I woke up early this morning and had trouble falling back to sleep. I thought maybe I’d take a few moments to write a quick post in response to a question I had last night on Instagram about our meal planning process. Typing here is way faster than responding on my phone, and much more enjoyable to me than that tiny keyboard.
Let’s work backwards for a second. Our end goals for eating in our house:
1. Eating a diet that is primarily plant-based that tastes good and is good for us.
2. Stocking our pantry and fridge with as many whole, unprocessed foods as possible.
3. Making healthy choices all day long, not just at dinner.
4. Buying the right amount of good quality foods, wasting less.
5. Avoiding impulse buying, coupons, and ignoring sales.
Now, we never sat down and really outlined these goals, but over the past six or seven years we’ve found these to be a good guide for eating well. And the only way I’ve found to successfully meet these goals is to menu plan once a week, create a grocery list for that plan, and to only purchase what is on that list. So to expand on the items above…
1. Only 1/4 of our family is vegetarian, but once I came on board at home (and the girls came along for the ride), I knew we had to step up our game. When you don’t know how to cook much of anything as an adult (outside of desserts from a mix, and boiling pasta and putting jarred sauce on top), then it takes awhile to figure it out. It took us a LONG time. I had no interest in eating meals that felt like side dishes instead of main dishes, or substituting more carbs for meat, or eating cold, uninspiring salads. We did this for awhile, then we graduated to buying packaged foods and preparing (warming) those for most of our lunches and dinners, until I was just completely uninspired by eating at home. So we made the shift to…
2. Cooking with whole ingredients – part of this shift probably happened when Ella was diagnosed with a severe tree nut allergy at age four. Suddenly we were forced to read labels, and we found that most of the food we ate had lengthy ingredient lists and CYA statements about being processed in “a facility that processes tree nuts”. We started to phase out of our Trader Joe’s dinner plan (delicious curry in foil packets, oh how we missed you!) and we started buying whole foods (not capital W. F. because money doesn’t grow on trees) and we got a few cookbooks to try out. (America’s Test Kitchen was our manual and The Moosewood Collective was our gateway drug). Then F came along and the whole game changed…
3. E was a notoriously picky eater (and likely for good reason – she had a real need to be cautious about the food that went into her mouth – our species has survived by being fairly intuitive about food). Long before we ever knew of any allergies, we fed her a wide variety of jarred baby foods. It was 2003, and the baby food aisles were really changing – expensive, organic baby food, packaged in beautifully designed jars (and sold for three times as much as everything else) started showing up. We bought into it, and fed it all to her. It seemed super healthy – I mean, it wasn’t called “Strained Pears”, it was now “Autumn Pumpkin, Pear and Beef Stew”, or “Coconut, Kiwi and Mangosteen with Quinoa” (I didn’t make these up, they are here!) so of course it was healthy, right? But then we had F in 2009, and we weren’t buying a whole lot of food in a jar anymore – it seemed like we could certainly make this stuff on our own, and mix it up in any sort of concoction we wanted to. So we did. Soon it became a game. We tried to find something she wouldn’t eat, but she loved it all. I also noticed that both girls were much better eaters in the morning, but as the day progressed they got pickier and pickier about their food. So instead of cajoling them to eat a robust, well-rounded dinner, we moved the nutrition packed foods up to breakfast and that worked great for us.
I also started noticing that my typical breakfast / lunch diet wasn’t so great. I ate cold cereal with milk for breakfast, and then had a sandwich and maybe yogurt or chips for lunch, knowing I was going to eat a “great” dinner later that day. But I felt hungry most of the day, and I’ve never been much of a snacker, so most evenings I’d be ravenous at dinnertime which is a recipe for throwing in the towel on the cooking dinner train. So I switched up my routine too. I cook old school oats on the stove every single morning of the year, and I stir in various things to it for flavor or added nutirition. For at least five years the girls ate the same thing as me, although now they exercise their own independence a bit more, and sometimes eat toast or yogurt or grapefruit or granola. The bonus to cooking dinner is leftovers, so I eat them almost every single day at lunch. I eat a handful of almonds late morning at work on weekdays because I don’t keep them in the house, and I try to eat an apple on afternoons before I workout or run. I feel like it’s really changed the way I think about the food we want to consume, and as a result of that, we treat that food with more respect because…
4. I hate to waste good food! The only solution I’ve ever found to not throwing away uneaten food in the house is to stick to a menu plan and make food that is good enough to want to eat the leftovers! Before I make next week’s menu I think about what we have on hand, and we’ve got a decent enough recipe repertoire to pull from. If I still have half a wedge of some expensive, obscure cheese, then I start opening up cookbooks to the ingredient lists in the index. We also use Blue Apron at least twice a month when we know that we’re going to be around to make all three dishes between Wednesday and Sunday – that’s about the extent that things stay fresh. This opinion is in no way sponsored – I just really, really appreciate this service for vegetarian eating. I’m genuinely sad on weeks when we don’t get a box – I love having three meals (and at least four lunches) already planned and shopped for me. It makes me feel ahead of the game when I rarely am. And I always prefer shopping for four days rather than seven. I do not like to shop for groceries…
5. So I tend to speed through it. I don’t browse, I don’t get distracted. I shop from my list. I don’t use coupons. If I see something interesting along the way, I make a mental note of it, and I might incorporate it into next week’s plan. But I’ve found that the best way to spend wisely on food is to buy what you need, cook what you buy, enjoy what you cook.
I use this notepad for menu planning –
And this one for ingredients –
They are magnetic and stick to the side of the fridge. I’ve looked at various apps, but I don’t like reading recipes off devices, and I like to carry my list on a piece of paper in the store, not on my phone. For the most part I stick to cookbooks, but I also have three or four trusted blogs with recipes that I love. I like a vetted recipe. And a few times a week I take photos of the ingredients on my counter for a dish – sometimes I’ll scroll back through my feed to remind myself of a particularly good recipe.
Hopefully none of the above sounds sanctimonious, or like I’ve got everything figured out. But I have managed to get to the point where I enjoy the process and the results, and I attribute that to discipline, not to a specific gift or trait that I possess. My children are far from perfect eaters, but I remind myself when they are resistant that M and I are here to teach them to love and appreciate food, and they are welcome to purchase and eat whatever they like when they leave our house. Hopefully they will have a good foundation to build upon, they will never associate food with guilt or shame or deprivation, and they will have the tools in place to feed their own bodies and souls as well as those around them. I’m pretty sure that they will remember the effort that went into putting dinner on the table, how it’s okay in our world of overabundance to actually be “hungry” for dinner (and how it’s really not appropriate to whine about that), that how we feed our bodies deserves thought and attention and care.
M and I fell in love over late night blueberry pancakes served up on the same table the four of us crowd around today. He’s still my favorite dinner companion, and an equal partner in the kitchen (just not as wordy as I am, thank goodness!)