Mental load and menu planning

Sometimes the biggest problem with weeknight dinners is figuring what to make when you get home from work.  Generally you’re somewhat hungry and exhausted from making too many decisions at work and an additional decision, even of just what to have for dinner, puts you over the edge.  Even adults can have low blood sugar melt-downs.

Now, to fix this problem, you could do what one set of our friends does and have the same thing to eat every week.  Monday is chili night.  Tuesday is Spaghetti night, and so on.   (Wasn’t there a commercial about that?)  Problem solved.

We need more adventure than that, however.  Otherwise I might have to take up skydiving, and nobody wants that.  So that means new and different meals that can be made quickly on weeknights with minimal advance planning.  Pantry meals.  Or meals with ingredients that will last between weekly grocery store trips.

There are online services out there that will give you a weekly menu plan complete with grocery list, taking the thinking out of the process.  We tried a couple of these at various points, but they always seem to call for exotic ingredients that we can’t get given our lack of Whole Foods, take much longer than the 20 min we have for making dinner (if the cookbook is called, “20 min meals” it is LYING), and end up leaving mostly unused jars of ingredients in the fridge to rot.  Alternatively, they focus on pouring can of Campbell’s X over Pillsbury Y, which is not only unhealthy but doesn’t taste great if you’re unused to so much processed stuff.   So, a great idea in theory, but in practice they seem to be unworkable.

Fortunately it’s pretty easy to cobble together your own menu plan with minimal mental effort using one or two cookbooks by the mother-son team of Nancy and Kevin Mills.  If there are 1-3 people in your family, use Help! My apartment has a kitchen!  If there are 3-5 people, use Faster!  I’m starving!  Obviously you can use your own cookbooks, but we like these because they are actually accurate in terms of preparation time, they use simple healthy and inexpensive ingredients that work well with a pantry, they have a nice variety of cuisines, and the meals are darn tasty.  For non-meat eaters, Kevin Mills married a vegetarian before writing Faster!, so that book has more suggestions for making the meals veggie-friendly.

Open up your book of choice.  Go to the first section (possibly salads, maybe appetizers), pick the first meal from that section (or the first meal that sounds good).  Write it down on one sheet of paper (or used envelope) and put the ingredients that you do not have on your grocery list.  Then move to the next section (chicken, for example), and pick the first meal from that section, adding its ingredients to the grocery list.  Continue until you have 5-7 meals listed on the paper.  Then go grocery shopping.

When you get home from work on Monday, instead of wondering what to have for dinner, just pick the first meal off the list and ~20 min later it should be ready to eat.  Get the partner and/or kids involved too, if applicable.

What if you don’t feel like that day’s scheduled meal?  That shouldn’t be a problem, just pick a meal further down the list– you should have all the ingredients from all meals on hand.  We usually just have a list of meals, generally one or two more than we’ll be making before we next get to the grocery store.  The default no-think option is the top one, but if that doesn’t sound good, we move to the next.  Also we will often have one night that’s just leftovers (if not all of the leftovers have been eaten as lunches), or people can have leftovers instead of the planned meal.

The idea is that this kind of planning is more flexible than a strict menu plan and also takes less thinking than other forms of deciding what to have for dinner.  There’s a default option for each day each week that is a pretty good option.

Is figuring out what to make for dinner stressful for you?  Have you found ways to cut down on the mental load?

37 Responses to “Mental load and menu planning”

  1. eemusings Says:

    Yeah, I find it tedious and stressful. Yet I can’t do strict meal planning either. I also tend to shop according to what’s fresh and on special (nothing more annoying than finding that mushrooms are ridiculously priced or that there are no green apples to be found at all that week). Some weeks I manage to plan out my shopping and meals to a certain extent but lately it’s been more like ‘oh shit we have no food, time to hit the supermarket RIGHT NOW’. Not sure when a good time to meal plan is. I have my reminder set to Wednesday, but never actually do it, and I am no good at doing it on weekends either.

    TLDR version: I fail on this front and have yet to find a failsafe system that I can commit to.

  2. Practical Parsimony Says:

    When my children were young and I did not work outside the home, I cooked from scratch. I told my husband one day to just tell me what to cook that night because it hurt my head to even think of planning. He was shocked. “But, you love to cook.” He did not get it. I hate the planning of it and had no excuse–had not just come in from work. I was seriously depressed at the thought that for the rest of my life I had to figure out what to cook for dinner.

    Even now, single and cooking only for me, I just cannot deal with planning meals for a week. It is so nice to cook 4 chicken breasts and eat it all week, varying the vegetables every couple of night. I cook a half-dozen sweet potatoes in the oven, make a bowl of slaw, or some other dish that will last a couple of nights, buy tomatoes and salad greens. Then, I can eat what is there in no particular order or combination.

    I will cook lots of brown rice and freeze most of it in portion sizes. A pot of beans gets frozen in portion sizes. When I open a frozen pint of food, I have two meals from it, or I have enough for company.

    By dehydrating and keeping things like onion, celery, peppers on the shelves in canning jars, the mental load is reduced greatly. I never have to look in the crisper and find a half-used pepper going to slime and then have to go buy another right now. I know I should have frozen the rest of the pepper, but sometimes I did.

    So, to reduce mental load, I employ several tactics:
    cooking lots of one item, like chicken, for the week
    freezing portions to use later in any dish
    keeping dehydrated food.
    AND, make no concrete meal plans, keeping choices fluid. Some nights, that means I need to only prepare one vegetable.

    Doing what I do now might not have worked when I had children at home and a husband.

    • Dr. Koshary Says:

      To the extent that I even cook anything for dinner – most of my cooking efforts go toward breakfast and a lunch that I can bring to work – I’m still working more or less along Practical Parsimony’s lines in cooking large amounts of stuff to vary through the work, and freezing portions of things like soups. I can’t even pretend to be at PP’s level, though, in dehydrating and freezing such a wide variety of ingredients as well as prepared dishes. I’m in awe of the efficiency.

      On a side note: I used to have Help! My Apartment Has a Kitchen! I eventually got tired of the straight-ahead Americana style of cooking, but I appreciated the way he walked me through some basic mechanics. (It should tell you something that some close friends of mine gifted me that book, just before I moved to DOU-Town for grad school.) I also appreciated his admission that he once dropped an entire pot of from-scratch bolognese sauce on his kitchen floor, and proceeded to order a pizza while leaving the mess to sit overnight in his frustration. It takes a big chef to admit to the occasional meltdown.

  3. karifur Says:

    The “what’s for dinner? ” problem has always been an issue for me. I don’t enjoy cooking in the first place so it is always a chore to make dinner. When I was single I had processed food for most meals: frozen pizza, canned soup, etc., or fast food. My husband loves to cook but works evenings most of the time so he usually isnt home at dinner.
    To save myself the agony of deciding when I get home, we plan our weekly meals on the weekend. He helps me decide what to make if I can’t think of something, and we buy all the ingredients. During the week if I don’t have time for the scheduled meal, or I dont feel like making it, I just swap it out for one of the others.

  4. Candi @ minhus Says:

    Thanks for the recommendations, I’m going to check them out. Cooking is always a chore for me, but as I’m trying to eat healthier, it’s a must. We usually make the same meals over and over again with several “scrounge your own dinner” nights in between, but I need some new meals to through into the mix.

  5. Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

    There is a lot of individual variation in how much trouble picking meals is for people. My impression is that this co-segregates along the satisficer-optimizer dimension. I can pick a meal in 30 seconds: the first thing that pops in to my head that sounds decent is what I’m having. Physiowife, however, could agonize for a half hour.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I dunno, back when it was just the two of us, figuring dinner out was enjoyable, but once we got jobs and kids the ability to figure out what to make based on what ingredients we had became overwhelming. Creativity stores depleted.

      • Rosa Says:

        Same here. We both used to love to cook, and try new recipes! After 8 years I daydream about just never cooking again. Renting a 2-room apartment and eating raw food or restaurant food for every meal.

  6. bogart Says:

    Looks like those books have some availability (i.e. partial preview) on google books, if anyone (else) is interested in trying them out. I may try the pork chop medallions one in the Faster! book, looks tasty (and easy).

    My first and most effective dinner-planning strategy has been reducing the N. Basically, one weeknight I eat at my mom’s when I pick my son up from her house (DH is out that night). I always offer to bring something and she always declines the offer and cooks supper. Another is always DH’s responsibility. Another DH is out again though at present we are eating as a family at a pizza restaurant where we meet to hand off DS (not healthy — well, for me yes as I get a salad but not for the others, but oh well. It’s one meal a week and not something we’ll do forever). Otherwise if it’s just me and DS I usually do either leftovers or call something like “fruit + cheese” = dinner. Another is my night out and I buy supper or bring leftovers. Another is ostensibly my responsibility but I get home at suppertime (what are these luxurious 20 minutes you mention?) so I either have something prepared in advance (see below) or pick something up. Weekends are often easier because they’re weekends, and we might go out one night, or we have time to cook.

    I just recently bought a small crockpot and am exploring whether that can be used to fix supper. So far I have used it to make a pretty tasty chicken dish (basically, put 4 small chicken thighs, the contents of a bag of frozen spinach, a jar of artichoke hearts after slicing them, and about a half-cup each of cream cheese and parmesan in the pot and cook them. They should be put in in approximately that order (not all at once), each added after the one before it is more or less cooked. This turned out decently yummy as an entree, and leftovers made a good sandwich on sourdough bread), butternut squash soup, and black-eyed peas, so just 1 complete dinner, but something about the slow cooker makes it easy, and I like that its inside is small enough — unlike our big cooker — to go in the dishwasher. Next plan, some version of pork.

    Roasting up a big container, or several smaller containers, of veggies on the weekend is a good strategy though not one I always implement. But like the slow cooker, really easy and then handy.

    I try to keep a few emergency meals on hand and handy. E.g. cooked ground beef, frozen + spaghetti + a bottle of sauce does in a pinch, even if it’s suboptimal on veggies (obviously adding a salad and garlic bread improves things dramatically). Or frozen cooked peeled shrimp + frozen broccoli spears + a jar of artichoke hearts served over pasta. Or decent quality frozen ravioli tossed in olive oil or a jar of sauce. Or breakfast for dinner!

  7. Michelle Says:

    Yes, it’s definitely stressful! It’s something that I’m working on though and have already noticed a drastic change in how much we spend on food every month.

  8. Susan Says:

    I’ll contribute that … Bertoli and PFChang’s frozen skillet meals are quite decent, and have more variety in them (veggies, meat) than I am sometimes capable of creating on a weeknight (spaghetti, sauce), and they are perfectly sized, as in not oversized for the two of us. Yes, I know, teh salts. Newman’s frozen pizza is very good.

    I love to cook and will happily quickly saute up a steak or chicken and pan sauce with couscous, but what gets me is the scrubbing down required afterwards.

  9. nicoleandmaggie Says:

    #2 is failing on the cooking front recently. Usually I do a pretty decent job but I’m having quite a rough week at work, and don’t feel like going to the grocery store. This means I am spending more than I want to on buying lunch at work because I can’t seem to get up the energy (and, sometimes, ingredients) to make lunch ahead of time. I often cook large batches and freeze them, but my freezer is getting empty these days.

    I hope that this weekend I can repair some of this. Meanwhile, to get through the day’s teaching…

  10. NoTrustFund Says:

    Yes! Meal planning is so tedious. We try to plan out meals for the week and do one shopping trip on the weekend. We also try to make a big batch of something, like soup, that can be good for a dinner or two and then lunches. We also generally eat meat earlier in the week and then vegetarian stuff later in the week so we don’t have to deal with freezing/ defrosting meat. Or sometimes all veggie stuff.

    Thanks for the cookbook suggestions!

  11. Debbie M Says:

    For dinner, I usually have cereal in the summer (ideally I would have a salad). Winter is rougher. Sometimes oatmeal, but I prefer something hearty. So I switch between quick things like hotdogs, grilled cheese, omelets, macaroni and cheese. I also try to have one or two superquick (though evil) things on hand such as ramen, canned ravioli, or a TV dinner. For lunch, I make a big batch of something hot and hearty like spaghetti, chili, or taco soup and eat that all week. (My work places are always cold inside, regardless of what the weather is like outside, and I feel stressed, so I want this kind of food.) For breakfast I always have chocolate milk.

    When eating one thing all week, it really has to be yummy. So I don’t want to get too experimental, but I will occasionally try a new recipe. Last year’s winner is I finally got a chili recipe I could make from scratch (instead of a kit) that I liked. The year before, I found a good recipe for spinach artichoke heart pasta. It could still use some tweaking, but is good enough.

  12. oilandgarlic Says:

    My husband and I both suck at dinner planning. He used to be the main cook but with young kids (and a picky eater), it’s been harder and harder for us to come up with meals other than frozen Trader Joe’s foods. We are just too tired by evening. I’m trying the crockpot with limited success. It’s just not my cup of tea. I noticed that our fall-back meals tend to fall along cultural/ethnic lines when we’re busy. I’ll just want to make Chinese stir fry (but often don’t have all the ingredients I want); he can usually come up with some sort of pasta dish.

  13. chacha1 Says:

    Figuring out what to make for dinner actually got a little easier and more fun once I signed up for the organic produce delivery. Once I get my box, I do meal plans around it, then shop to fill in the blanks. Not only are we eating 3x as much produce (easily), I am learning how to do different things in the kitchen, and learning something = not bored.

    As to low-blood-sugar meltdowns: we always have cheese and nuts on hand. If I am hungry to the point of crankiness or mental BSOD, I have a snack. :-)

    I love my slow cooker now, after many years of not using it. Since it’s just two of us, I can do a big chunk of big and fill up the pot with veggies, and we usually eat the results for at least three days.

  14. chacha1 Says:

    Gaaahh … that should be “big chunk of PIG.” LOL

  15. Linda Says:

    Because I really, really hate food waste (not so much because of the cost, but because food is a precious commodity that many people simply do not have enough) I do a bit of planning, but I don’t sweat it. Most of my cooking is done on the weekends, but I also try to fit in cooking one dinner meal during a telecommute day, too. This is most easily accomplished if I’m on a conference call where I mainly need to listen, and spend my time listening while prepping stuff in the kitchen. Unfortunately, there just aren’t enough of those days in a typical week.

    So, most cooking gets done on weekends and I freeze stuff for later. Like PP, I love to have variety in my freezer and be able to pull out something home-cooked for my dinner or lunch. I often keep a few decent frozen entrees on hand, just in case.

    I also have no qualms about eating the same food every day for many days in a row. Two weeks ago I prepared a giant pot of vegetable minestrone in the big slow cooker. The next day I cooked a pork shoulder in the small slow cooker so we could have pulled pork for dinner. We alternated between veggie soup and pulled pork for the week.

    And while I haven’t looked at the books you mention, I will add that even as a 2 person household, I much prefer to have leftovers from my meals so I’d likely only cook from the one for larger-sized meals. To me leftovers are like money in the bank. :-)

  16. rented life Says:

    I bought this notepad for myself (and my mom) It says “the eternal question” at the bottom which just cracked us both up. On there I can mark what my husband’s work hours are, if we’re eating together or I’m on my own, and I pencil a few options. Then one of us (if we’re lucky, both of us) shops for those meals. But we’re flexible too. Sometimes we don’t want things in the order it’s planned so we do same meals in a different order. Sometimes we just want to order a pizza. Last night I had him bring stuff home from work because what I had planned didn’t sound good to me. We’re also both ok with the occasional “I’m too tired, there’s the bread, make yourself a sandwhich.” Having a few options planned out helps, and that built in flexibility helps too. I also know some meals will produce leftovers for the next night, but I max out after two nights of the same thing.

    And while I may “plan” a week or more ahead, we only shop for a few days at a time so that nothing goes bad (our freezer is shit and totally useless, but we’re renting and they won’t do anything about it. So we adjusted.) I realize not everyone can or wants to go to the store more than once a week. My mom will only go once and that’s that. We’ve never been like that (living together 13 years now). Luckily his work is about five seconds from the store. This also helps on days when I think I have everything, realize I don’t and need to ask him to go–it’s easier since he’s already in that area. The grocery store near us used to be good and now isn’t, so sometimes things like garlic, cliantro, basil, etc are “exotic” and we can’t do quite what we want. (We’re looking into other stores, and it seems the day of just going to one store is over.)

    Mom needed the notebook to help her plan ahead. She sometimes did and often didn’t and would come home stressed, not wanting to decide dinner and dad saying “whatever you make is fine.” Then she’d be stressed out. I avoid this by telling my husband to give me three options (more or less depending on shared meals that week). We each can veto an option is it’s not sounding yummy that week. (He’d have taco something every week forever.) I don’t see my parents doing that, but it works really well for us.

  17. MutantSupermodel Says:

    Right now, I’m in a sort of meal planning mode. First of all, my mother and grandmother recently conspired behind my back and have teamed up so that my mom cooks dinner for us Tuesday nights and delivers it when the kids come from karate and my grandmother cooks dinner for us Thursday nights and has me pick it up when I’m home from school. This leaves Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Wednesdays it’s no-kids night so we usually just rummage through the fridge and eat whatever. Some times we don’t even have an actual meal. Monday nights is my lab night and I’m getting home late so I’m trying to make this crock pot night OR alternatively something I can grill in less than ten minutes like fish. Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights can be more fancy. I tend to plan them the week ahead and go backwards- I look in my freezer for meats and then pick recipes. If I have something that needs ingredients, I save it for Saturday or Sunday so I have time in the week. So far its working pretty well. I have Faster! on my wish list as well as that Indian book you recommended. :)

  18. Amy Says:

    This is certainly the eternal question – everyone, everywhere wonders what to have for dinner (or wishes they could) every night. I’ve been working to avoid processed foods as much as possible and cook from scratch with seasonal, fresh foods. It’s taken a while to build up a repertoire of QUICK balanced tasty meals from scratch. My biggest problem is that I go through cycles – I’ll be really good at planning for a few weeks and we’ll have nice meals with little waste and good variety. Then I’ll hit a low point and struggle to come up with anything for a week or two. One thing that has helped is that I keep a running tab of weekly meal plans in my iPhone “notes” app. If I feel uninspired, I can look back and see what we ate last February.

    I also try to cook a big batch of something over the weekend to freeze for later. I love having that mental insurance (“we can always thaw out that chili for dinner…”) but I have a problem – I don’t like to actually eat the things I’ve frozen, because then the freezer is empty again. I have a lovely homemade lasagna with homemade noodles in the freezer right now that is probably nearing it’s expiration date, but I can’t bear to remove it from my mental freezer stock!

    Sadly, I’m stuck in a trench right now. My daughter’s birthday is tomorrow and I’m making individual chocolate bowls for ice cream for dessert, but my current plan for dinner tonight is “sweet potatoes”. (in my defense, it is a REALLY good sweet potato recipe – check it out: Since the kids won’t eat the topping, I should probably add a bit more, so we’re looking at “sweet potatoes” and “asparagus”. If I add a baguette and some cheese, that’s a balanced meal, right?

  19. EMH Says:

    My grocery list is almost always the same: broccoli, asparagus, brussel sprouts, cauliflower (yes, we love the cruciferous veggies!), black beans, corn tortillas, pasta, parmesan, gouda or an aged cheddar or some fancy cheese on sale, vegetable or mushroom broth, quinoa, rice, pasta, baguette, sprouted wheat bread, almonds, almond milk, yogurt, orange juice, lemon, lime, peppers, bananas and apples. Even though we eat pretty much the same foods each week, I alter the preparations. I can make an Asian meal or an Italian dish with these ingredients. Risotto, quesadillas, tacos, pasta with roasted vegetables, etc. I find it easier to have a set list of foods and then go online with my ingredients and find a recipe I like. If I don’t have a particular ingredient in my cupboard, then I improvise. Since my grocery list is almost always the same, I know exactly where everything resides in the store and I can get in and out within a half hour. I hate grocery shopping almost as much as I hate meal planning.

  20. Perpetua Says:

    I use a similar method (though using different cookbooks/recipes). I make a two-week schedule (one out of the 14 days is “take out”); shop every weekend for the week’s ingredients, and then repeat the two week schedule the next two weeks. Because it’s two weeks, we don’t get sick of the meals the way we would if we repeated every week. We repeat until we get sick of it, and then I make another two week meal schedule. I can’t handle coming home from work exhausted with low blood sugar and trying to think through what to make to dinner. Now that I’m on my own with the kids a lot, mostly I eat a fried egg with some kind of roasted vegetable. Or beans and rice.

  21. gwinne Says:

    Yeah, this is a problem in our house, too. At this point I only cook things that can go in the crock pot or that I can prep in about fifteen minutes or less while kids are at school or at night. We have a lot of soup. I did make a lentil curry thing (real simple recipe) last week that was awesome. Also been making a lot of things from Weelicious, though I find the recipes dairy heavy…

  22. Rosa Says:

    We usually plan meals for the week on one weekend afternoon, one person writing down and one person checking the pantry, fridge & freezer for ingredients. Kiddo gets to pick at least one dinner every week – more if they meet adult standards of tasty healthiness. We make a list of meals we can make with what’s on hand and meals we can make after the next grocery trip, and I go to the store either when we run out of milk or before we run out of meals-on-hand, whichever is sooner.

    When I was working full time, we picked tomorrow’s meal and did all the chopping & finding of things after tonight’s dinner, so when one of us walked in the door after work all that needed doing was assemblage. It’s a lot easier to chop onions & peel squash and make sure we’re not out of cumin on a full belly than an empty one.

  23. Cranking through cookbooks again | Grumpy Rumblings (of the formerly untenured) Says:

    […] years ago of cookbooks we have loved.  I love taking a cookbook that is ~100% winning recipes and just trying them all, even if some of them sound a little weird (example:  egg and onion soup from Help! My Apartment […]

  24. Ask the grumpies: How do I deal with meal planning with an uncertain pantry? | Grumpy Rumblings (of the formerly untenured) Says:

    […] course, flexible meal plans take a higher mental load than what you’ve been doing, most likely.  I’m not sure how to get around that if you […]

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