There’s a reason why the peanut butter sandwich is one of the most commonly used examples for a cheap and quick meal.
If you’re busy and on a budget, your meal plan might include all of two criteria: easy and affordable. On paper, that seems like a pretty simple and achievable set of requirements, but it’s surprisingly difficult to coordinate ingredients that translate into actual meals. Enter the easy and affordable peanut butter sandwich! But that won’t cut it three meals out of the day. So what exactly is it about meal planning that’s so tough – especially it feels like your you’re only aiming to fill a few basic needs?
The reasoning comes down to the lack of boundaries set in meal planning rather than faultiness with the basic requirements. When you’re guided by generalities (cheap and easy for instance) instead of specifics, it’s like having a map without clearly marked roads.
In my personal experience, it was only when I realized exactly how lost I was (and how much time, energy and money I was wasting) in my meal planning that I set out to make a more effective system and make the necessary changes to put it into action. With the end goal of reducing my food costs and saving money.
Though general needs or requirements won’t give you the direct route, they’re still essential when laying the groundwork to your plan. To begin with, I suggest narrowing it down to the three “biggies” that you’d like to incorporate into your everyday meal plan. They’ll give you direction – and from there you can define the course.
In my case, I wanted my meals to be:
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I love to cook but I don’t love to feel chained to the stove top. I can spend an enjoyable 45 minutes playing Iron Chef in the kitchen but after that I’m ready to change gears. Ideally, a weeknight meal is finished and ready for feasting in 30 – 45 minutes. Tops. If possible, that includes clean-up too.
I’m a big fan of trying out new foods but am wary of long lists of ingredients. Rarely have I found quick and cheap meals to be made up of 36 ingredients. On top of that, complicated recipes don’t always translate into culinary genius. Some of the best meals I’ve eaten are basic and simple.
Though I could happily live on quesadillas, I’m not sure how my heart would respond to such a limited diet long term. In lieu of finding out firsthand, I consider green things and vitamin-dense foods a top priority.
After pinpointing important basics, it’s time to focus on a specific detail within those “biggies” that would help to guide me towards feasible recipes. Without these realistic boundaries and expectations, meal plans can result in a whole lotta work being put into finding recipes that only vaguely fit in.
This can be accomplished by further defining the first set of requirements:
Quick defined in my meal plan meant minimal prep time
Chopping and prep work are usually the most time consuming element of cooking – at least in my opinion. You can’t walk away from an onion and count on it to chop itself, unlike when you put rice in a pot and turn on the burner knowing that it will cook even if you’re doing something else. It’s tedious, and it can add a ton of time to the overall recipe.
Unintimidating defined in my meal plan meant no more than 7 main ingredients
One of my favorite mastered meals hits below this limit of ingredients and is still something I would make for guests as well as just to enjoy myself.
Knowing I can make something that looks and tastes good with so few ingredients is a major point of inspiration when choosing other recipes. I don’t usually count seasoning like salt, pepper or any other powdered spice or herb since they’re easy to add and don’t require chopping or prep. But, setting a limit on the number of main ingredients makes browsing for recipes much less challenging.
Healthy defined in my meal plan usually contained at least three different colors
As I mentioned before, I could live on quesadillas. But cheese and tortillas is a bit monochromatic and seriously lacking in the veggie department. Adding in grilled bell peppers, onions and topping it with salsa and avocado brightens it up and boosts the health factor. There are some stipulations. When I say colors, I’m usually referring to the veggie factor. Adding rainbow sprinkles doesn’t count.
By laying out the specifics and defining how to meet those requirements I created a kind of “meal template.” When I find a recipe that meets all the the above specifics (and that looks like something I’d enjoy), then I keep it and add it to my arsenal of meals. Kind of like favoriting it, and saving it for later.
With that template in mind, here are a few examples of meals on my weekly menu that fit the bill:
- Whole wheat bagel, roasted red peppers, chive cream cheese (check, check, check)
- Yogurt, grilled fruit, toasted walnuts, honey (check, check, check)
- Grilled chicken, avocado, tomatoes, grainy mustard, sourdough bread (check, check, check)
- Chickpeas, sweet red onion, sliced olives, feta cheese, leafy greens, olive oil, balsamic
- Pasta, pesto, spicy sausage, kale, sundried tomatoes, olive oil (check, check, check)
- Corn tortillas, seasoned beans or meat, rice, avocado, stir-fried peppers and onions, cilantro (check, check, check)
*Add in the Nutella, chocolate chips and/or cookies as seen fit. But use sparingly.
Quick, unintimidating and healthy. Requiring little prep time, few ingredients and colorful to boot.
A benefit to the process? Having these guidelines has also helped me to stick to my spending plan at the grocery store and to avoid overspending on food. Of course, my template isn’t an end all be all for meal planning. But the process of creating a simple template to check your meals against – that can definitely simplify the process and pain of meal planning.
To create your own, layout a few of the more general requirements that you’d like your meals to encompass. But don’t stop there! Delve a little deeper into what specifics will guide you within those generalities. Make a template with attainable and clear-cut details to give a your food plan kind of checks and balances accountability. And of course – don’t give up. It may need tweaking, or adjustment but the ease provided by the end result is well worth it. And then it’s smooth sailing past the peanut butter sandwich rut.
Image Credit Alex E. Proimos