Let’s talk about eating logistics. If you like to eat fresh/whole/minimally-processed/REAL food, you have to plan, shop, and cook. It takes some time and effort, but it is an essential form of self-care.
Luckily, since we have to eat every day, we get a lot of practice at this task. With experience, we optimize. We can get better at working smarter, not harder.
Done properly, getting systematic about your Food Plan can improve your quality of life. It can save you time, money and stress. It can help you align your goals with your reality. It can streamline your efforts, freeing up your creative energy for bigger and better things, while keeping yourself well-fed and SANE.
We all live different lives and have different needs, so the elusive “ideal” meal-planning strategy will look different for all of us. In fact, our own individual lives and needs are in constant states of change, so it’s only natural for our strategies to evolve. At the present moment, the steps below are a few of the guiding principles or mental waypoints I’m following each week as I hone my Food-Prep Strategy.
1. Organize Your Thoughts
I write myself a lot of notes. It makes life easier. Remember how I mentioned freeing up creative energy for bigger and better things? A well-organized “system” can lighten your brain’s burden. I like to use Evernote to capture thoughts and outsource memory; it makes it easy to create a tidy hierarchy of notebooks for different topics, and to view/edit my notes on both my computer and phone.
Presently, my “meal planning” process doesn’t involve assigning specific foods into slots on a calendar (too fussy for me). Instead, I like to maintain an ongoing list to help me keep track of my options and priorities in the kitchen. It’s a living template that I update whenever I have a new idea, reassess when it’s time to go shopping, and refer to when I need to figure out what’s for dinner.
2. Bulk Prep Vegetables
This is a habit I’ve picked up from one of my all-time favorite books about food, Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace. I wouldn’t dare discuss Food-Prep Strategy without mentioning this classic. It’s meditative, elegant, humble, empowering, and if you’re interested in the logistics of eating well, you should order it right now – but I’ll try to stick to my point.
I’m talking about preparing vegetables batch-wise before you need them, rather than leaving them raw for your harried mid-week self. I’ve always loved my dark leafy greens, but lately I’ve taken our relationship to the next level. Every week, I fill my pressure cooker to the brim with chopped kale, or collards, or chard. Simply steamed, they enhance my meals all week (a la All-Purpose Greens). For other vegetables, I like to roast. I line my biggest sheet pan with foil, toss chopped vegetables with olive oil/salt/pepper, then stick them in a hot oven (400-425 F) until tender/crisp. My favorites for roasting are broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, squash, peppers, and onions – alone or in medleys.
3. Protein Planning
I include some meats, poultry and fish in my diet. Quality is important, and since these can be some of the most costly groceries I purchase, I try to optimize. When I sit down to plan my weekend shopping list, I’m working on falling into a comfortable rhythm that follows this pattern:
- Take your pick of any one “specialty” ingredient (this is a good time to shop the sales) to keep things varied and interesting: eg. fresh fish/shellfish, beef roast/steaks, or a whole chicken. Buy enough to enjoy and have leftovers, then…
- Maintain an inventory of other “go to” proteins and rely on those for quick on-the-spot meals. The foods in this lineup are inexpensive and less perishable than category 1, so I can keep a full arsenal and don’t have to stress about using things up right away. I assess my stocks of these back-pocket staples before my weekly shop:
- fridge: eggs, tofu
- freezer: chicken breasts, sausages
- pantry: canned tuna, beans and lentils
4. Bread Baking Habit
I know this one isn’t for everybody, but I have always loved baking bread. Furthermore, I love good bread and I hate bad bread. For these reasons and others I’ve discussed before, I’m getting to be close friends with my sourdough starter, and making an effort to engineer a baking habit into my schedule. I haven’t mastered the routine yet (I still buy my fair share of sandwich loaves) but I’m gradually leveling up to be a better baker.
5. Stock Fallback Foods
Even though most of these steps are centered around home-cooking, not every meal is made from scratch. I always keep my kitchen stocked with a couple of back-up options for nights that I don’t have time or inclination to cook, mostly sourced from the freezer aisle at Trader Joe’s… frozen curry/naan, fish sticks, and veggie burgers are some of my typical picks for this category.
6. Wholesome Snacks
Key word: whole. In the realm of snacking, my goal is to set myself up to eat more whole/minimally-processed foods without thinking about it. My main squeezes are fresh/dried fruit and nuts (fun fact: my #1 favorite snack on planet Earth = salted in-shell pistachios). I also like yogurt, olives, and whole grain crackers with dips like hummus or babaganoush.
7. Don’t Forget Treats
Finally, don’t forget that food is a source of more than just nutrients – it should also provide JOY. Along with all the wholesome foods in my nutrient-dense arsenal, I also make sure my household is equipped with a little something special. These are the hygge snacks, if you will – foods that give us the warm and fuzzies. For example, my pantry feels naked without popcorn and hot cocoa mix. I’m always tinkering in the kitchen, and my experiments produce a steady stream of various goodies. When your nutrition strategies revolve around getting plenty of the good stuff (see items 1-6) instead of avoiding the “wrong” foods, there’s no need to be restrictive (on that note, now is the time to recommend my other favorite book in the Eating Logistics category: Ellyn Satter’s Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family.)
After all, the whole point of all this effort is to EAT WELL and FEEL GOOD. Happy strategizing & bon appetit!