My No-Plan Approach to Meal Planning

I’m an on-again off-again meal planner. I’ve gone through periods of diligently sitting down with cookbooks and reminder lists of favourite meals every weekend, deciding what we’d have each day of the coming week, writing out a grocery list, and getting the groceries by the end of the weekend. Then, during the week, I'd just follow the plan.

This works great for making sure you spend less time thinking about what you’ll have for dinner and making midweek grocery runs, and of course it keeps you from eating out more than you’d like.

Still, this approach to meal planning never really stuck for me, and I’ve finally accepted that it’s just not compatible with who I am, because:

  • I like some degree of structure, but I find too much planning to be stifling.
  • I dreaded having to do all the planning at once and avoided it. It became a stressor.
  • If I missed a weekend planning session, the entire week was thrown off with no game plan to fall back on.
  • The approach didn’t allow for cravings or weather-related meals (I can’t be the only one who sometimes just needs cool, crunchy salads on super hot days or vegan grilled cheese and tomato soup when it’s raining).
  • The approach also didn’t easily allow for being flexible at the produce market or grocery store based on what was seasonally available, fresh looking, a good price, or otherwise enticing.
  • At the end of the week, we’d end up with a random assortment of leftovers that weren’t always easy to use up.

Growing up I can remember meeting people whose families would eat the same type of food each week on the same day. Sundays were pot roasts, Fridays were pizzas, etc. I never appreciated it at the time but it makes sense to me now: the entire family always knew what was for dinner—including and especially whoever was responsible for preparing meals. Brilliant!  

Okay, I don’t want to eat the exact same thing every single week, either. But it occurred to me that with a little flexibility added in, planning daily themes is the best of both worlds: you have a meal plan without needing to make a meal plan.

Here’s what our weekly meal themes look like—and I’m not prescribing them for you, because you’ll have different needs, but sharing them in the hopes of inspiring you to consider daily thematic meal planning that works for you. I played around with different themes until finding ones that fit our lifestyle and tastes, and I encourage you to do the same, if you’d like to try this approach.

In cool weather seasons, I’ll typically make a big pot of something on Sunday: chili, dal, curry, hearty soup, or stew. I mean I make a REALLY big pot, like a quadruple recipe. This will be our main meal on Sunday and our dinner on Wednesday. It will also be my husband Arden’s lunch during the week when there aren’t leftovers for him to bring to work, and a go-to meal for any company we may have during the day. We’ll freeze extras, if any; this kind of meal freezes really well because of the water content. The reason I make these meals on Sundays is, although they're easy to make, they take awhile to simmer and I typically want something faster on weeknights (maybe one day I'll become a slow-cooker person but today is not that day).

Classic French lentil soup with lots of veggies; hummus on rye on the side

Classic French lentil soup with lots of veggies; hummus on rye on the side

Coconut chickpea curry with spinach

Coconut chickpea curry with spinach

Chili (three kinds of beans and two kinds of lentils); salad and tortillas on the side

Chili (three kinds of beans and two kinds of lentils); salad and tortillas on the side

In the summer, we don’t really eat these cozy, cool weather one-pot meals. We tend to be out and about enjoying the sun—but if we’re around the house, I might make a batch of black beans or chickpeas from dry, because these are the legumes we eat the most of. I typically cook about two pounds of dry legumes, divide into three portions, and freeze two of them for future use. (More on what we eat on summer Sundays instead when I talk about weekends, below.)

On Monday, we have pasta. The sauce varies between cashew cream (it’s like Alfredo sauce, but without the sad cows), red sauce (lentil-walnut bolognese is our fave), or pesto. Sometimes I make cheesy mac. Cashew cream is the one I make the most because it’s so freakin easy (just throw a few things in the blender and pour on pasta). I always add in veggies, which I mix up for variety, but favourites include peas, wilted spinach, and mushrooms. Sometimes we’ll add veggie sausages and/or a green salad. I make lots (two packages of whole grain pasta) and this is lunch for everyone on Tuesday, too.

Rosé sauce (diced tomatoes and cashew cream) with peas & hemp seeds; blackened steamed broccoli on the side

Rosé sauce (diced tomatoes and cashew cream) with peas & hemp seeds; blackened steamed broccoli on the side

Pesto on kamut rotini with white beans and tomatoes; in-season corn; mixed greens

Pesto on kamut rotini with white beans and tomatoes; in-season corn; mixed greens

Lentil-walnut bolognese with mushrooms; homemade almond parmesan

Lentil-walnut bolognese with mushrooms; homemade almond parmesan

Cashew cream on whole grain pasta, salad, and sautéed beans, mushrooms, and cherry tomatoes

Cashew cream on whole grain pasta, salad, and sautéed beans, mushrooms, and cherry tomatoes

Tuesday night is Mexican night. What’s not to love about Mexican flavours: fresh lime, bright cilantro, smoky seasoned beans, sweet corn flour, tangy salsa, creamy avocados… we love tacos; brown rice or quinoa bowls; burritos; and yam and black bean quesadillas. I make black beans from dry, mixing in smoked paprika, cumin, coriander, onion powder, and garlic. To make easy un-fried beans, simply blend some of the beans together with a little their cooking broth. Cilantro-lime cream is great drizzled on bowls or even tacos, if you can be bothered to make it. Tacos are the easiest thing in the world to throw together for dinner: corn tortillas, unfried beans (can also use canned), whatever veggies you like. Done!

Quinoa bowls with black beans, veggies, cashew lime cream, fresh homemade salsa, and pumpkin seeds

Quinoa bowls with black beans, veggies, cashew lime cream, fresh homemade salsa, and pumpkin seeds

... but we usually have tacos on Mexican night. They take five minutes to make!

... but we usually have tacos on Mexican night. They take five minutes to make!

... they're also endlessly versatile and delicious. What's not to love!

... they're also endlessly versatile and delicious. What's not to love!

On Wednesday, we have either the one-pot meal I made over the weekend, or in the summer (and some winter Wednesdays) we have bowls. I’ve already written a whole post about the marvel that is the bowl, so check that out for inspiration. The basic formula is grain, legume, veggies, sauce, and toppings. If there’s a one-pot meal, by mid-week we’re ready to eat it again, and bonus: after a few days of the flavours marrying in the fridge, it’s extra delicious.

Thursday is stir-fry night, generally with tofu but tempeh also makes an appearance from time to time. We’re partial to bok choy, carrots, and portobello mushrooms, but obviously whatever veggies you like to eat can be stir fried. My usual stir fry is simply tamari, rice vinegar, garlic, and a cornstarch slurry to thicken things up. We also love almond satay sauce, or if I’m feeling extra ambitious, I might make something like pad Thai. We’ll have the stir fry on brown rice or noodles.

Bok choy and carrot stir fried with tamari, garlic, and cornstarch to thicken; tamari-soaked tofu; udon noodles

Bok choy and carrot stir fried with tamari, garlic, and cornstarch to thicken; tamari-soaked tofu; udon noodles

Same as on the left, but with brown rice

Same as on the left, but with brown rice

Homemade almond satay sauce with bok choy and carrots (as usual!) and rice noodles

Homemade almond satay sauce with bok choy and carrots (as usual!) and rice noodles

Friday is free for all. By the end of the week, there’s lots of odds and ends, enough to put together a simple dinner for each of us. Generally it’s bowls for the adults. I know I never shut up about bowls but they really are the best: they make it so easy to eat through your fridge at the end of the week, and they are endlessly versatile, healthy, and delicious! Sometimes we’ll do take-out, make fun meals like grilled cheese or oven fries, or re-purpose leftovers, like by turning rice into fried rice or having chili on baked potatoes.

Weekends are a different rhythm. We might make brunch (pancakes, french toast, bennies, breakfast sandwiches, or tofu scramble), we often eat out at one of our favourite vegan restaurants, and we continue to work our way through the components left in the fridge by throwing together bowls and salads. Otherwise, I’ll cook from any of the categories above: pasta, tacos, stir fry, etc.

Breakfast most days and all weekdays is a big green smoothie for the four of us to share (bananas, flax seeds, ginger, kale, frozen berries). The kids love sprouted whole grain toast with earth balance and nutritional yeast or nut butter, or blueberry oatmeal with hemp seeds. They also typically have fruit: apples, bananas, oranges, and whatever’s in season (berries, stone fruit, pears, and so on, or frozen mango in the winter). Arden usually takes care of breakfast for the family.

I work/parent from home, so I prepare a simple lunch based on what’s in the fridge. Arden works out of the house, so he typically brings his lunch. Generally that’s leftovers from the night before. If there aren’t any, there’s often something in the freezer from my weekend one-pot meal making, which he’ll grab in the morning. Did you know that brown rice with dal or curry freezes really well?!

As you can see, there’s enough structure that I have a planning crutch, but enough flexibility that there’s still a tonne of variation in what we are eating week to week. In fact, you could eat here for months and probably not even pick up on the fact that I’m cooking by theme (mwah ha ha…)

But it helps me immensely. I can honestly say I pretty much never have that “what’s for dinner” dread that used to start creeping in around 3 pm. Instead, I think of the day’s theme and go from there based on what we (I) feel like eating and what’s in the fridge, pantry and freezer.

I don't follow the plan rigidly. Sometimes things change because of a long weekend, mid-week work trip for one of us, long day out with the kids, or dinner with friends or family. I find that with meal themes I can easily shuffle things around as needed, and I don't end the week with obscure ingredients or leftovers that were hard to eat through like I used to with more traditional meal planning.

Because I’m only cooking once a day, I don’t get drained on being in the kitchen. Even those of us who love cooking would probably get burnt out doing it three times a day. With Arden on breakfast duty and lunch being reliably minimal effort, I’m really only spending solid chunk of time in the kitchen at dinner—which is a fairly simple meal, because that’s basically the only way I cook—and I look forward to that time alone doing something I love.

This is obviously a high-level view of how we eat. For much more detail, including recipes and cooking demos, you can follow along on my Instagram account. I often prepare meals and snacks in my stories, so you can see exactly how it’s done (and how casual it is). I think for my next post, I’ll write how I stock my kitchen. Would that be helpful?

Do you meal plan? If so, what system works for you? If not, would you try it?