These 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.
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.
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.