Meal Planning When I’m Not the Cook

For a few years now, I’ve been seeing lots of blog posts about the advantages of meal planning, i.e. figuring out what you are going to eat days or weeks in advance so you can make optimal use of your groceries and get meals on the table on time.  Fine, sounds good, but everyone writing about this was a full-time homemaker.  In my family, both parents had full-time jobs, and although Daniel was working at home and willing to stick something in the oven an hour before I got home with the kid, he wasn’t willing to knock off work early to do elaborate food preparation.  Normally, when I got home we decided what we were going to eat and which one of us was going to make it, and then we’d eat dinner whenever it was ready.  Keeping a well-stocked pantry and freezer meant that we usually could think of something to make.  It was working for us . . . well enough.

Then, at the beginning of summer last year, we accepted the fact that Daniel’s work (which was on a contract basis) was dwindling and he had no new job on the horizon.  Our son Nicholas was graduating from prekindergarten and would be going to a different school in the fall, so it made no sense to keep him in full-day childcare all summer.  Instead, Nicholas went to kids’ classes at the museum in the mornings while Daniel worked, and then they spent afternoons together at home (or the playground!).

This meant that Daniel needed to make lunch for them . . . and he told me he was finding this difficult.  With such limited work time, he needed to focus intently; there was no time to think about what to make for lunch.  Then he would pick up Nicholas at noon, and by the time they got home they both were very hungry and cranky, so that really added to the stress of being the POD for six hours, five days in a row.  It would be great to know, “Lunch is grilled cheese sandwiches and cantaloupe,” or whatever, and be able to start preparing it the moment they got home and getting it into their stomachs ASAP.

Well, naturally, my first reaction was, “Okay, so, make a plan!  Duh.”  I e-mailed Daniel some links to articles on meal planning.  But very soon he was saying he would really appreciate it if I would make the plan.  That sounded unfair!  I am glad, though, that instead of refusing I thought of these four things:

  1. Daniel is not really good at executing his plans.  It’s just something about his personality.  When he makes a detailed plan, he often seems to bog down in trying to get the plan exactly right, and then he never actually gets anything done!
  2. Months earlier, we had agreed that Daniel would cook dinner every weeknight, starting it while Nicholas and I were on the way home, so that we could eat earlier and thus get Nicholas to bed earlier–he was outgrowing napping so needed more sleep at night.  Daniel had been making some sort of food almost every night . . . but I often felt dissatisfied because it was an incomplete meal, had a very “thrown together at the last minute” aura about it, and/or failed to use up ingredients that really needed to be used before they went bad.  He might do better with a plan.
  3. I do most of the grocery shopping for our family, so I really do have a better sense of what foods are in the house than he does.
  4. When Daniel does go grocery shopping, he does it well in my eyes (that is, buys all the things I would have bought!) only if he has a list.  When I make a list, he does exactly what I want him to do.

Therefore, I decided to try making a list of exactly what I thought Daniel should make for every lunch and dinner for a few days.  Sure enough, he followed it, he felt less stressed, and everyone was happier with our meals!  So we have been doing this ever since, although I don’t need to plan weekday lunches during the school year.  (Daniel packs Nicholas’s lunch for school with an unvarying menu, and he eats leftovers for his own lunch.)  Here are some details that make it work for us:

  • We get our farm share on Wednesdays, and I do most shopping on weekends.  Therefore, I plan only a few days at a time: On Wednesday night, I plan meals for Thursday and Friday and maybe into the weekend using the new vegetables.  On Saturday morning, I fill in plans for what I am going to cook during the weekend and plan my shopping expedition(s) such that I pick up any needed ingredients.  On Sunday afternoon or evening, I look over the food we now have in the house and plan meals for Monday, Tuesday, and maybe Wednesday–some weeks we wait to see what Wednesday’s veggies inspire!
  • When I’m doing the planning, if any ingredients need to be thawed, I move them from freezer to fridge at that time.
  • If there is any other advance preparation, such as soaking lentils for Masoor Dal, either I do it or I tell Daniel about it.  If the meal takes more time than most, I make sure to tell him so he can plan accordingly.
  • I need to be very specific about any odds and ends to be incorporated into a meal. For example, I might write, “Bean Burritos w/thawed beans and onions, roasted green pepper, tomato + more beans from big can; freeze extra.”  Although Daniel is very much on board with strategies to use our food effectively, he is not a mind-reader, and he won’t necessarily think to check whether I thawed something or whether we have fresh ingredients or pre-cooked leftovers that could be used in the meal, when he knows how to make Bean Burritos by opening small cans of beans and throwing in some salsa.
  • I don’t use any sort of template or software for the menu.  I just write by hand with pencil on a sheet of scrap paper and stick it on the kitchen cabinet door.  It’s easy to change if necessary (just erase!) and I can work on it right there where the food is, instead of going to the computer or setting my iPad on the sticky kitchen counter.
  • We maintain an EAT!! List on the freezer door to remind us of fresh produce or other foods, like an open container of tofu, that need to be used quickly.  Next to it is a Freezer List showing what is in our freezer (which is only the little above-the-refrigerator kind but is often crammed full) so we don’t have to hold the door open, wasting energy and getting cold, to dig around in there to see what we have.  Both lists simplify planning.  The trick is to remember to add new groceries to the appropriate list when we bring them home, and remember to erase items when we use them.  When I feel skeptical that we still have an item on the list (or that we have enough of it for the meal I’m planning), I check to make sure–and if it’s at the back of the freezer, I bring it to the front so Daniel doesn’t have to repeat the searching process.

It’s working pretty well for us!  A recent Kitchen Stewardship article on Meal Planning for Busy People has some great tips for working around multiple children including a newborn, and the comments are full of tips from people experiencing other variations on “busy”!

Here are some examples of my menu plans:
Menu planned with six-year-old’s help (includes recipe for Speedy Sushi!)
Two weeks of meatless menus
Four weeks using late summer/early autumn seasonal vegetables
Four weeks in winter
Three weeks in late spring, including experiments with sweet potatoes

31 thoughts on “Meal Planning When I’m Not the Cook

  1. This came at the perfect time! Mike is our cook and is used to just throwing meals together with what we have (a skill I admire, for sure!) but since we’ve been getting vegetables from our CSA a bunch has gone to waste because Mike just doesn’t know what to do with it, and is not the kind of person to sit down and look through recipes. Plus now that he’s got a job working 50 hours a week, it’s not right to ask him to also plan meals in addition to doing all the cooking. I am going to propose this idea to him and see what he thinks. Thanks!!

  2. Meal planning makes things sooo much easier during the busy week. My husband also cooks most nights, so we plan out the main dishes together and then I fill in side dishes to make sure we get our veggies. If I was cooking, I wouldn’t bother with the second step and would just throw together a veggie side dish depending on what was in the fridge. If I leave that up to him, we wouldn’t have veggies many nights!

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