This post is titled the way it is not because I think I can teach anyone anything about meal planning. Rather, I’m hoping to learn a thing or two about it. I know… the basics are incredibly simple. Plan your meals. Then cook them. But just like starting a new exercise routine is incredibly simple (go out there… and do it) but still takes a lot of learning (what time works best for your body? how much is too much? do you work out better alone or in a group?), so it goes with meal planning. Sure, the basic concept is simple. But I’m not sure yet what works for me. How much should I prep beforehand? Should I plan a full five days of meals every week? Should I shop once a week or two or three times a week? Exactly how long do the different forms of produce last before they start going bad?
I’m terrible at cooking in general, and meal planning is included in that. Rob and I eat dinner together most nights, and he generally does the cooking. The problem is that he can be… indecisive. And I can be… picky. So we often sit around until 6:30 or 7:00pm, trying to decide what to eat. When we finally do make a decision, we need to go shopping and then cook it which usually means eating dinner around 8:00pm. This also means I’ve gotten hungry enough in the meantime to fill up on junk.
It’s a broken system. Obviously. And I really need to fix it during my Ironman training. Fueling is important, and someone like me (who struggles with fueling while training anyway) needs to be especially careful to foster good habits. Rob isn’t a huge fan of meal planning. He’s pretty spontaneous, so the planning meals out a week ahead like that is not natural for him. So I did something rare. I took initiative. I told him we were trying out meal planning because we really had to start eating earlier. And then, I did. I planned out our meals and went to the store to buy everything I needed. (When you look at the picture below, keep in mind that we aren’t “clean eaters.” We typically like vegetables, but we also like white pasta and cheese. Rob is a vegetarian, so that’s the only “food rule” that limits meals we cook together.)
I decided to plan for a full five meals this time around, but I decided against doing any meal prep. The main reason I decided against actually prepping anything was because we had a lot going on Sunday evening. I knew I was up for a busy couple of days (family stuff), so I wanted to take advantage of Sunday afternoon to relax.
Monday: Dinner with Rob’s family
I should have anticipated this when meal planning, but I didn’t. Whoops. I guess we have a meal for the weekend?
This is a pretty basic vegetarian quiche with potatoes, olives, spinach, and green onions. I started dinner right when I got home from the gym just before 5:30pm. Dinner was on the table by 7:15. However, the quiche was baking for 45 minutes of that time, so it only took about an hour to prepare. Making this meal would have been a much shorter process if I had prepped some of the ingredients beforehand. Specifically, I would have cooked the potatoes and grated the cheese ahead of time. Any other meal prep would have saved almost no time (like chopping the green onions) or would have affected the quality of the quiche (like making the pie crust ahead of time). We had half the quiche left over, so a plus of this dinner is that it makes lunches the next day.
Wednesday: Sloppy Joes
Once we decided to go with Sloppy Joes, I was going to send Rob to the store for Fritos. I specifically didn’t buy them when I went shopping on Saturday because I knew they wouldn’t last through the week. However, he was on it and informed me he was going to go pick up some Fritos (he lives right around the corner from the grocery store). I asked him to pick up some baby carrots while he was there to round out the meal a little. I started this meal at 5:00pm and it was ready before 5:30. Since we used fake ground beef, I just had to heat up the mixture. Plus, while it was heating up, I was able to clean up the kitchen and just stir it occasionally.
Thursday: Poor Man’s Casserole
Rob grew up eating this meal. It’s basically shepherd’s pie, but since it was called Poor Man’s Casserole in his family, it’s called that here as well. Rob was in charge of cooking this one. Basically, it’s vegetables (Brussels sprouts, green beans, and asparagus), the leftover Sloppy Joe stuff, and mashed potatoes layered and heated in the oven. This meal takes a while. Rob started it around 4:45pm, and it wasn’t on the table until 7:15. However, most of that time was spent boiling the potatoes and then baking the dish after assembling it. If I wanted to save time, I could make the mashed potatoes a few days ahead of time. If I did meal prep on Sunday and planned this meal for Monday, I could assemble the whole thing, keep it in the fridge overnight, and just pop it into the oven Monday evening.
Friday: Bachelor pasta
Bachelor pasta—two parts pasta, one part garlic, three parts Parmesan cheese. This is a staple for Rob and me. It’s an ever-evolving dish. When we first started dating, it was just sautéed garlic, red pepper flakes, and dried oregano tossed with linguine. Now, it includes green onions and Italian parsley as well (and cherry tomatoes when we’re feeling rich, which we weren’t this week). This meal took about an hour to prepare, but it shouldn’t have taken that long. I cooked the garlic too long (burned it… whoops!) and threw off the whole process. My guess is that this would normally take around 45 minutes to prepare. That time could be cut down another 5-10 minutes if I had chopped the garlic beforehand or if I had a garlic press.
Last week helped me get an idea about what kind of meal planning techniques will work best for Rob and me. Overall, meal planning was a success. We ate dinner much earlier than usual the entire week. There was no hemming and hawing about, trying to decide what to eat. I actually cooked and felt like I was being a contributing member of a relationship. And I didn’t eat potato chips and jelly beans for dinner even once!
In the future, I may make some changes. I may plan for just four meals instead of five. It’s not uncommon for us to have dinner with family or to have some other sort of routine-buster (such as feeling lazy and getting burritos), so planning for four days would allow a little spontaneity. I also won’t worry so much about having everything on hand at the beginning of the week. Rob is lucky enough to live less than a block away from a grocery store, and there’s no reason not to take advantage of that fact. It was no trouble to send him to the store while I was cooking dinner (or vice versa). I noticed that on Friday, the Italian parsley I got over the weekend was looking a little worse for the wear. In the future, I’ll go shopping for the staples over the weekend, but I may hold off on some of the vegetable matter with a shorter shelf-life until I actually plan to use it. I also noticed that, even when you plan for it, cooking is kind of a pain. The only really effortless meal was Sloppy Joes. It would be ideal to make some sort of casserole over the weekend that I can just put in the oven for one meal so that Rob and I can have one evening “off.” Basically, I think the next time I use meal planning (which isn’t this week, unfortunately!), I will be able to approach it will a little more information to make it more effective for my own personal self.
Any meal planning tips for a newbie like me?