How many of us have made weekly meal plans and ditched them because they just didn’t work for us?
I won’t lie. I have made so many of them, scrunched them up and then just binned them because they didn’t work for me.
In hindsight, I realize that I was just aiming for too much. All I probably needed was a dal, rice and veggie, and here I was, planning Thai recipes for a week night dinner.
So trust me, I know meal planning can be a very daunting task. But it can become easy when broken down into three simple steps – PLAN, PREP and EXECUTE.
And more importantly, it prevents you from going through decision paralysis – we all know how much we dread to hear or ask that question – “What can I make for dinner?”
With meal planning, this question becomes a once a week question – win-win for all involved!
- Family foods first - Create a weekly meal plan for your house, based on your family foods. Keep enough time set aside for this activity, since you need to create a sustainable meal plan.
- Do not be over-ambitious - Do not venture into new, never-made-before foods too much in the plan. One or two new food experiments a week are perfectly okay. More ambitious than that, you are heading towards burn out. Plan to cook things that you want to eat, not fancy things that will involve too much work researching and throwing together on a weeknight.
- Involve the family - While planning a menu, sit down with your family and let everyone pitch in with ideas. Take into account everyone’s likes and dislikes and plan a meal that everyone agrees on.
- Balanced meals - Ensure that the meal is balanced and always has a serving of vegetables, proteins, carbohydrates and fat.
- Cheat days - If you, as a family like eating out, do not deprive yourself of ordering in or eating out. Incorporate these cheat days into your plan and give yourself some slack.
- Leftover repurposing - It is always difficult to cook exact portions, and there are always chances that a family member ends up having meals outside for a couple of days due to inevitable circumstances. Leftovers? Repurpose them into a whole new dish (think leftover dal in parathas, left over rice as tawa pulao/khichdi/pongal, or leftover sambar with idlis for breakfast the next day), freeze them if they were only just cooked or designate a couple of meals in a week for leftovers (we do a left over fridge cleanup breakfast every once in a while).
- Shop for your plan - Once you have a weekly plan, shop for it. Ideally, plan your meal on a Friday, take stock of your kitchen cupboards and fridge and then shop for your plan on Saturday and use an hour or two for prep on Sunday.
Once the shopping is done, you can start prepping for the week ahead. And trust us, this is the most important part! An hour or two of meal preparation will make your week days a lot less hectic!
- Get chopping! - Cut the vegetables that can be cut and stored. Peel, chop, dice everything and stack in your fridge.
- Freeze! – I love to freeze. I typically make yellow dal or sambar in bulk and stack it in the freezer in single use portions. Dough can be frozen in single use portions and moved to the fridge the night before to thaw for use in the morning. Base gravies, chutneys, caramelized onions or tomatoes can be frozen too. Staples in your freezer can help you assemble a quick and wholesome meal on a weekday night easily. Just remember not to refreeze or refrigerate food once thawed (it is a hotbed for harmful microbes and bacteria to develop). And that is why, single use portions always, when freezing.
- Cook in bulk! – I typically cook legumes like chole and rajma in bulk. They take quite a while to cook, even after soaking, so I find it resource saving to cook these in bulk and freeze as single use portions. Make rotis or rice, thaw the legume dishes and bingo! You have a meal ready.
- Marinate! - If you eat meat and fish, a good idea would be to marinate and prep in bulk on the weekend or at least the night before, so that they cook faster. (Disclaimer – I am a vegetarian, so not going into detail here.)
- Soak! - Pulses, legumes, rice and other grains can be soaked overnight to speed up the cooking process.
- Back-up always! - Have a back-up plan for when you are late from work. It could be as simple as having eggs in the fridge for a quick egg curry, or just microwaved potato(super quick! Just prick a potato with a fork and microwave for 3 min!) folded into thawed dough for a quick aloo paratha.
- Better make that batter! - Make batters, ideally on a Sunday. Idly, adai, dosa, chila – these are all versatile batters and quick cooking for single person or family meals plus ideal for breakfast or dinners in the first half of the week, if made ready on a Sunday.
SPEEDBREAKERS DURING EXECUTION?
While executing, you will most likely run into a few unexpected speed breakers.
- Too much leftover? – freeze if just made or change up your plan a bit and keep for another meal.
- Be flexible – there will be times when you might have not factored a night out or an extra guest. Change it up. There is no need to be rigid and stick to the plan if it doesn’t work for you one day. At the end of the day, this is a new learning for when you make the next weekly plan.
- Things going bad? – Change up your plan and make that spinach into gravy right away. Or make that milk that is nearing its best by date into curd or paneer. Change it up and save your hard earned money.
- Fine tune- For the first few cycles, treat your plan as a vague idea of your weekly meals. You will firm it up better after you’ve been through a few planning cycles.
- Freezing taboos? – Freezing does not equal nutrient loss. In fact, it equals better nutrient retention in comparison to refrigerating. But, we acknowledge that freezing may not be everyone’s cup of tea (older generations specifically abhor freezing, yes we know!). Work around it. If you can’t freeze, try washing and soaking overnight instead. Dal, and rice get cooked faster when allowed to soak in water. Plus, you just need to fire that stove as soon as you are up in the morning!
Any other tips and tricks you have for the amateur meal planner? Comment below!