Meal Planning for Mental, and Marital, Health

I’ve been married for (what can sometimes feel like a thousand) years, but we were pretty much kids when we got hitched, so maybe I can be excused for coming SO LATE in life to this epiphany: meal planning is good for your mental, and marital, health.

How did I not know this before?

All those back-to-back frozen pizza dinners I would have been saved from… All those hangry evenings at the end of a work day roaming the grocery store aisles and snapping at each other for failing to come up with a good and effortless and healthy (is this combination possible?) suggestion…. All the potential of a helpmate gained when there’s a plan for the week already in place!!!

I think I just presumed that meal planning was for a different type of person… a person who alphabetized things, and batch-cooked, and had binders, and got up early to walk the dog, or go for a run and then have a nice soothing cup of tea before everyone else is up. Like, a person whose life is managed by Gantt charts. In short, no-one I actually know in real life, and no-one I will ever be mistaken for.

But, a quick google search for meal planning landed me at this article, which offers reassurance: yes, it *seems* elusive and overwhelming, actually it’s simple, and no, it’s not a big tabbed binder.

And I guess, I’d add, it’s never too late to shake up the hanger and the dinner-time resentment waste pile… and try it.

The pandemic (plus living out of town) really provoked this move at our household. We were keen to cut our trips to the grocery store down to once every two weeks, or more… and so spontaneous dinner selections were out. A weekly conversation – “what dinner ideas has everyone got for this week?” – is painful, not gonna lie, but it’s better to do it once a week, than every single day.

There’s no shame in having solid favourites – Taco Tuesday is catchy for a reason, pizza night is a standby at our place (and we’re too lazy to make our own or thaw out and roll out pizza dough, so we just use pita bread as the base, and as the 9 year old actually eats his, I’m not going to self-flagellate about this.)

When I feel less-than about this, or any of my other culinary offerings for the Small Being Whose Body Is A Temple I am Supposed to Nourish Into Its Fulsomeness, I scroll through for a reminder that judging myself for not having a full-fledged paediatric nutritionist and a world-class whole foods chef, hiding in the body of this mid-life, book-loving, freelance writer, doesn’t help anyone, ever.

Pro tips from the article referenced above are worth mentioning here:

  • Choose meals that bless you with leftovers: They’re the gift that keeps on giving.
  • Cook recipes you know + one new recipe: This is a pro move! Assemble that master list of recipes you know by heart — the ones you make week after week and know your family loves. Then add one or two new recipes each week, but only if you want. 
  • Pick recipes based on common ingredients: This is another pro move and it starts with looking at what you already have in your fridge, freezer, and pantry. Shopping your home kitchen can help you decide on recipes and avoid wasted food. This is the money-saving aspect of meal planning in full effect. 
  • Cook things you really want to eat: You might have to spend some extra time uncovering recipes that are right for you, but it’s worth it if you still can’t wait to eat them. So, we’re saying the obvious on this one: Only cook things you want to eat!

But really it has come down to surfacing the conversation once a week, and inviting everyone to participate. Hey, team, what dinners do we want this week? (Sub-text: hey team, this is everyone’s contribution to make, it’s not just my job as the mom. Contribute suggestions now, or forfeit your write to complain.) The meal planning is, in some ways, the hardest part of cooking every night. Once it’s pencilled in, it’s easier to divide and conquer. The “meal plan” (which is a very fancy branding upgrade for scrap of paper with six to eight dinner ideas scribbled on it, that you’ll probably misplace sometime before Taco Tuesday) informs your grocery list. Someone can do that job now that it’s not all in your head. It lets you move from end-of-a-busy-work-day-brain-death, into mindless meal prep, because the thinking has already been done… And, when people know what’s on the agenda, they can take initiative, jump in, and start prepping. (It sounds like a miracle, but it can, and does, happen.) I think, too, when you have a week roughly planned out, you also create a bit of space for the members of your household to settle into their strengths. I like browsing through cookbooks for new ideas. It’s a kind of glossy fix that helps me chillax, and stay off instagram, when i want to be not disturbed but also in the company of my family. (As Walt Whitman said, I am contradictory, I contain multitudes.)

Significant Other likes grocery shopping. And chopping things into perfectly consistent pieces.

Small likes feeling like he’s got some agency over his life, and sometimes, being part of the meal plan brainstorm helps this.

We’re new enough to this whole process that it still feels like we’re reinventing it each week, coming at it anew, so are nowhere near that next-level where the plan has built-in redundancies, or sees leftovers from Monday inform Tuesday’s meal, or where the freezer is full of soups and lasagnes that we were smart enough to batch-cook as gifts to our future selves. So, all ninja tips are welcome to this space. What does meal planning look like in your household? How do your right-size it if you live alone, or with housemates, or with teenagers or have to try and do all this work in between tending babies and toddlers who all want to be hanging of your body all the time? Curious. And wishing you well.

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