We’ve all seen them: the decorative chalkboards marked with each day of the week and designed for you to write down what you’re going to make for dinner. I see these boards with a bit of admiration and skepticism. In theory, I like meal planning boards; but in reality, they haven’t worked for me.
I’ve tried sitting down on Sundays and planning out meals for the week, but I rarely stick to it or it causes me more stress than help (the opposite intention of meal planning). It wasn’t until I read Reading People: How Seeing the World Through the Lens of Personality Changes Everything that I realized how personality has a huge influence over how we plan and structure our days. I realized that I am more excited about possibilities than plans, which, if you’re familiar with Myers Briggs, is a classic P (perceiver) thing to say. I’m good at improvising and using up random ingredients or leftovers in a new way, but I’m not as good at planning exactly what we’re going to eat each night and sticking to it.
The end goal of meal planning is to make mealtime simpler. Hopefully, meal planning helps you waste less food, save money, eat healthier, prioritize time with your family, avoid frequent trips to the grocery store, and avoid going out to eat as often. If you can find a way to feed your family and accomplish some of these goals without traditional meal planning, then that’s a win, right?
So, despite my seeming inability to create and stick to a weekly meal plan, I usually get dinner on the table. Here is how I do it, without needing to plan ahead too much: I have a mental list of about a dozen meals or recipes that I can prepare quickly (usually in less than 30 minutes). I also stick to a general formula for dinner: protein + complex carb + vegetables and/or fruits. Sometimes I enjoy branching out and trying new recipes, but this is more of an exception than the norm.
Here are some of our favorites:
- Garlic parmesan chicken. Chicken breasts dipped in olive oil and minced garlic, then coated in bread crumbs and grated parmesan cheese. Put in the oven for 15-20 minutes at 350. So simple and delicious. Add rice or quinoa and some sautéed veggies and you’re done!
- Mini meatloaves. It seems like people hate meatloaf but we love it! The trick is to bake it in muffins tins so it cooks faster, is individually portioned, and makes storing leftovers easier. Here’s the recipe I use, though I find it’s pretty adaptable: 1 lb. ground beef or turkey, ½ C oats, 1 egg, 1 C shredded cheese, a couple cloves of smashed garlic, a sprinkle each of basil, oregano, and black pepper, 1 t salt, and ¾ C milk. Stir it all together and scoop into 12 muffin tins. Top with marinara sauce (we prefer this to the traditional ketchup). Bake for 15-20 minutes at 375. For sides, I like roasting potatoes and carrots in the oven while the meatloaves bake.
- Breakfast for dinner! Pancakes (I love the Kodiak mixes—healthy and quick), eggs, chicken sausage or bacon, and fresh fruit.
- Pasta. I often go through the fridge and sauté whatever vegetables we need to use up, then add a jar of marinara sauce and voila! Lately, I’ve been using lentil/bean-based pastas because it’s a great way to add extra fiber and protein without needed to add meat (though I sometimes do make meatballs or add ground beef to the sauce). Add a salad or baby peas on the side.
- Fajitas or tacos. These are great even if you’re out of one of your normal taco parts—don’t have tortillas? Just substitute chips or rice and make it a taco bowl. Don’t have sour cream? Add a little plain yogurt. Don’t have salsa? Just add a little extra onion or cherry tomatoes. Out of meat? Season a can of black beans with your regular taco seasoning.
- Curry or stir-fry. Sauté some cauliflower or broccoli (or whatever you like) in olive oil and add a can of drained chickpeas or diced chicken, and then add a jar of curry sauce (I really enjoy the Simply Balanced curry at Target) and simmer it together for a few minutes. Put rice in a rice cooker and you’re done! This meal takes me just 15 minutes to prepare.
- Omelets. I know I already mentioned breakfast for dinner, but the frequency at which we make omelets for dinner makes them feel like a staple. Sauté any veggies you need to use up (we prefer bell peppers, tomatoes, spinach/kale, and onion) then add in the eggs, top with any cheese or diced meat you want, sprinkle with salt and pepper, fold the egg, and done! You can serve toast, hash browns, tater tots, or roasted potatoes on the side.
- Pizza. When we make homemade pizza, I like to use this easy-to-make crust recipe. Or sometimes I buy a bag of pizza dough at Trader Joe’s (aren’t these the best?) and then make the pizza. Our favorite toppings on pizza are sautéed garlic and mushrooms, pepperoni, bell peppers, and oregano. If I’m not up for making pizza, I’ll put a frozen pizza in. I often make green smoothies to go with our pizza.
- Ziti or lasagna. I don’t make baked pasta super regularly but they are one of my favorites. We love to have them when we have people over for dinner. It’s wonderful if you can make two at once and freeze the other one for another time. I rarely remember to do this, but you’ll forever thank yourself if you do!
- Salads with protein. Do any of you feel like salads are only good if someone else makes them? I’m guilty of this! I have discovered a few secrets to a good salad. It needs to have some substantial protein like chicken, something crunchy like nuts, and a good dressing.
Some of our staples are also seasonal. In the summertime, we grill out about once a week. In the fall and winter, I cook a roast with root vegetables in the crockpot regularly.
I recognize that as our family grows (I’m having another baby in November), I may need to adjust how we get dinner on the table, but for this season of my life, having some basic dinner ideas on rotation works for me.
Have you found any ways to make meal “planning” work for you? I’d love to hear about them!