Today for Simplify Your Life Month, I’m starting an experiment in thematic meal planning. My goal is to have a simple weekly dinner menu that I can repeat.
Why Plan a Simple Weekly Dinner Menu?
Meal planning in our house has been hit or miss.When I’ve tried to plan individual meals, things eventually fall apart. In an effort to simplify shopping, cooking, and eating routines, I’m going to try something a little different: thematic meal planning.
Thematic meal planning takes a cue from institutional kitchens, like in schools and hospital lunchrooms. (Remember the happiness of pizza day rolling around?) Advocates of thematic and repeating meal planning for home use enjoy its versatility as well as it’s feature of eliminating stress by eliminating some decision-making.
Can be very simple (exact meal repeats) like Cilantro Rice with peppers and beef or allow for variation (base is same but details vary) like Rice + Veg + Protein.
Thematic Meal Planning Benefits
- Simplifies both daily and weekly routine
- Simplifies grocery shopping
- Allows you to properly prep ahead of time. No more “whoops! I forgot to defrost the chicken!)
- Helps you stick to nutrition goals
- Decreases food waste
Other Meal Planning Strategies
You can find already-written plans out there but there are still so many choices. Many of these meal plans are extremely specific or rigid. Once you tweak it to meet your needs, you might as well have started from scratch. The best meal plan is one that you make yourself, because it takes into account you and your family’s preferences, schedule, and shopping habits.
If you need a primer on meal planning in general, the Kitchn has you covered. You have the option of a range of approaches, from winging it every day to batch cooking for a month.
Two factors that I think improve success with any style of meal planning is to
- make sure you have a way to keep track of what ingredients you have on hand and
- write down what preparation tasks you need to do on the appropriate day.
How to Use Thematic Meal Planning
Thematic meal planning does take a little work up front. Basically you want to make a template for 1 or more weeks. From your template you make your plan. Then you repeat it.
I’m going to plan for 2 weeks at a time. You can do this on paper but I felt like being able to shuffle things around, so I got out some index cards and cleared off the table.
1. Make Your Categories
First, I took 14 index cards and wrote general categories on one side. I repeated vegetarian because we like to eat vegetarian frequently. And can’t forget Taco Tuesday.
2. Select Your Recipes
Then, on the other side, I wrote at least 3 of my favorite recipes in that category. Yes, the vegetarian one says “Tofu, Tofu. Tofu.”
3. Arrange Your Weeks
I played around with the order of things so that it fit best with our routines.
Because there are at least 3 recipes for 7 main categories we’re going to be able to go 21 days or so without repeating a recipe. I kept my “recipes” super simple to allow for easy changes if needed.
I’ve made a day for leftovers, and also built in a day to go out. There’s some unknown because we don’t know too far in advance what our CSA veggies are, so those details are decided after we get the box.
4. Pick Your Recipes
Once I had my order set, I turned over the cards and picked a recipe for each of the days. I’m focusing on dinner planning, but you could easily expand this to include breakfast and lunch.
5. Update Your Lists
Tools to Help You
I like my i-Devices as much as the next gal, but this is one area where I think apps fall a little short: most are cumbersome to set up, fiddly to use, and don’t work as well as your brain to manage leftovers and last-minute changes. I’ve downloaded a couple to try, but I’m not going to use them yet.
When you’re getting your master template set up, it can be helpful to visualize all of your choices. I decided to use index cards to work out my initial template.
Canva has a bunch (I like this one) and Pinterest is another resource.
Use an app, notebook, dry-erase or blackboard, or paper stuck to your fridge. Keep track of what you have somehow. If your list is at home, take a picture before you go to the store.
A simple weekly dinner menu can streamline your shopping and meal preparation. Using a thematic strategy can further speed up your planning. How do you manage your meal planning? I’d love to see your creative freezer and pantry lists.
If the only thing I get out of Simplify Your Life Month is making the bed every day, it will be worth it. It’s like magic, folks!