Meal non-planning: another approach to family dinners

We’ve been in the thick of the school year for a few weeks now, and even though school mornings often make me want to pull the sheet over my head and stay there forever, I would say that overall, we’re glad for the routine and the structure that the school year brings. It’s a needed and welcome change from the lazy, hazy days of summer.

But our life is busier than ever. Everything I wrote in my last post still holds true – there’s not much that’s simple for us these days. We value a life of simplicity, we work towards it in many ways, but life circumstances beyond our control are making the pursuit of simplicity an uphill battle. What’s a girl to do?

I still look for ways to simplify where I can. For us, one big area of simplification lately has been meal planning. Or, as I like to call it, meal non-planning. What do I mean by that?

Well, meal planning is one of those areas that easily gets over-complicated for me. I like the idea of it, but I often end up choosing recipes with too many ingredients, that are too fussy, too time-consuming – you get the idea.

Meal non-planningFor example: a casserole might sound easy, and I know my family will enjoy it, but if I have to pre-cook this and pre-cook that and chop a million things and put it all together and then I still have to bake it…nope. Not for this season of my life. No way.

And don’t even get me started on those recipes that call for 1/2 cup of chopped leeks, but you have to buy the whole bunch, and then the rest of them just rot away in your crisper drawer…I’m sure you have no idea what I’m talking about, right?

At the same time, we wanted to get back to some healthier eating habits – more veggies and more real, unprocessed foods. After a summer of too many chips, guacamole, and frozen margaritas, we needed a little kick in the pants.

So, lately we’ve been trying something new, and so far, it’s working out really well.

First of all, we re-joined a CSA (community-supported agriculture). And we chose one that delivers all the veggies straight to our front porch! Yay! That equals less time at the grocery store. (We even have the option to add staples such as eggs, bread, and meats. We haven’t tried too many of those extras yet, but we may.)

Meal non-planningI’ve heard a lot of people say that they don’t like the idea of a CSA because it makes meal planning difficult. And if you’re making lots of complicated recipes with very specific ingredients, then of course I can see why that would be true.

However, we are loving the assortment of veggies that arrives on our doorstep each week – the surprise element, the opportunity to try new foods, and the built-in accountability to eat seasonally and locally. But what are we eating alongside all those veggies?

Simple: we choose one or two of the veggies from the CSA box, and then we add a protein and cook it deliciously. That’s it. Our dinners are simple and fresh, fast and healthy. Really.

Here’s an example: our box this week contained, among other items, red potatoes and green beans. So, we simply boiled the potatoes, roasted the green beans with some garlic and coconut oil, and added a protein of cod fillets sautéed in butter in a cast-iron skillet.

It was delicious and easy. Add basic condiments such as parsley and salt and pepper, and you have a tasty and simple dinner.

Another example from last week: boiled corn on the cob from our CSA box, plus sliced tomatoes (from the box) sprinkled generously with salt and pepper, lettuce (also from the box) with dressing, and chicken sausages heated under the broiler.

Meal non-planningOften, we only prepare one veggie with the protein. If we do that, we make sure it’s a green, not a starch. We add the starches when we’re feeling hungrier, have a little more time to cook, or want something a little fancier. And we usually try to cook enough food to make sure that my husband can take leftovers to work for lunch the next day, so adding a starch will often help stretch the meal to that end.

I know that for many of you who live farther north, the growing season will be over soon, but you could easily implement these same ideas with produce from your local grocer.

You could even use frozen veggies, if you’re nervous about them going bad before you eat them all up. But I recommend switching to fresh once you get into a rhythm – you’ll notice a big difference in the flavor and texture.

We still prepare the occasional fancy, complicated meal with lots of ingredients…but not on weeknights. Definitely not on weeknights. And usually not on Sunday nights either (those are most likely to be composed of leftovers, smoothies, and maybe some popcorn).

If meal planning has seemed daunting to you, or if you can’t figure out how to make it work in a simple and efficient manner, try the meal non-planning approach. Forget the long lists of complicated ingredients and the multi-step recipes.

Just pair a protein with a veggie or two, and let go of any guilt or stress when it comes to meal planning. Bon appétit!

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20 Comments

  1. Shelley

    That’s just what we do. I buy dried beans and periodically cook up a bunch in the crockpot to freeze in meal sized portions. I buy chicken breasts in bulk and freeze individually (1 lrg is plenty between me and hubby). I buy bags of fish fillets from Aldis or the fish market and trays of large eggs at the green grocers. We rotate through these proteins – red meat is an occassion treat. Then we get veg and fruit every week at the green grocer -usually a bit too much – and then race to eat it all before it goes off. Stir fries are our go-to choice, also omelettes and casseroles. I almost never use recipes and when I do I almost never stick to them, but substitute with what I have. I don’t buy leeks, I would use onions instead. My meal planning happens on the day when I pull some protein out of the freezer and check that we have a few colourful veg on hand.

  2. Betsy

    It’s funny how the more regimented my meals are the more money I spend on food and for some reason the less healthier they become. I have a monthly budget that I try to stick to and buying unnecessary ingredients ( such as a spice I may use once) really adds up. Now I keep things simple. A protein, two vegetables if we are really hungry and that’s it. Sometimes oven roasted potatoes or a grain. Chicken breasts or a large turkey breast are great for lunches the next day. We hardly ever eat beef……maybe a pot roast once a month when it’s colder out. The simpler I keep meals the healthier they are and my budget is healthier too.

  3. Shirley

    This is exactly what we do too! We also buy meat in bulk and freeze them in meal portions so we just take out what we need to go with the veggies we have that week. Sometimes we run low (like right now) and if I’m too lazy to grocery shop the veggies become soup and chili and paste sauce. So easy and so good. 😀

  4. Lisa Gordon

    We love leeks so we buy the bunch and chop them up and store them in the fridge ready to go. Throughout the week we add them to everything like soups, scrambled eggs, stir frys, etc. When they are clean and chopped and ready to go, we end up having a lot less waste.

  5. Libby

    I love the diversity in meals that you get through your CSA box! We don’t have that option where I live and if I don’t plan, we get in a rut so easily. But for times when I’m feeling lazier than usual (and mind you, I don’t have kids or anything like that), I do exactly what you’re talking about. Get whatever veg is on sale and add a protein. It’s perfect for those days when you’re tired of making decisions. 😛

  6. Emily

    My meal plan is similar – “Whatever’s on special when I get to the market” is what we eat for the week, and on Fridays it’s “whatever’s left in the fridge because I’ll be shopping again tomorrow”.

    I try to cook double quantities when I can, to save time the next day. Sometimes that plan is foiled by a hollow 16yo boy, but usually it works.

    The kids are on a schedule for who helps with dinner each night. The younger two help, and the older two cook (but I tell them what there is, and advise if necessary). The goal is that by the time they move out they will know various ways of cooking most things. And having helped prep makes the little ones far more likely to at least try things.

  7. Linda Sand

    I lIke to precook proteins. On one day we’ll throw a roast in the crockpot, chicken and bacon in the oven, and steaks or pork chops in the sous vide. Individual portions can be frozen for later. In the summer these often go on salads; in the winter they become stir-frys that take even less time and energy since the meat is already cooked. The steaks sometimes get seared on a hot griddle and served with baked potatoes and salad to make a special meal. We find that varying the sauces makes us feel like we are eating a wide variety of foods even when they are made from the same basic ingredients so we sometimes make a few sauces on a cook-up day as well.

  8. Rebecca

    Simple! Love this! Thanks for sharing. I tend to plan, but this sounds healthier and easier.

  9. Buzzy Hansen

    Thanks for the reminder about how simple delicious meals can be. I needed this!

  10. Tracy

    We too are CSA people, Northern Folk (MN) and our CSA goes through February. I want to use your ideas to see if that simplifies things for me. I also belong to a meal swap group that has 10 families that prep freezer meals and swap every 6-8 weeks. I have worked for a long time to meal plan and it is hard to predict what is going to go south in the frig throughout the week. I have a hybrid where I plan and shop 2x per week based on when I find out what is coming in the box and about 4 days later when I need to plan based on what is starting to droop. I also have a base recipe for quiche, stir fry and soup that make for a easy variety based on the vegies coming in throughout the seasons. I have had to search (and it has taken a couple years) for our family friendly go recipes for cabbage. We get those in our box a bit more than the kids like and the purple cabbage cannot be disguised. I now have a new goal of making a simple protein make ahead day.

  11. Beth

    An easy starch is white rice. (Or brown, I guess). I know rice gets a bad rap but but close to half of the world’s population eats it almost daily – and it’s not the overweight half of the world :). After living most of the past five years in China I really appreciate the simplicity of rice – no peeling, chopping, etc. If you don’t like it plain you can always add herbs or seasonings before you cook it. Leftovers are easy too – chop up the veggies and meat (or substitute an egg) from the night before, add them to the rice from the night before and “fry” it up in a non-stick skillet with a little or no oil. That’s basically what fried rice is in China – a main dish chopped up and added to day-old rice. I do suggest you buy decent rice – basmati, jasmine, etc. – and learn how to cook it right. My mom was a bit surprised when I brought home a 15lb bag of jasmine rice a while ago, but last night she said “It really does taste better! We might have to get some more!”

  12. amanda

    I like this idea but sometimes lack inspiration for how to prepare sides (veggies). And during busy work seasons I often don’t have time or energy to cook each day, so I like to make a couple of big meals (like a big soup/stew or curry) to have leftovers throughout the week. Still, the idea of simplifying is definitely appealing because I too can overcomplicate meal planning and never get past that stage! Thanks for sharing.

  13. Regina S

    Yea! Finally, some validation for my hob-nob approach to meals. We live in MA, where farm stands and CSAs abound, so I just go pick out what vegetable and fruits look good, and pair them with a carb and protein. Often the protein is cheese, because I’m not a big meat eater.

    Thanks for the ideas (and support)!

  14. Colleen Higgs

    This is so timely.

    I am intrigued by these meal planning services that I keep hearing about. They sound wonderful but… they aren’t going to work for me right now. I’m pretty confident that on any given day, I could not find all the ingredients called for in this part of rural Argentina.

    Even if I visited every grocer in town.

    When the selection is limited, you figure how to eat what is available and it ends up working much as you’ve described here. Thanks for reminding me that this is not a lesser approach. It’s just what works.

  15. Theresa

    You are eating like we do a lot of the time. Not only is it easier and quicker, but it takes so much hassle out of cooking and the taste of fresh veggies is addicting.

  16. Hollander

    This is normal growing up in the Netherlands. We buy the veggies in season or what’s on sale, and add a protein. Multi-ingredient meals are for birthdays, weekends, or holidays.

  17. Becky

    I am generally a fan of more traditional meal planning. Like a couple other commenters I usually decide on a protein for the week (usually a version of chicken: breast, thighs, bone-in, whole, etc) cook the whole batch once in the oven or crock pot and I have 1 meal that night and then divide the rest into containers for other meals based on what I planned for the week. Having it planned out ahead of time takes the “what am I going to do with this?” Question out of my evenings. I also admit I love reading recipes as much as old novels and I enjoy my meal planning evening. It makes me feel prepared and organized for the week.

    That being said, this approach does sound lovely and graceful and practical. I may give it a whirl the next couple weeks.

  18. Lori

    I’ve had the wrong mindset about a CSA box, even though I love the thought of it. I love your approach!

  19. Natasha Red

    Love this! We do the exact same thing. Aren’t CSA’s that deliver amazing? I got super burnt out on making complicated meals after my first daughter was born, and learned quickly that this season was not for that kind of cooking. Now we work to keep things as simple as possible and we’re healthier (I think) and a lot more happy 🙂

  20. Tara

    We’re from Europe (after the election we’ve had family in the US if there’s room for them over here :)), living out in the countryside and, as of late, are building house as part of my hubby’s birth farmhouse… We are surrounded by apple, walnut, cherry, etc. trees and are enjoying many meals with nuts and apples right now. Katie, your article could have been written by me! Though we don’t make use of our local organic CSA-type deal, I spontaneously get what’s on sale, local and in season …. always intrigued by meal-planning systems but this way turns out to be the one I deal with best and is most affordable. I like to have the pantry stocked well, so I can be very spontaneous with the fresh goods. Milk products and many cheeses like Feta keep in the fridge REALLY long.

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