Meal Planning

“What would you like for dinner,” said everyone always…

This is one of the most aggravating questions. If you think about it, it is also such a mundane question because we will all eat today, tomorrow, the next day and so on for the rest of our lives and that means this question will be asked hundreds of times, if not thousands, throughout our lifetimes.

It’s asked so frequently that it loses its meaning to the point that the one being asked can feel annoyed because it becomes their duty to be creative on the spot, when that person may very well not want to choose what is for dinner. Maybe it’s just me, but I find just about anything delicious and if I don’t get to eat one specific meal today, that’s okay! I will get to eat it another day. And so the order in which I eat meals does not necessarily matter… I just want to eat.

This is where my husband and I have found the best solution! Low and behold, it’s a list!

Remember when I said in the last post that almost nothing is un-listable? This is a perfect example. I have yet to meet anyone who writes a full calendar list of meals for the week or for the month, although I do hope there are a few out there. This could be because dinner is such a routine that people do not give it much thought. However, the act of making/having dinner, the purchasing of food, cooking, eating, cleaning, etc., can take up a significant portion of your time and anything that takes up a large portion of your time deserves to be optimized.

So what do we do? We have an Excel file that has three main sheets.

One marks the date, the meal (main, entrée, side, and dessert but we get a little intense with details haha) and also how many leftovers we are left with.

The second sheet is a list of all of our ‘available meals’. These meals are in categories such as chicken, vegetarian, fish, soups, ethnic, etc. We consistently add to this list as I become more creative with cooking.

Finally the third sheet is our grocery list. We have every possible item that we could purchase in a grocery store on that list. Trust me, it’s not as long as you think.

Each sheet is incredibly valuable! The first sheet is very visual (in fact all of our categories are color coded as well) so we can see how many chicken vs. vegetarian vs. fish meals we have had in the past month, for example. I also have entered meals for a month prior to cooking them so that I never have to magically come up with what’s for dinner.

A key part to this sheet is also the amount of leftovers that we have marked. We are avid fans of freezers and yet most people do not optimize them! We know at any given time how many leftovers are frozen and of what so that we can easily find them. We are even able to prioritize them by dates. We mark a 1 in the column “Leftovers” if one portion (one Tupperware) will go into our freezer. Once we eat that meal eventually we erase the 1 from the meal list.

The second sheet is great because all of my meals are immediately available so I don’t have to do too much research. Once I find a recipe I love, I add it to that sheet right next to the name so the next time I cook it the link is right there!

Finally the grocery list! Woooooh…grocery shopping! It is probably everybody’s favorite activity. Well, trust me, it can get even better. With this sheet and every individual item on it (i.e. Milk, Flour, Chick Breasts, Apples, etc.) we can very easily mark in red what items we need. No more coming up with a grocery list each and every day/week!

Because I have copied and pasted the meals that I will cook for the next month from the second sheet to the first sheet I can easily estimate what ingredients I will need. This makes grocery shopping so much more fun and efficient. In fact, it’s more like a game when we go grocery shopping because we know exactly what we need and no more, so it becomes a race to get it done fast.

We undoubtedly save money doing it this way because we have it all planned and we almost never throw away food. Produce is used methodically and we never suffer from not having the ingredients or from excess. We love excess because that means we get to put it in our freezer!

You may think that this takes the joy out of cooking or being creative or maybe you find yourself wanting something different than what you had originally planned. That’s fine! You can easily change the list (shift the meals down one day) if you decide to go to a restaurant or a friend’s or cook something else instead. I sincerely believe that it allows you to be even more creative because your brainpower isn’t being used up scrambling to come up with tonight’s meal. You have a plan and it is reassuring, particularly when your husband asks “Honey, what’s for dinner?” and you can just say “Look at the list!”. Boom.

Our meal list gets even crazier because it includes equations and all that alert us when we haven’t eaten a meal in X amount of time, but that’s because I’m married to an engineer and he has datafied our meals.

I hope this sparks some meal list making and eliminates the question “What’s for dinner?”. Think: if you’re not discussing what you’re going to eat you can use that time to talk about more enjoyable topics! Happy eating!

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