I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that meal planning was one of the most useful skills I’ve learned in college.
It wasn’t until this year that I think I’ve finally gotten it right. For a while, I tried to force myself into planning out every single meal I ate. By Tuesday, I would have given up and my meal plan quickly found its way into the recycling bin.
Then I tried not planning at all. I could be spontaneous with my meals! This would be so much fun! Also an epic failure. I realized I was grocery shopping four times a week and somehow still eating peanut butter bananas for dinner more often than I would like to admit.
Finally, I found my perfect middle ground. Now, every Friday I sit down and list out about 3 recipes to make each week. I usually don’t bother planning out breakfast, since I have have my breakfasts pretty well worked out by now. So not counting breakfast, I’ll eat 14 meals in a week plus assorted snacks. If each recipe makes 4 servings, I have 12 meals for the week. I leave 2 open for eating out or something quick and easy that I can throw together from whatever is in the fridge.
Then I take a look at my class schedule for the week, making sure to note any midterms or meetings I might have to account for. I plan to cook on nights when I’ll have enough time for the recipe I want to make and pencil in leftovers for busy nights when I just need something to scarf down so I can get back to studying.
Lastly, I look at all the ingredients and make a grocery list of the things I need for the week. Now, I go grocery shopping once a week, maybe twice if I’ve forgotten something or change my plan a little. This alone was a HUGE change for me and has freed up so much extra time.
The whole thing is very flexible. If I really don’t want to make or eat something that I planned, I don’t force it. I can always move things around or freeze leftovers if I have too much. My meal plan is there to give me some structure and make my life a little easier, not to dictate it.
Planning it all out allows me to make sure I’m getting in a variety of foods and not just eating rice and beans all week. Since I’m eating the same three meals throughout the week, I try to balance them so they are very different meals and I won’t get tired of them. I also try to make one recipe that I’ve never made before each week, usually on a night where I have some extra time to experiment. For busy nights, I like to make things I’m more familiar with.
I also plan some snacks and side dishes that I prepare on the weekend. Lately, I’ve been making various types of energy bars and a couple batches of veggies.
I always thought meal planning was way too OCD to fit into my busy life but instead, it has made it much easier. Yes, it takes a good hour or so initially to figure out but it saves me so much time throughout the week and helps me to eat healthier, tastier food.