal-planning existential crisis. I’m trying to get into the habit of meal planning and grocery shopping on the weekends, but as I go through recipes, I’m feeling uninspired. I have a toddler and two adults to feed, and I am not sure how to get the eating experience I’m hoping for. Any suggestions?

Signed,

Meal Prep

Dear Meal,

Planning out meals a week at a time definitely takes some effort at the beginning, but it saves time (and food, and money) overall, so it’s a great thing to strive for, especially with kids. I have a whiteboard in my kitchen where I write down what we’ll eat every day and what ingredients I need that I don’t already have. I also sometimes write down when I’ll actually make the things so that the whole enterprise actually fits into the reality of the week. I will admit to getting bored sometimes, but the effort overall is totally worth it.

If you’ve never done a full week menu at a time, start with easy things so you can get the hang of advanced planning, and then expect to have the capacity for more exciting meals in a couple of weeks once you get the hang of the timing and the structure. You can also see how creative you can be with anything that can make an appearance in multiple meals. So, for example, plan to make pasta on Monday, and maybe eat it with jarred tomato sauce. Yum. On Tuesday, you could have the same pasta but with stir-fried vegetables and peanut sauce. On Wednesday, you could have leftover stir-fried veggies with a curry sauce and rice and maybe some baked salmon, chicken or tofu on top.

Figuring out how to use vegetables you already have or how to transform pasta over the course of a week can be its own source of inspiration, but it sounds like you need a little more.

If your cookbooks aren’t doing it for you, go browse the cookbook section of a bookstore or library. Read food blogs and cooking magazines, knowing that even if you never make anything that you read about, you might be inspired to try a new ingredient or a new technique. Ask your friends on Facebook for their favorite weeknight recipes and then.

Realistically, you’ll probably end up with a fairly predictable set of base meals that can be altered slightly depending on your mood. In the midst of that, set aside one night of the week for trying something completely new, and maybe also one night a week for takeout or frozen fish sticks so you know you’ll get a break at some point.

Having just gone grocery shopping on a Sunday afternoon, I don’t recommend it, particularly if you have to bring your kid along. Instead, maybe you can opt for a Thursday evening shopping trip, so you can wrap in Shabbat meal-planning. If that doesn’t work for your schedule, look into one of the many grocery-delivery services in the Philadelphia area, and then you can choose whatever time is most convenient for you without having to drag a cart or a kid through a store. Another advantage of delivery is that the websites typically keep your shopping list, which is a huge timesaver.

Finally, I also recommend keeping fresh fruit, cut-up vegetables, crunchy snacks, hummus and yogurt around (or whatever the equivalent convenience foods are in your house). Sometimes, your best plans won’t come together, and it’s good to know there’s something substantial enough to call dinner within reach in the fridge. Don’t be discouraged if those nights are your toddler’s favorites, though, and it’s totally respectable to decide to put “random fridge snacks” on your meal plan for a couple nights a week.

Be well,

Miriam

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