Vintage black and white photo of a woman looking at a TV dinner box
(Photo: William Gottlieb/Corbis/Getty)
Healthy Habits

A Chronic Non-Planner Takes on Meal Planning

I love to cook, but finding time to make dinner remains a challenge. I figured it was time for an assist.

Vintage black and white photo of a woman looking at a TV dinner box
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I am not an organized person. I was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder at the age of 12, and I’ve always had a hard time planning ahead. I move through my days chaotically, arriving at meetings late and forgetting when I’ve scheduled an appointment with someone. I always hope I’ll get to that after-work yoga class or make time to read the novel on my nightstand, but more often than not, I don’t. That internal voice that’s supposed to tell us when to stop what we’re doing so we have time for what’s next? I don’t have it.

For the past year, I have made a conscious effort to take the reins and create healthier routines for myself. At the top of the list is something that may seem basic: carving out time to cook and eat my meals at a reasonable hour. For me that’s a real challenge: I rarely do any advance thinking about a menu, which translates into lots of late-afternoon burritos for lunch and frozen meals or takeout on nights I’m responsible for dinner. (That is if my fiancée, Erin, doesn’t get hungry first and figure things out.) It is a miracle if I get home from work in time to make something from scratch.

The irony in all this is that I really love to cook; I simply struggle to fit it into my schedule. Perhaps if I could find a way to prepare and eat three home-cooked meals a day, it would lay the foundation for a healthier and more organized routine. Not to mention the money I’d save, the waste I’d reduce, and the goodwill I’d build with Erin.

Enter meal planning.

To be honest, I’d always thought of meal plans as the domain of fitness influencers and frantic parents, but I had to admit that I needed help. I found a Mediterranean plan in our sister publication Clean Eating, with recipes incorporating do-ahead components that looked delicious and unfussy. For breakfast there were egg, spinach, and feta breakfast burritos and tahini shakes; for lunch, salads with Halloumi and baked falafel; and for dinner, harissa salmon, meatballs with roasted vegetables and tzatziki, and artichoke chicken thighs.

To be honest, I’d always thought of meal plans as the domain of fitness influencers and frantic parents, but I had to admit that I needed help.

On a recent Sunday, Erin and I went to Whole Foods with a massive grocery list. We piled a cart high with vegetables, meats, herbs, sauces, and cheeses. When we got home, I went straight to work. First up, breakfast burritos: I prepped enough for every other day of the week. Then I baked falafel, roasted Halloumi, simmered lentils, and chopped salad veggies. I snapped everything into containers, threw them in the fridge, and marked my Google Calendar with what we’d eat each day at Chez Luke.

Mornings went great—we zapped our burritos in the microwave, and they kept us full until lunch. For the salads, I tossed the ingredients into a Tupperware bowl and brought it to work, along with a little container of dressing. Having a nutritious, filling meal waiting for me in the office fridge when my stomach started to grumble felt like a revelation. But dinners proved to be a challenge. I didn’t have time to prep those recipes sufficiently, and they weren’t large enough, portion-wise, to afford us leftovers for two. As the end of the workday approached, half of my brain power shifted from task lists to ingredient lists.

The following week, I focused on meals that would be easier to modify for larger portions, like a kale salad with sweet potato and sausage that I doubled to last several days. In the process, I learned that I needed to build in time to read through and visualize the recipe, not just skim it and scribble down the ingredients. That way I’d have a sense of how involved the preparations would be, and of what I could do ahead of time to make life easier.

Erin and I ate extremely well during those two weeks, and we avoided takeout and frozen food entirely. That in itself felt like a success, though it was also clear that planning several meals every week was not going to be sustainable for us. Still, I learned to exercise some rarely used muscles—scouting recipes, thinking ahead to the week’s meals, and prepping ingredients. More important, I rediscovered the joy and satisfaction of cooking, and ate healthier, more delicious food. That felt worth making time for, even if I’ll still be grabbing a pizza on the way home from work every now and then.

From January/February 2023 Lead Photo: William Gottlieb/Corbis/Getty

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