It is not easy to find “inspiration” to cook exciting meals more than a year into the Pandemic. On the other hand, I’ve listened to enough motivational podcasts to know that it’s better to take action first, and hopefully, inspiration will follow. So, why not start with your weekly meal plan – something you have to do anyway?
Many weekly meal plan guides online are primarily focused on saving money, saving time, or eating healthy. This guide isn’t one of them. Like all the articles in my “How to Eat Better” series, this one is focused instead on simply maximizing enjoyment in all its forms (i.e. making your weekly meal planning actually fun, efficient and something you might look forward to). I hope you find some helpful ideas here.
Step 1: Develop a “Baseline” Schedule
How many nights a week? Look back at your work and life calendar over the last two months and write down the reasonable number of nights it would make sense to cook dinner at home. For most people, five nights is an ideal target, but you should factor in specific obligations (such as soccer practice, dinner dates, work events etc.) that will have an impact on your schedule. I also recommend focusing on dinner so you do not overwhelm yourself – you can aim to have the same breakfast every day during the weekdays, and to eat yesterday’s leftovers for lunch (or a re-purposed version of the dish) the next day.
Create Consistent “Days of the Week” Categories. Assign each day of the week a catchy category of preparation style or food (not to be confused with theme, which will be explained later) that stays the same each week. This one works well for me most of the time:
- Meatless Monday (vegan or vegetarian)
- Taco-Adjacent Tuesday (any kind of wrap)
- Pasta Wednesday (includes other noodles)
- Rice Dish Thursday (possibilities endless)
- Takeout Friday (or dining out when permitted)
- Big Brunch Saturday (focusing on cooking brunch, but assuming a takeout or dine out on Saturdays)
- Slow Cooking/Roast Sunday (assuming a cozy night in)
Doing this will prevent you from ever drawing a blank when trying to think of what to make. It will also make you (and your family) more excited about your favourite days (who doesn’t love a good Taco Tuesday) while making room to be more restrained on other days (maybe you will learn to love Meatless Mondays one day). Obviously, if plans change or you just have something else you really want to make, you can easily swap or modify at will.
Step 2: Assess Your Ingredients
Before you go into official planning mode, ask yourself the following three questions:
What is in your fridge? Assessing your fresh ingredients to prevent inadvertent food waste. You don’t need to pretend you’re on an episode of Chopped and force kimchi, prosciutto, bell peppers and strawberry jam to get along. Instead, focus on two or three key ingredients you really want to use up, and then think about the cuisines that would lend themselves well to those ingredients. For example, if you have a large cabbage, it might bring you down a Chinese or Eastern European route. If you have a big vat of tahini, you might be inspired by a Middle Eastern menu. A nice jar of olives? You could fall into any Mediterranean-driven world of flavours.
What is in your pantry? If the idea of looking at and sorting through your pantry is overwhelming, start by reading The Ultimate Guide to Pantry Organization. Once you have that under control, you’ll know exactly what you have to work with, and what you may need to pick up at the store. Do not let yourself ever end up with six half-used containers of Italian seasoning lodged in the back of the pantry.
What is in season right now? If you really think about it, this is actually the most important question when deciding what to cook. I subscribe to Foodshare’s Good Food Box so I am often delightfully surprised and guided by the fresh ingredients I get. Otherwise, you can also check websites like Foodland’s Availability Guide to find out what is in season. Peaches, corn, blueberries and asparagus are the most exciting for me, and I have been known to base my entire life for a few weeks around these ingredients when they are at their peak!
Step 3: Choose a Theme Cuisine for the Week
Find a source of inspiration. If you don’t already have a theme in mind or the idea of cooking a different style of cuisine stresses you out, I recommend reading A Cultural Explanation for Why You Can’t Cook first. Once you’ve done that, and also done the assessment in step two above, head to your favourite blogs, cookbooks, or your Pinterest feed and mark off one or a few recipes that might be fun to make or explore. Use this as a starting point to think of the other dishes that would work well together with it.
Stick to one theme. Not only is it fun and exciting to cook in a specific theme for a week, it also helps with reducing food waste. You will be buying ingredients that should be used in multiple dishes throughout the week. If you are making a Thai menu, you will likely have to buy fish sauce, Thai basil, bean sprouts and tamarind, which may not be as often used in other cuisines. If you’re making a French menu, you may want to buy some unique cheeses and mustards that could be incorporated into multiple dinners. Sticking to one cuisine may also inspire you to think more deeply about the food that you are making, its cultural origin, and perhaps even learn about a new ingredient or technique.
Step 4: Make Your List and Make it Fun
Write it down properly. Now, this is an important but shameless plug. An underrated part of meal planning is finding a really nice pad of paper or notebook that you will reach for, and dedicate to meal planning every week. I believe so strongly in this that I literally designed and produced this weekly meal plan notepad which you can purchase from Chu on This Studio! I have designed it to be very intuitive for the meal planning process – days of the week on one side, and a “don’t forget” and “the details” section on the other side.
Enjoy the process. This might sound a little unrealistic, but if your schedule permits, try to schedule your meal planning, and during a time where you are not stressed or frazzled (i.e. after a long workday). I find that after breakfast or brunch on Saturday is the best time. Even better, play some relaxing (even thematic) music and make yourself another cup of coffee while you’re at it. Do it the day before your dedicated main shopping day, and before you know it, you’re going to be loving the weekly meal planning process.
Here are a few of plans to spur some further inspiration:
How to Eat Better is a series dedicated to the art of making the most out of your dining experiences, no matter how big or small. “Better” can mean healthier, larger quantity, cheaper, more extravagant, or more ethically sourced in different contexts. But for our purposes, “better” simply means maximizing enjoyment. For more tips on How to Eat Better, check out the other posts in this series.