The Dr. Seuss Secret to Simplifying Your Meal Planning

Dr Seuss Dr. Seuss Green Eggs and HamThese days, there’s no reason meal planning should be tough, even for vegetarians and vegans.

We’ve got tons of cookbooks and nearly infinite recipes at our fingertips on the web, not to mention all of the loose ideas of meals in our heads.

So why is it so hard to answer the question, “What do you want for dinner tonight?” Or, even harder, to sit down over the weekend and actually plan out — gasp! — seven dinners?

The problem: We have too many choices

Telling yourself you have all the time in the world, all the money in the world, all the colors in the palette, anything you want—that just kills creativity.

–Jack White (of the White Stripes)

In Austin Kleon’s book Steal Like an Artist (where I found the Jack White quote), Kleon relates a story about Dr. Seuss that really hit home for me. First as a writer, and later as a cook.

As Kleon tells it, Dr. Seuss wrote the classic The Cat in the Hat with only 236 different words. For a kids’ book, maybe this doesn’t seem like so small a number, but if you think back to all the stuff that happens in that book — mom leaving, cat coming, chaos ensuing, Thing 1, Thing 2, the balancing act, the goldfish, the cleanup, mom coming back…) — 236 is tiny.

In response, Dr. Seuss’ editor bet him that he couldn’t write a book with 50 different words or less. Of course, Dr. Seuss won the bet — and in the process, he created Green Eggs and Ham, one of the bestselling children’s books of all time.

Kleon goes on:

The way to get over creative block is to simply place some constraints on yourself. It seems contradictory, but when it comes to creative work, limitations mean freedom. Write a song on your lunch break. Paint a painting with only one color. Start a business without any start-up capital. Shoot a movie with your iPhone and a few of your friends. Build a machine out of spare parts. Don’t make excuses for not working—make things with the time, space, and materials you have, right now.

So what’s this have to do with dinner?

Okay, so planning your meals isn’t exactly high art. Or writing kids’ books. But we can learn something from Dr. Seuss and from Kleon’s advice.

At the beginning of the year I wrote a post called 7 Ways to Simplify Your Meal Planning. The most valuable tip there was #4:

When you’re having trouble choosing a recipe, pick just one ingredient to narrow your options.

This little shift has made choosing what to cook so easy. When you don’t know what to make for dinner, don’t just head for the cookbook shelf, where you know you’ll leaf around aimlessly and eventually get frustrated that nothing sounds good, wishing you had just one new cookbook.

Instead, find the best thing you have in your refrigerator (or if you’ve got nothing, pick a vegetable at random or one that you know is in season). If that alone doesn’t jog your memory of a favorite recipe you haven’t cooked in ages, open a cookbook and head to the index to find the recipes that include your chosen ingredient.

Just as Dr. Seuss’ 50-word limitation pulled Green Eggs and Ham out of his head, so can your starting point of “eggplant” get you to create Pasta alla Norma. (You can make it green, if you get off on that sort of thing.)

But there’s still one problem

For one-off meals, when you need to get some food on the table tonight, this is great. But what about actual planning — as in, planning ahead?

I’m finally starting to realize how bad it is to go to the grocery store every day. I tend to fall into the trap of not deciding what to make for dinner until just a few hours prior, at which point I hurriedly leaf through my cookbooks or scan websites until I find something that looks good. Then I go to the store, then I come home and cook it, eat it, and clean up. It’s a three-hour process, even with the “pick an ingredient” trick.

I’ve rationalized it by saying that I enjoy it, that it makes me feel like I’m on Top Chef. But in truth, it’s the result of procrastination, and nothing else.

Besides something that takes up an inordinate amount of your day, failing to plan your meals in advance is:

  • Expensive. When you’re buying just enough for one meal, you’re often spending more than if you were to buy in bulk.
  • Wasteful. You often end up with larger quantities of ingredients than you need, and if you’re not careful to use up the excess in a later meal, it goes bad and is wasted.
  • Unhealthy. Compared to planning for the whole week, you can’t get a bird’s eye view of what’s lacking in your menu. This is one reason some vegetarians end up eating nothing but carbohydrates.
  • Limiting. You limit your menu to food that cooks quickly. And I don’t mean food that takes a lot of extra work on your end. I mean when you’re planning a meal last-minute, you can’t even consider a split-pea soup that takes three hours to simmer, or a dish that requires you sprout chickpeas or lentils a few days in advance, even if active cooking time is miniscule.

Moral of the story: Plan your meals in advance, on the weekend, and go shopping for it all in one trip. If freshness is an issue and you’re worried about spoilage, go twice weekly. No more, unless you’re Mario Batali.

The question, though, is how. Even when I know I should plan ahead, I still don’t. The reason, I think, is because planning meals is hard. There are too many choices and it takes too much time, especially when you combine it with shopping.

The solution

First: plan your meals on a separate day than you go shopping. Breaking the task up like this just makes it easier to face. So if you shop every Sunday, plan every Saturday.

But how can you use the pick-an-ingredient trick to plan an entire week’s worth of meals? Thinking up seven ingredients, one for each meal, takes a lot of time in itself.

Here’s the trick: only do that part once. Pick seven ingredients, one time — say, at the beginning of each month — that will form the template for your weekly menu. Pick ingredients that are in-season, or that form a nice mix of nutrients, or that you just want to eat more of. And each week, come meal-planning time, all you’ve got to do is match meals to your seven ingredients.

For example, you might say that once a week you’ll eat tempeh or tofu, if you’re not opposed to soy (I’m not, in that small quantity). Another night you’ll make a lentil dish. A pasta dish. A meal based on the heirloom tomatoes from the farmer’s market. And so on.

With that in place, so much of the work is done. Throughout the week, as you come across recipes on the web or elsewhere, you’ll recall the ones that fit with your plan, and you’ll actually make them instead of squirreling them away in that recipes folder that you never remember to use.

But it can be so much more than just ingredients. Here are a few other ideas to help you plan your weekly template:

Ethnicity. Say you’ll cook Indian food one night, Italian another, Thai another. I’d list more, but those are about the only types of food I eat. icon smile

Nutrition. Focus one day on getting a high-protein or complete-protein meal. (Side note: the idea of combining proteins into meals is coming back into scientific vogue.) Another day make sure you get a lot of a certain amino acid (lysine, for example) that’s not always easy to get. Get some good iron sources another night. (Note: I’d probably only use this in combination with another method, like making a protein-focused meal your seventh meal when using one of the other methods, if protein is a big concern for you.)

New diets. Let’s say you’re vegetarian but not vegan. You could make one night a vegan night, the way omni’s do with Meatless Monday. Make one day gluten-free, and one day raw, if these seem interesting to you. This is a nice way to experience these diets without fully committing yet.

My menu this week

To give you an example, here’s the template my wife and I came up with for this week. We’ll stick with it for a month (but this week’s menu is shortened because we have visitors coming on Friday and we’ll eat out a few days).

  • A tempeh dish
  • A lentil dish
  • A bean dish (besides lentils)
  • A hearty soup
  • A dip for snacking and to spread on sandwiches for my son
  • A “fancy” salad to make a huge batch of for the week
  • A fridge clean-out meal (we realized that even after eating each night’s leftovers for the lunch the next day, we still have a few misfit servings that go to waste each week)

And here are the meals we planned to fit our constraints (in about 10 minutes over the weekend):

  • Ginger tempeh from 1000 Vegan Recipes
  • Sprouted lentils with carrots and celery from Rich Roll’s Jai Seed — and since I planned ahead, I sprouted the lentils myself
  • Black-eyed pea curry from Anjum’s New Indian — because we planned ahead, my wife made the beans from scratch instead of buying canned
  • Split pea soup with Meyer lemon from Terry Walters’ CLEAN Start
  • Spicy black bean dip, again from CLEAN Start, and again, beans from scratch
  • Arugula and apple salad from 1000 Vegan Recipes
  • Clean-out meal, TBD

So there you have it! No longer is there an excuse not to plan your meals, and no reason to dread the process either. Pick a few ingredients or types of dishes as your template, spend 15 or 20 minutes on Saturday, and shop on Sunday. You’ll be healthier, richer, and happier for it.

And you’ll be an artist. Whenever someone asks you to do something, just remind them of that, and they’ll understand that you can’t be bothered.

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Comments

  1. JuliaPDX says:

    I love this post! We were JUST talking about this same exact concept (of limiting options to encourage creativity) last night over dinner, which was a little dish we call “CSA stir fry”. Joining a CSA has helped us immensely with meal planning as it provides us with delicious, seasonal ingredients that we get to plan meals around and it’s fun!

    I love all your other tips, too. Some of which I’d discovered through my own trial and error (planning one day, shopping another) and some of which are completely new to me (I love your idea of a leftovers night, as we try to force ourselves to eat leftovers as soon as possible and sometimes get sick of them and ending up throwing the last bit out, but leftovers night is like a yummy homemade smorgasbord!).

    I just discovered your site this week and have already gained so much from it (I’m already veg but new to running). I’ve been using your smoothie formula and we made the energy bars from the formula too.

    Thanks so much for all the great info and perspective you put out there!

  2. that’s such great advice! i should really do more meal planning!

  3. Love this! I really relate to the strategy of using constraints to spark creativity and resourcefulness. I know I’ve felt it before, but I only summarized it to myself as something like, Well I guess I just get more done when I’m busy. But there’s so much more to it. I’ve also really gotten into meal planning the last year or so, and aiming to eat seasonally feels like the most natural way to do it, because it places some constraints on the situation. Ditto to the other reader on the CSA, it helps me a lot too. Your tips for meal planning were right on. Another thing that really helped me was PLANNING for back-up plans, for last-minute changes, for snacking through an ingredient that was supposed to be saved for dinner. I love having a plan, but I also can feel suffocated by it midweek if I haven’t built in some flexibility. Don’t go crazy with making a back-up plan for the back-up plan :) But when I come up with a more-cooking AND less-cooking-required option for a given night, I’m not stressed if I suddenly realize I have less time than I thought for dinner. Thanks again for a fun post.

  4. Great article and a good idea. I sometimes worry that I fall into a bit of a rut so I’ll be giving this a go :D

  5. Do you have any advise for meal planning when you live with others who do not follow the same dietary guidelines as well as keep A LOT of random stuff in the fridge. I feel I have to go shopping about 4 times a week due to super limited fridge space.

    • This is a great idea! I would also add as a suggestion that you use a grain or legume for your “ingredient du jour.” That way you can buy in bulk, for instance, quinoa, brown rice, or whole grain pasta. Then you can add fresh or frozen veggies as the mood hits you. Also, I like to make large batches of things like brown rice and portion out serving sizes that can then be frozen.

    • Hey! tried to respond to you yesterday but I don’t see the comment so maybe it didn’t work. I’m in pretty much the same predicament. I live with my family, who all insist on teasing me about trying to eat a more plant-based diet. So some tips: Make your ingredient of the day a grain that doesn’t need to be refrigerated, then you won’t be worried about fridge space. Also, for the things that have to be refrigerated, go with versatile veggies that can be used in multiple ways, like peas (lots of protein). You can use frozen peas in stir fries, fried rice, and pasta dishes, or serve them as a side. Another thing to do is make sauce “cubes,” basically any type of sofrito, pesto, curry, or seasoning base that you can just stick in ice cube trays, freeze into cubes, then put those cubes in freezer bags. That way instead of having to take up room in the fridge with garlic, onions, peppers, etc, you are just finding room for tiny cubes in the freezer.

      • Great tips Finny!! I will totally use the sauce cubes idea. Now I just need to find time to cook and learn how to make these sauces.

  6. Just found your site, great post. One suggestion (which I think you kinda alluded to): save your menus. I’ve got a couple cold weather menus and a couple warmer weather ones that become my back-up’s if I’m not feeling particularly creative, and refer to them a couple times a season.

  7. Christy L. says:

    I do something similar to this. We are members of a CSA, so after we pick up our load of veggies on Saturday, I plan the weekly meal plan around the veggies we get in the CSA. When possible, I try to plan a meal that uses things I already have in the cupboard, and then shop to fill in the holes. On the weeks that I don’t take the time to do this, I feel at a loss for the whole week with meals, and we wind up eating out a lot. These are great suggestions you gave– usually there aren’t ENOUGH vegetables in the CSA for the whole week, so I love the idea of just picking out another ingredient and planning around it in the same way.

  8. This is great. I do a monthly meal plan, but I definitely feel like it’s lacking. I plan on using your template for next month (or maybe even reworking this month’s before the next grocery haul). What do you do about lunches? Just leftovers or is there a menu for that too? I find that I end up snacking throughout the day because we rarely have leftovers and I’m lacking the motivation lately to make myself a good lunch.

  9. Some great stuff here! I’ve been getting Bountiful Basket fruits and veggies every week, and still spending too much at the grocery store, and having to toss too much to the chickens at the end of the week, while still making too many weeknight ingredient stops. The past few weeks, I’ve sat down and jotted a menu for the week based on what is in the Bountiful Basket, and what’s come out of the garden, and it’s definitely saving money and reducing waste.

  10. This is a brilliantly simple concept. My health coaching clients will benefit GREATLY by reading this. It definitely ties right into my way of doing meal planning but you take it to a whole other level, in a good way. Being a full-time musician (in addition to Holistic Health Coach), I value creativity, but sometimes get stuck. Imagine if I were to use this concept of yours for everything I wanted to do creatively! Write a song, for example, using one note. What a concept! Thank you for sparking my mind to go to new places. (I think that’s similar to one of Dr. Seuss’ book titles – Oh, The Places You Can Go)!.

  11. I absolutely have to plan out my meals because I can’t stand going to the grocery store every single day to get just what I need for one meal. And I won’t eat healthy if it means I have to spend 3 hours prepping and eating dinner.

  12. Cool article, Matt! I will admit when it first popped up on my RSS reader I thought it was more literally about some sort of veganized version of Green Eggs and Ham, or perhaps about trying something you don’t like. But I love the more general message.

    BTW, used my reusable No Meat Athlete grocery bag as my tote to the gym this morning – thanks again!

  13. Matt, this was a very timely post considering that I was suffering through meals and had grown incredibly weary.

    Thanks for sharing!!!

  14. Catherine de Marin says:

    Great essay & resources Matt! My partner and I often plan around what we get at our local farmer’s market or our CSA share.

  15. Great topic!

    Orson Welles Quotes:
    “The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.”
    http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/o/orsonwelle109697.html#Xke3PVp6o63YS5FV.99

  16. When my boys were still at home and busy every night with sports or school functions, I did this same type of planning but I made it one less step by planning out the month. This was before I was vegetarian but I had chicken on Mondays, pasta on Tuesdays, pizza on Wednesday… So with Matt’s month he could have Tempeh every Monday just have different recipes. Tuesday’s would be different lentil recipes. Wednesday would be different bean recipes, etc. This worked really well for our family and it did save me time.

  17. Jon Weisblatt says:

    Great post Matt,
    Ya I get into my rut as well. The wife and I have made out own recipe 3 ring notebook with favorites that we keep adding to. ALmost done with Scott Jurek’s book so we will be adding more to our book. The money we used to spend on meat and milk now just goes to excellent spices/herbs, local CSA, and other varius plant based fare. Great message Matt. Keep up the good work.

  18. I’ve been a habitual meal planner for years out of necessity, because I work 12-hour night shifts. I have a few “go-to” recipes that I can alter seasonally. That said, I am human and get bored with the routine at times. These tips are a great reminder to stay focused and switch up the plan every so often. Thanks for that! Reading your half prep now and using all your instructions to get race ready and feeling great.

  19. Great suggestions. Italian, Indian, and Thai are my favorite kinds of ethnic cuisine as well. I’d hate to have to choose one, but I could happily survive on just one of those for the rest of my life.

  20. Ahh, the pressure of too many choices. In times of stress and long to-do lists I eat 2-3 meals over and over again. Mostly legumes with salad, only changing the seasoning and dressing, quinoa optional. Simplicity is liberating.

  21. Another simple way to meal plan is to use the seasons as a guide and shop at your local organic farmers market. Frequently cooking at farmers’ markets, I get asked all the time about storaging veggies. Most vegetables will store for months using a few quick tricks. Pack in container sizes that are right for your family and for making meals quickly if you forget to thaw something. I find a combination of 8, 16 & 32 oz containers for different base ingredients works well. Second, set aside time each week during the main growing season to put up those base ingredients like onions, celery, carrots & tomatoes that you can use in all sorts of soups. A small freezer and dehydrator are excellent investments. Don’t discount freezing fresh corn and potatoes. Add some fat to the potatoes and other vegetables allows them to store much better. Third, don’t discount a “meat” based recipe. I convert tons of recipes from meat based to vegetarian. Roasted veggies like eggplants, shiitake mushrooms and winter squash become the base instead of the meat with levels of flavor developed through different types of high quality salts, peppers, olive & coconut oil and even different alternative vegan milks. While I don’t eat exclusively vegetarian, I vegan raw meals, low glycemic meals, and vegetarian meals. I try to provide recipes that you can adapt to your personal needs whatever your dietary choices are and remain as healthy as possible.

  22. I loves this, this is perfect. I experimented with vegetarian athlete-ing last spring mostly to lose weight for my lightweight rowing season, but now I find that the desire to eat meat is almost completely gone and I miss how healthy I felt without out. Posts like this are really helping me to better figure out how to eat meatless by choice and actually enjoy it. So thank you.

    Also realized I have the same running sneakers as you, the New Balance Minimalists are the greatest things ever.

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  1. […] From there, you can create a list of groceries and produce you may need to buy for the week. This great article by Matt Frazier of No Meat Athlete describes how to simplify your meal planning by picking one main […]

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