There is nothing in the world I love more than feeding myself and my loved ones food that makes us feel good. The kitchen is my happy place; years ago, a friend described me as a Kitchen Witch and I was like oh my goddess, I Am Seen.
But there’s a difference between preparing a meal in the kitchen because you want to, and the lightly daunting task of feeding yourself every day because you have to. I know you know what I mean — one feeling is like, Ohhh I found a new recipe for Turkish Eggs, I cannot wait to try this out on Saturday morning and the other feeling is like, Oh my fucking god what do you mean I have to think of something to eat for lunch again? And I have to do this tomorrow, too?! This is a racket!
In the face of adulthood, the pandemic, and various health issues, I have come to rely on meal planning as the thing that makes me not feel dread and despair every time breakfast, lunch, and dinner roll around again. (Every day! They really happen every day! What the heck!) I think meal planning as a concept has gotten kind of a sketchy reputation because so much of what is presented online is through the lens of a Perfect Instagram Influencer Mom Or Single Person who has like, matching Pyrex containers and a perfect manicure and thousands of dollars to dedicate to fresh produce, or through a Diet Culture Mindset, or as something you can only do if you’re Very Organized and Very Put Together.
I’m here to say fuck that, and to teach you how I meal plan.
1. Start With What You Have
Like anything you haven’t done before, I think it sometimes feels daunting to Start Meal Planning. That’s why I always tell friends it doesn’t have to be a big deal — you can literally start with what you have.
Think about the upcoming meals you want to plan for. I usually stick with dinners, but sometimes I plan for lunch and breakfast too. If you’re just starting, I’d say pick one genre of meal you want to plan for, and plan no more than a week out. You can grab a piece of scrap paper or simply open the notes app on your phone. Write the dates you’re covering at the top, then make a heading for each meal.
Now, go through your kitchen/pantry/storage space and see what you’ve got going on. A bag of carrots that came in your CSA and you’ve been unable to work your way through? Cool! Crackers you forgot about at the back of your pantry that are lightly stale? Okay! Your favorite salad dressing that you always have on hand? Excellent! I don’t always actually write a list of all these things anymore because I am comfortable doing a visual inventory, but if it’s helpful to you, write this all down. The point is you want to see what you have so you know what you’re working with.
Now is the fun part: start concocting meals you can make with what you’ve got in your house! You can look up recipes either online or in a cookbook, you can rely on staple favorites you love, you can ask housemates or friends or lovers or parents or whoever for their favorite meals with the ingredients you’ve got — the point is just to build a meal plan around what you’ve mostly already got on hand.
Once you’ve got your meals figured out, you can then go through each of them and see if you need to go to the store to fill in the gaps. For example, if you’ve got frozen chicken, carrots, peas, and chicken stock, and you decide to make a soup with these items, you may want to add fresh herbs and onion to the mix. Stick those items on your shopping list. Go through each meal on your page and figure out what you’ll need to supplement what you already have, then take that master list to the store. This way you’re only grocery shopping as much as you have to, and you’ll have every single ingredient necessary when it comes to prepping food for your whole week.
2. Use This Opportunity to Explore
Some people hate cooking and meal prepping, and if that’s you, this step is not for you. Figuring out some basic meals that you can employ to feed yourself and anyone else you’re responsible for feeding, and sticking with those for forever, is absolutely fine and encouraged! Frozen chicken fingers served with frozen broccoli is an absolutely reasonable (and delicious!) item to stick on a meal planning schedule.
However! If you’re someone who finds joy in the kitchen (like me), meal planning can be a tool that lets you explore new recipes, new styles of cooking, and new delicious meals that might become staples.
This meal planning technique is the exact opposite of our first one. Instead of starting with what you have, you get to start with your dreams. Have you been dying to make the latest TikTok trend butter board? HOT. Do you want to do a cute DIY sushi night with friends? HELL YEAH. Did you receive a wok as a gift last Christmas but haven’t actually used it yet? NOW IS THE TIME. Pull out your cookbooks, text your foodie-est friends, go through the Autostraddle food archives, and dream up some exciting new meals to try! Then, once you have your meal plan set for the week, make your grocery shopping list.
Full disclosure: I do not have the energy or the budget to entirely comprise a meal plan like this, even though I’d like to — but I love cooking so much that I usually let myself plan 1-2 meals like this, and use staples we keep in our home to fill in the rest. Mix and match is a great way to meal plan and to decide what might be best for you.
3. Bulk Is Cool, But Not a Necessity
We’ve all seen those Instagram reels of a woman making a ton of protein, veggies, and grains, and then packaging each little group into 5+ containers and proudly signing off with something like “FOOD FOR THE WEEK, COMPLETE!” Mazel tov to that women, but sometimes you don’t want to eat the same thing 5-7 days in a row.
I have a disordered eating past and I have a host of current health issues that make feeding myself challenging. Sometimes, it really is easiest for me to just make a giant batch of something and eat it for 5-7 days in a row. And if this is you too, that rules. I think cooking in bulk can be useful, efficient, and cost effective. I also highly recommend making bulk quantities of food and then freezing it in plastic take out containers if you have the freezer space, because it’s so nice to have a fully stocked freezer of home cooked single serving meals and it also solves the problem of feeling tied to eating the same meal a million times in a row just because you made a bulk size of it.
However! I feel like a lot of meal prep literature focuses only on bulk prep, and I just want to firmly say it is NOT a necessity. The point of this magic is to make a plan so you feel prepared and empowered every day when meal time comes along. If your plan is cooking all your food on Sunday and portioning it out for the week and that works for you, I salute you. But if your plan is essentially a menu list for the week that you plan to prep individually each day between the hours of 5pm and 9pm (listen, sometimes in my house we eat dinner at 9:30pm, it’s not my fault my freelancer schedule and Capricorn work ethic keep me in my office until 8pm some evenings!), I really think that’s great too. Part of demystifying “meal prep” is making it work for lots of different lifestyles and preferences.
In short: you don’t have to commit to cooking in bulk to have a successful meal planning strategy.
4. Keep It Simple
Meal prep does not have to be an elaborate situation. I’m obsessed with those moms who make epic bento boxes for their kids’ lunches, and I’m also realistic enough to know that when I’m a mom one day, I will not be using cookie cutters to make decoratively shaped sandwiches for Vanessa Jr. We want meal planning to be realistic and useful, not aspirational and Instagram-photo-worthy.
If you have easy meals you enjoy, stick those into your meal plan regularly. If it brings you joy to make a huge pot of something and then stick it in matching Tupperware containers labeled both with the date you made the meal and the date you plan to eat it, hot! I empower you to continue that vibe! If you just want a gentle guide for what you’ll be making each night at dinner time because you actually love unwinding in the kitchen and don’t mind making a new meal each night, you just want to know what that meal will be and that you have all the ingredients to make it on hand, that’s a perfect meal planning strategy, too! The goal is to make your life easier however that looks, not by giving prescriptive advice about how you must do this task, you know?
5. Make It Fun
If I’m being honest, I got into meal planning because of a woman I used to nanny for who kept a weekly dinner menu in her kitchen. It was a small blackboard with the seven days of the week printed on it, and each Monday when I arrived to care for her tiny child there was a new menu written on the wall in careful white chalk print. She included things like “leftovers!” and “date night at a restaurant!” along with things like “salmon and rice with simple salad” and “grill night!!! veggie-focused, meat-optional” along with things like “mom out with friends, dad & baby on their own” and “whatever’s in the freezer.” It was the most organized and chilled out method to meal planning I’d ever seen, and I wanted to emulate it.
That was seven years ago (what is time!) and I literally realized my own chalkboard-in-the-kitchen dream JUST THIS WEEK. What took me so long, I do not know. But listen, dreams come true! And now I have a chalkboard, chalkboard markers (actual chalk and all the mess that comes with it is not my dream), and a weekly dinner menu in my kitchen, too. But! For the past seven years where I was weirdly denying myself this incredibly easy to accomplish dream, I kept my dinner menus elsewhere: on my phone, on scraps of paper, in my head… and I learned along the way that there are lots of ways to make meal prep fun.
Like I said earlier, I’m someone with a disordered eating past, and so I initially felt afraid that meal planning might shove me back into an unhealthy mentality about my food. But I’ve been able to do the exact opposite by keeping the activity fun. I focus on food I want to eat, and the things that nourish me and make my body feel good. I explore new recipes. I’m honest with myself — in grad school, a lot of my meal plans were simply “frozen food 1,” “frozen food 2,” “takeout,” “frozen food 3,” “free food at grad event,” etc. That’s fine! It was still a plan, and it still helped me feel organized and grounded and not worried that I would be hungry at 10pm and panicked because I had nothing in my apartment that really worked as a meal.
These days, I collaborate with my girlfriend on our weekly dinner menus, and brainstorming with the person I love about what our week looks like is super fun. We include date nights and specify when she’s cooking or I’m cooking so we have things to look forward to all week. If splurging on cute containers or setting aside $30 each week for a lavish takeout situation makes meal planning more fun for you, do it. If buying a cute kitchen chalkboard makes it more fun, do that too. Don’t wait seven years like I did — do it today.
Do you have a particular way you approach meal planning that I didn’t get into? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.
Practical Magic is a new column that curates how-to articles for living your best queer life, edited by Meg Jones Wall.