Meal Planning for the Disorganized Cook

Be honest. Has this ever happened to you?

You go to the grocery store, You spend $100 and walk out with three full bags of groceries. You put the groceries away when you get home, and two hours later you walk into the kitchen to make dinner.

And there's no food for dinner. Sure, there's food. There are two different types of hummus, a new container of raisins, tortilla chips, baby carrots, some apples, an enormous bag of roasted chickpeas with sea salt. But there's nothing that you can put together to make an actual meal.

And you JUST went to the grocery store!?

It's been a disturbingly frequent occurrence in our house.

I (perhaps like you) have read about meal planning, talked to people about meal planning, pinned a thousand posts about meal planning. I've wanted the money savings everyone talks about. I've wanted to stop going to the grocery store 3 (or four, or five) times a week. I've wanted to eat better and waste less food.

I've really wanted to get my sh#t together in the kitchen.

But no matter how many things I read, I never did it. And then one day I realized I was going about it all wrong. I was trying to meal plan like an organized person. And that was my big mistake. Because I'm not an organized person. And if you're not either, then here's the easy-peasy meal planning plan for you.

Here are the ground rules:

Keep it simple. 

I know. You saw that post about the woman who put 30 meals and their recipes on little laminated index cards with magnets and attached them to the calendar on her refrigerator and did all her shopping in two-week intervals.

You know your coworker who has no paper on her desk? Ever? Whose pens are color-coded? That post was for her. It's not for you.

But a woman at the gym was talking about how she has a month's worth of crockpot dinners in ziploc bags in her freezer!? Shouldn't I be doing that??? No. She can talk to her therapist about that. It's not for you.

Your meal planning is about simple. Doable. Manageable. There will be no laminating. There will be no therapy (at least not related to meal planning).

Step away from Pinterest. 

Pinterest is awesome. I've said so before. It's great for inspirational quotes, home decor projects, creating a long list of clothing items you'd like to buy, and yes, for recipes. But now is not the time. If you want a surefire way to ensure that you get overwhelmed and quit the idea of meal planning altogether, log onto Pinterest and start looking up recipes.

Scrolling through Pinterest can easily find you racking up a hundred new recipes - it's difficult (sometimes impossible) to decisively choose a few easy meals for your next week.

Those are the two rules. Very basic.

Now you're ready for the method.

It's simple. Grab three pieces of paper and a pen.

1. On the first piece of paper, write down your go-to, easy-peasy, I-just-got-home-from-work-and-don't-really-want-to-cook meals. From your memory. If you're disorganized in the kitchen, meal planning is not the time to start looking up recipes or pulling out cookbooks. That will overwhelm you. There will be opportunities for trying new recipes and adding in more vegetables and all those things you want to do after you have a few weeks of meal planning under your belt. Hold your horses.

Here's what I wrote down:

There's nothing super inspiring, but your first go-round with meal planning is not the time to try to be a dinner hero. The point here is to develop the process. Once you have the process down, you can get fancier. But the process comes first.

2. Okay, so once you have your list, move on to your second sheet of paper. Here, you'll write down six of those meals that you'd like to prepare next week. Why six and not seven? As we know, for the disorganized cook, planning can be a struggle. Give yourself one night to blow it all off. Maybe you've ended up with a ton of leftovers. Maybe all you can think about is ordering a pizza. Accept that you're not going to be perfect at this and allow yourself a little leeway.

Here are the six meals I wrote on my second sheet of paper:

polenta pizza
breakfast for dinner
hearty salad
grilled cheese with soup
veggie burritos
crockpot chicken and salsa

Under each meal, you're going to write down the necessary ingredients.

Here's what mine looked like after that:

3. Now hop up and check out your refrigerator and your pantry. Do you have any of these ingredients already? Put a check mark next to any ingredients that you already have.

You may notice that I put a check mark next to "cheese" in the first two recipes where it shows up, but not in the last recipe. I realized that I didn't have enough for that final recipe. (And perhaps there's too much cheese on this meal plan, but remember, it's the process that counts right now.)

4. On your third sheet of paper, write down every item that you need to purchase for the six meals. If you come across an item twice, just put a "x 2" next to it.

There's you're grocery list.

Here's mine.

5. Final step. Perhaps the hardest one. Next to each meal on your second sheet of paper, write the day that you'll prepare it. This step is so that when you get home on Tuesday night, you don't spend any time trying to decide which meal you'll make. BUT if you get home on Tuesday night and just have an enormous hankering for the meal you picked for Wednesday, relax and let yourself switch things up.

Here's my final meal plan:

I picked Sunday night for the grilled cheese and tomato/roasted red pepper soup because it takes a little longer and I knew I'd have time. I picked Tuesday night for breakfast for dinner because I have an event that night and breakfast for dinner is super fast to pull together.

I put my grocery list in my purse and stuck my meal plan to the refrigerator. The whole process took me about 30 minutes.

None of these meals is overwhelming to me. They're all things I make regularly and don't need a recipe for. They're great options for a first week of meal planning. In a few weeks, perhaps I'll throw in a new recipe or something that I like but haven't made in a while.

The whole point of meal planning is to make life easier, not to make it more overwhelming. The key is accepting that you (and I) are a little disorganized, that you (and I) are not going to be perfect at it, and that you (and I) can create some structure by starting with easy, simple steps.

Now log out of Pinterest, sit down with your paper, and get planning.

p.s. Here are the simple recipes for the roasted tomato and red pepper soup and the kale puttanesca.