Mapping over planning

Some people might stumble, or even fall off the path, when it comes to making (and sticking to) a meal plan. But planning is important. Having a plan allows for making (and keeping) a budget, reduces wasted food and effort, and helps one rise above temptation on a day-to-day basis.

The thing is that a prescriptive plan that lists how and what to eat, then assigns a day to eat each thing, can be a real drag. Maybe you don’t want brown rice pilaf on Tuesday. Only thing is, shifting any one item in the plan often shifts everything else around, since most meal plans rely on prep work that occurs days in advance, or on building a new dish from leftovers. If that pilaf doesn’t happen on Tuesday, you can’t make Wednesday’s Stir-Fry Picante*.

What we opt for was inspired by this set of posts. It’s more of a framework than a plan – all the pieces are there, but it’s up to the cook to decide how to put them together. Instead of having a fridge full of dishes – either leftover or not-yet-complete – there’s a fridge full of convenience food. Everything in there is ready to eat, whether it gets gussied up or not.

Some stuff is raw, but washed and cut up: carrots, celery, radishes and tubs of greens go here. Some stuff is cooked, but relatively plain: steamed broccoli, roasted cauliflower, and sauteed mushrooms, onions or peppers go here. Maybe there’s a batch of cooked grain, like rice, oats or barley; possibly a litre of home-made stock. And there should be at least one sauce, dressing or dip (one of each?) for instant gussying, plus pantry staples like canned beans, tomatoes and coconut milk.

From there, we might add some kind of larger, complete dish (tonight we had a Moroccan-inspired stew), but it’s up to the individual. I made the stew because it’s the end of our week and I was trying to use up some odds and ends; the only thing I bought specifically for it was a can of tomatoes. Tomorrow or the next day (since there’s more than enough stew to last), I’ll dodge over to the market for some fresh veg and start the whole thing over again.

The trickiest balance to strike has been making sure I don’t overbuy, whilst simultaneously ensuring we get enough to eat. We only have the one meal, so we make it count, but there have been a couple of times where what I had to serve fell short. Other times, we’ve had to stuff ourselves before food went bad. The only remedy is time and practise. We’ve spent our entire lives chopping our days up with meals, thinking and planning around three squares per day. Parents, doctors, TV and movies – everything we’ve been told or consumed as media reinforced this as the only way to eat. We’re unlikely to overcome that programming overnight.

So when it comes to a question like, ‘How much?’, an answer isn’t simple. My advice would be to err on the side of less and build up from there, but only because that’s what we did. You might want to find out how much vegetable matter you can stomach in one sitting, then pare back, maybe adding or swapping out for some whole grains (or potatoes!)

The point is that planning can be restrictive and discouraging. Formulating a framework – or drawing a map – combines the best of both worlds. There is structure, but there is freedom; there is restriction, but there is agency.

*It’s fusion.