If Meal-Planning Were a Subject, I Would Get a D-Minus

So …

On an internet which is positively overrun with advice on meal-planning, in which meal-planning is held up as one of the best ways to reduce food waste, this post feels somewhat confessional, almost as though I should be whispering the words.

Of course, since I can’t figure out how to change the font size on WordPress, my “regular voice” will have to do.

Here goes: I suck at meal-planning.

I wish this was an over-statement, but I’m afraid it’s not.

Now, my suckiness at this endeavour is not for lack of trying. There’ve been numerous occasions on which I’ve hauled out the cookbooks, searched for the tried-and-true as well as the new, slotted meals (or leftovers) in for every day of the week, shopped for the whole kit and caboodle, and enthusiastically hauled it all home. I even — completely uncharacteristically — bought into the thinking that a catchy magnetized notepad could somehow magically turn me from a non-list-making-planner into a list-making-planner:

Hmm…look at all those BLANK spaces where planned suppers are supposed to go. If I had bothered to write in the date, you’d be able to see that I wrote this in August. And why do I continue to fool myself into thinking stars and capital letters will propel me into doing things in a timely fashion? I managed to make the broth — about two weeks after jotting it down — but I still haven’t cooked the chick peas or the navy beans, or found the time to bake bread. And while I DID make muffins and cookies, I ALWAYS manage to make those, even without a list to remind me.

Despite the fact that I love the theory behind meal-planning — the über-organization which ensures you’ll never again aimlessly wander the aisles at the supermarket, the promise that you’ll never again look at the clock and see the hour hand creeping up to 5 and think Oh crap, what the hell am I cooking for supper? — the actual execution of the plan seems to be where I falter.

Now, perhaps this is a problem unique to me; perhaps I’m just one of those rare people who, upon seeing a list, feels not calm and organized, but rather, pressured. And perhaps this is also just me, but it seems that whenever I have managed to plan an entire week’s worth of meals the propensity was to bite off more than I could chew, to get carried away by enthusiasm and completely over-estimate how willing/able my future self was going to be to be cooking that specific meal four or five days hence. The end result in my kitchen? More food waste than ever before.

But …

Does my failure in the meal-planning department mean I’m floundering every night at 5 o’clock, dashing to the corner store, and then throwing hot pockets into the microwave? No, not at all. Ever since our year without processed food, I’ve been cooking — from scratch — nearly every supper my family consumes.

What seems to work best for me is to do my weekly-ish grocery shopping with one or two suppers in mind at the most. Then, the rest of the grocery shopping is for staples. Rather than having a firm plan set in place, in which I feel I have to cook a certain meal, I prefer instead to take a considered approach: what could I cook tonight?

Practically, this means knowing that I have the ingredients on hand for any of a number of different recipes, and ensuring my pantry, fridge, and freezer are stocked with things I know we use regularly, items such as lentils, beans, pasta, rice, and quinoa, and that I have all the basic vegetables available, such as onions, garlic, potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, celery, broccoli, cauliflower, butternut squash, tomatoes, and spinach, as well as all the basic spices.

In order to make this work, I tend to take a minimalistic KISS (keep it simple stupid) approach. I have about two dozen recipes that I regularly rotate through, and while they’re not the bland meat-and-potatoes I grew up with, they’re also not supremely exotic concoctions with rare spices or sauces I will buy once and never use again. More importantly, they’re also not recipes which call for ingredients which are only good for that specific recipe.

This gives me a lot of flexibility: it means that if I’m not using the cauliflower to make Indian Lentil Cauliflower Soup from the Oh She Glows cookbook, I can use it to make Winter Vegetable Soup with Butternut Squash and Cauliflower or creamy cauliflower sauce to serve with pasta, or I can simply cook it (steamed or microwaved) and it’s a nutritious, if plain-jane, vegetable. Similarly, if I’m not using the butternut squash in the aforementioned soup recipe, I can use it to make Vegetarian Stew with Quinoa, Butternut Squash and Coconut Milk. If the broccoli isn’t used in a stir-fry, I’ll simply steam it and serve it as our veggie. Potatoes can either be used to make Kale, Potato and Cannellini Bean Soup or Lentil Soup with Coriander and Cumin, or they can be cooked and mashed as the topping for a vegetarian shepherd’s pie, or cut up and roasted as home-made fries.

I think one of the most important keys in reducing food waste is to be realistic. If you’re a meal-planner extraordinaire and are successfully making use of all the food you’re buying at the grocery store, then that’s great! I take my hat off to you, and truthfully, I wish I could be more like you! (Because who doesn’t want to be both an organized person and a great cook?). But if you’re meal-planning and are struggling each and every time to execute the planned meals before the food goes bad, perhaps you too would benefit from taking a step back and trying a more minimalistic KISS approach to meals. While I have no doubt that formal meal-planning works wonders for many people, it does seem to me that it is a bit of a “one-size fits all” approach which may in fact be causing more stress and more food waste in those of us who keep trying — and despite our best intentions — keep failing.

(Of course, I do have to acknowledge the possibility that I may be entirely alone in this! Am I?)

Next up: how I use the freezer (sorry, Rita 😦 ) to reduce food waste and to keep staples on hand.

24 thoughts on “If Meal-Planning Were a Subject, I Would Get a D-Minus

  1. I definitely agree about being realistic! A big cause of food waste in our house is me being overly ambitious about what I’m going to cook, how often I’m going to cook a “real” recipe (vs. one of our quick-dinner standbys like baked potatoes), how ambitious those recipes can be.

    Your “what could I cook?” approach is really interesting. I find that writing down actual meal plans helps me b/c it gives me something to bounce off of, a starting point if you will. Then I can think: “Actually I don’t have time/energy to make X tonight, but I could make Y with pretty much the same ingredients.” But a blank space would stress me out and I wouldn’t be able to realize that I could make Y with the ingredients on hand. The quirks of our brains are so funny, aren’t they?

    I keep meaning to read Tamar Adler’s “An Everlasting Meal,” which I understand deals with similar themes of scratch cooking, reducing waste, and flexible cooking. Have you read it?

    Maybe all this minimalism business really is starting to take root in my brain, but I am starting to suspect that we might waste less food if I simply kept less of it on hand (in pantry and freezer, that is, not just in the crisper drawer). Hmm..


    1. It’s funny that our brains are interpreting the spaces (blank or filled) so differently, because it sounds like the end result is perhaps often the same for both of us: we’re both improvising based on time/energy/ingredients 🙂 .

      The thing I’ve learned about “ambitious meals” is that I have to make those meals either on the day of grocery shopping, or just the day after. If I’ve planned something ambitious for 5 days away, it probably only gets made 50% of the time.

      I have read “An Everlasting Meal”! I admit I had really high hopes that it would turn me into, well, the type of cook you seem to be 🙂 . But although I did really enjoy reading it (it is very well written, and I do find the subject of food extremely interesting), I didn’t find it to be overly helpful in teaching me how to improvise and getting me over the hump of needing a recipe. Mind you, I think I’m a pretty slow student in this area, AND I simply READ it; I didn’t bookmark any pages with the thought of, “Oh, I’m going to try that” (but that might be because she is so very clearly a foodie; because I’m not, the book was somewhat intimidating for me). I will say she DID succeed in assuring me that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with my favourite go-to meal (soup and good bread and cheese), something my family might wish for slightly less of!

      And we most definitely waste less food when I take a minimalist approach at the grocery store. If I have, for example, frozen corn or peas available, I’m much more likely to take the easy way out and use those for our vegetable, rather than taking the time to prep the fresh broccoli. When I was first thinking of how to write these posts on food waste, I had kinda sorta planned for a post on minimalism in the kitchen; I’ll definitely see if I can make something out of my thoughts on that subject …


  2. I’m with you, Marian. When I really plan for all the days of the week, I tend to waste food because realistically, cooking just doesn’t happen every night of the week. What’s been working for me is to sorta plan meals with our activities in mind. Sometimes I plan to eat out, and I’ve decided to be fine with that–because there just isn’t time for this sorta single parent to cook and get two teens in two different directions.

    Like you, I have staples. I still need to expand my stable of recipes that use those staples. And I’d love to see your freezer recipes, even though I still don’t have one. 🙂


    1. I hear you on the planning of meals around activities! Because my husband works long hours and is often out of town, the running of the kids and the cooking/planning of the meals falls completely into my lap. I do have the luxury of being able to throw something into the slow-cooker mid-day; if I were working out of the house, I’m quite certain we too would be planning to eat out more than we do now. There’s only so much one person can do, after all… My SIL, who works part-time, does quite a lot of “freezer cooking” and “freezer to crock-pot” cooking, and swears by this method. This means she does a LOT of cooking on the weekends, something I’ve not yet been able to make myself do, but I think if one could spare that time on the weekends (or days off), it would probably make a huge difference on the busy days.

      I also need to expand my repertoire of staple/easy recipes, as I do feel we’re in a bit of a rut. Not as small a rut as before our year of no processed food, but a rut nonetheless…


      1. I generally don’t work Mondays (though that hasn’t been the case the past few weeks), and I tend to do quite a bit of cooking on those days. It’s easier when I’m the only one home and I’m not having to do anything immediate for anyone else. I’ve read a bit about cooking in batches and freezing, and I’d like to learn/do more with that. Realistically, though, I probably won’t. My kids are seniors this year, so this will be less of an issue a year from now. I will probably continue to limp along until then.


      2. Batch cooking and freezing works just as well if you’re alone! The way I look at it is, as long as I’m going to the trouble of cutting up ingredients and standing over the pot stirring, I might as well make a lot of food; now that I have a lot of food, I will enjoy eating this same meal maybe 3 times this week, so I will put 1 serving on the table and 2 in the refrigerator, and the rest goes in the freezer. Two weeks later, hey, it’s great to have a convenient frozen meal!

        It’s only the number of individual portions going to each destination that relates to how many people are in your house.


      3. This is so true, ‘Becca! I love cooking meals that make enough for at least one day of leftovers; I find there’s always just a little edge of “all that work for ONE meal, gobbled up in 20 minutes tops!” for meals that DON’T stretch to two days! I’ve been thinking a lot over the last couple of days about what my SIL does with her batch freezer cooking, and it’s worth noting that she does this even though she has adult children with only one left living at home. (And because her son has an extremely busy school schedule, and a girlfriend, I’d be very surprised if he were home for a lot of meals). So this means she’s doing all this mainly for just her husband and herself.


      4. Oh yes, you are right. It’s why I often double recipes. The real problem, I suspect, is that I just don’t like cooking, no matter how I do it or how I’ve tried to look at it. Once my kids asked me what superpower I would have if I could have any, and I answered that I would like to never have to eat. Pathetic, but true.


  3. oh, how interesting, I have been mentally percolating a food post myself.

    I am a meal planner. I am the opposite of you– I can’t get anything done without a list. Multiple lists. Sometimes I have lists of my lists. In any event, having a meal plan has been extremely helpful, because I hate cooking and for ten years I was of the “eh, what can I make tonight…guess I’ll go to the store for the third time this week…” persuasion. Meal planning means that we buy groceries on Sunday, and usually a trip on Thursdays to stock up on the fruit/lunchmeat/eggs. It has really cut down on the amount of money we spend and the food we waste.

    I only mealplan for M-F. Weekends tend to be leftover or scrounging from the pantry (eggs, pasta and homemade pizza are almost always on hand). I also sort of aim for each day having its own…I hate to say theme, but I guess its a theme…Monday we have a meat and veggie, Tuesday is crockpot, Wednesday is pasta, Thursdays are soup and sandwiches, Fridays lately I’ve been planning for egg sandwiches but finagling an invitation to Grandma’s.

    I don’t always follow the plan–sometimes I’d rather not eat what’s on there, but I usually end up doing something with the vegetable planned for the day.

    I can see not wanting to meal plan, and it sounds like you have a flexible meal planning method, even if you aren’t into writing it down.


    1. I do hope you get your food post written too — I love the subject of food (even though I too am still not all that enthused about the actual process/work of cooking itself), and I love to hear how others manage their kitchens and their cooking 🙂 .

      I’m glad meal-planning is working so well for you! Anything that saves money and decreases food waste is a good thing! Reading your comment makes me wonder if I can take some inspiration from your “themes” in order to work on expanding our repertoire of recipes. We have several good soup recipes, but I definitely could use some more crockpot ideas, as well as pasta dishes. Having a focus might be very helpful as I look for new recipes…

      I can definitely see the appeal of having a meal plan, and I think if I were more of a “list person” in general, I might have done better with it. I have lots of mental lists, but they stay in my head and rarely make it to paper. I find that on the rare occasions when they DO, if I then fail to complete the list I then feel a bit like “oh, that’s (yet another) thing I’ve failed at.” (Hmmm…this is all sounding very “Roderick” (from Diary of a Wimpy Kid) … nothing quite like setting low expectations in order to avoid being disappointed! 😉 ).


  4. We also keep a well-stocked pantry and used to do well with the “What could I cook?” approach, but my partner started finding that very difficult once he had the distraction of a hungry child! But he has a weird problem with planning: He bogs down in making the perfect plan, and never gets around to executing it. So now I plan the meals for him to cook, and to some extent I also plan the meals that I will cook, but honestly, at least 50% of the time I do my planning only a few hours in advance and revise it as I go when I notice that we also have a red pepper that’s getting mushy, or whatever.


    1. I could definitely not take the “what could I cook” approach with a hungry child distracting me! And I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one who has a problem with getting bogged down in planning and who suffers from a failure to execute 🙂 . My thoughts on “what could I cook” do actually begin quite early in the day; I think about the day’s activities and who will be home to eat, and what I have on hand, and I let things percolate for a few hours. It sounds like just the sort of thing you’re doing half the time 🙂 .

      I do hope you’re recovering well from your concussion?


      1. I’m doing better after 3 weeks off work; back to part-time this week. The time off was not as restful as it would have been had it not coincided with my daughter’s regular babysitter going to be with her dying mother–taking care of a toddler 24 hours a day is not restful!–and with the car going wrong AGAIN because part of the post-accident repair was loose, allowing water to get on the battery…but with some help from friends and a relative, we got through it, and I think I am healing, slowly.


      2. I’m glad to hear you’re making progress, ‘Becca. From what I understand, recovery from a concussion isn’t something that can be rushed. Take care!


  5. I love meal planning and lists (because I love planning and lists of any kind) but I don’t always end up cooking what I have planned because as you said – ingredients can be easily rearranged into other meals when necessary. I’ve also always meal planned next to my calendar so I know what nights we won’t be eating at home (or will need something quick like sandwiches or a crockpot meal before we head out to something).

    Food waste for us is still terrible though. I have a VERY particular son and no one in my family is a leftovers person so there is a great deal of prepared food that gets wasted. I really need to find a way to address that.


    1. I’ve been racking my brain for a few hours now, trying to come up with ways for you to reduce food waste of the leftover variety (since it sounds like you’re on top of things in the pre-cooking stage, which is great!)…

      I suppose when you say no one in your family is a leftovers person, you don’t just mean you/they don’t like leftovers a day or two after, but that you/they also don’t like leftovers if they’ve been frozen and not eaten until, say, a week or two has gone by? If that’s indeed the case, then yes, I can see how that would cause quite a bit of food waste 😦 . Halving recipes probably wouldn’t work (not quite enough food for the four of you for a single meal, I would imagine? Mind you, you could always supplement a meager-ish meal with additional veggies or bread). And reducing a recipe to 3/4 would probably just get quite difficult, and might result in leftovers of a different sort (1/4 of a can of tomatoes left over, for example). I hope someone else chimes in with some good ideas, because the only other thing I can come up with is to simply decide to be hard-hearted about the issue. My family isn’t a huge fan of leftovers either, but because I’m generally the cook, it tends to be “my way or the highway”. In other words, they eat what I set out on the table. There might be some small amount of grumbling or sighs of “this again?!” but I usually try to take a nonchalant approach: Oh well, this is nutritious food and you don’t have to love every single meal you eat!

      With regards to your very particular son … have you heard of/read the book French Kids Eat Everything (And Yours Can Too)? I read it a few years ago because our youngest was an extremely fussy eater; it was driving me up a creek, and I found it so hard to keep my cool at the supper table! The book reinforces the quiet but firm idea that “supper is what is served”, and it did help me to stay calm. I’m not sure if it was just a maturing process with him, or if I simply wore him down, but our son is now fairly easy-going about food and will eat what’s served without (too much) complaining.


      1. I have tried (and failed) with “supper is what is served.” That’s how it was when I was growing up, and I cannot understand why it has not been the way it is in my house now. But it’s not. They will choose not to eat and subsist on goldfish crackers and granola bars. Grrr…


      2. Rita, I’m in the same boat.

        For awhile it was “This is dinner; eat this or don’t eat.” but he’d rather starve than eat something he doesn’t like but he’s also soooo thin (as in 80th percentile in height, 10th percentile in weight) that I’ve gotten to the point where if he won’t eat what I make, he can have raw veggies or a piece of fruit.

        I think for fussy eaters, the “this is dinner” approach can work, but he he’s soooo sensitive about clothing textures and temperatures and everything else that I figure food is probably a legitimate sensitivity as well.

        As for prepared food waste, it really is a shame but short of chicken noodle soup/chili even the freeze and reheat method rarely works! I really do think halving recipes and then supplementing with bread/salad fixings might be the way to go. I tend to err on the side of too much food rather than not enough so I’m certainly in part to blame.


      3. I have a friend whose son has similar “sensitivity” issues, and is also an extremely picky eater. That absolutely is a legitimate reason to not push the “this is dinner” approach. If he’s eating veggies and fruit in lieu of the occasional meal, I think that’s a great way to handle things; we could ALL do with more veggies and fruit in our diets!

        I think it’s a universal thing, to err on the side of too much food. I’ve just, in the last few months, been “re-training” myself in this department. I used to, when we had a casserole dish full of leftovers, reheat the entire thing. Now I ladle out the appropriate amount into another dish before reheating, which usually means the leftovers get stretched out even longer! (“Oh joy” you can imagine my family saying, sarcastically 😉 ).


      4. For what it’s worth, my “supper is what is served” seemed to come at a very high price (meals were not a peaceful time in our house, to put it mildly). I think the evening snack before bedtime probably lengthened the process, because our son knew he could eat only the minimal amount without the fear of going to bed hungry, but even though I knew that at the time, I couldn’t NOT let him have that evening snack…because no matter how much I insisted on the supper thing, denying him THAT TOO would have seemed way too cruel. (Even though I *know* kids won’t starve if they go to bed without supper or a snack).

        And … (misery loving company and all) … you may feel heartened (or at least less like “what did I do wrong?”) if I tell you about our youngest son’s school lunches. For an entire year (possibly TWO, actually) I threw away his uneaten sandwich at the end of the day. I tried everything to get him to eat his sandwich — I introduced other options, I bribed, threatened, cajoled; I took away his cookies, so that the only thing he had to eat were his carrots and a sandwich, and STILL the sandwich would come home uneaten. He would subsist on carrot sticks the entire day, rather than eat that sandwich! So this year, I gave up. I now pack him carrots and cookies (homemade healthy cookies, made with whole wheat flour and flax and oatmeal, but STILL…COOKIES!) and that’s his lunch. (I also put in a container filled with raisins, in case the carrots and cookies aren’t enough, but he has yet to eat any (even though he likes raisins). I’m nervously waiting for the day I get called into the office and get reamed out for providing such an inappropriate lunch 😦 .


      5. Our kids are in bed about an hour and a half after dinner so thankfully I don’t contend with an evening snack. I do usually have some crackers or a piece of fruit or something waiting in the car when I go to get them from school because they eat lunch at 11:00 and we do dinner later (around 6-6:30) so my husband can be home.

        My son almost always eats his whole lunch but it’s almost always a mixture of raw veggies (which is his favorite), some crackers, and a few slices of cheese. I’ll warm up a soup really hot and put in his thermos. Then I have a 50/50 chance of having food brought home.

        I really struggle with how picky he is (how can he possibly be getting the nutrients he needs?!?) but his pediatrician doesn’t seem at all worried (especially since he likes his veggies) and since dinner time is the ONE time of day we all have together during the week, I hate to make it contentious. That may bite me in the butt when he’s older but I have my fingers crossed it will work itself out.


      6. I think as long as your son has energy, and is growing, he must be doing fine on the amounts and the things he’s eating. I’ve always been amazed at how little food a child seems to need, but then we’re kind of living in a “super-sized” world, so I suppose it’s no wonder that regular looks too small!

        One thing I’ve realized as my kids have gotten older is that there’s no way of predicting what will/might bite you in the butt later on! We too, only eat all together at supper times, and it was/is a really difficult thing to have arguments during that time. The pickiness with food has stopped, thank goodness, but now we’re dealing with our 17 year-old who cannot seem to get it into his head that it’s rude to text during a meal. And in the scheme of “know when to pick your battles” it seems this is a hill we’re willing to die on 😦 .


  6. I feel like I hijacked your food waste post with my picky eater son problems. 🙂 Sorry. I am just grateful to hear the advice of mothers who have been through this and are wiser than I.

    And hopefully the school realizes you aren’t sending him out with unhealthy foods (or wasting food).


    1. Oh gosh, Kate, absolutely no apology necessary! I love it that all of you come here to have these discussions, and I also love it when the conversation takes twists and turns — that just makes it more interesting! 🙂 (But I’m not sure about the “wiser” part…there are a lot of things that I’d do differently, in hindsight, so maybe it’s more correct to say we have some cautionary tales to tell 😉 ).


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