Sunday, September 06, 2015

A Sanity-Saving, Flexible Meal Plan

An over-scheduled calendar is not built in a day.  I mean, no one in their right mind would start with a peaceful blank slate and all at once add in a career, a couple children, some hobbies, a few labor-intensive long-term goals, a little volunteer work, and also think, "Oh, wouldn't it also be a lark to homeschool the kids as well?"

No.  This sort of madness happens slowly and insidiously, as one commitment at a time is added to the schedule, until you wake up one day and think, "Oh-my-everloving-goodness.  This is ridiculous, I can't keep this up anymore, and I'm about to lose my mind."

Last winter, I hit that wall.  In the midst of my busiest work season of the year, I was asked to do one more little tiny thing for an organization with which I volunteer, and the whole house of cards began to topple down around me.

I didn't even know how I got to that point.

Well, that's not entirely true.  I do know.  I got there by saying yes to a host of wonderful and fulfilling activities.  I got there by taking on a lot of very interesting work for people that I genuinely like.  I got there by loving life so much that I didn't want to miss a thing.  I got there by thinking I was Super Woman.  I got there by willfully choosing to forget that there is a limit to the number of different things one person can successfully juggle.

Admitting I couldn't do everything was painful, but it was also liberating.  By saying no to some things, and by pulling back my involvement in some other activities, I found that I could do a better job at the tasks that remained in my daily schedule.

At the same time, I began working on idiot-proofing the menial tasks in my day.  Time spent deciding what to wear, for instance, is mental energy that could be better spent identifying new rental properties.  Deciding each morning what errands need to be run that day is more wasted energy, and it takes me away from my desk when I could be making money.  Waiting until 5:00 in the afternoon to think about what to cook for dinner means my mental energy will be too depleted by the financial reports I just completed to think of doing anything more difficult than boiling some noodles and hoping for the best.  Decision fatigue is a thing, friends.

So I began paring down my closet even more than I already had, and I ended up with a handful of uniforms that mean I can get dressed in three minutes or less for any activity on my calendar.  I picked one day a week to get all my client errands done so that I wouldn't have to make multiple trips into town each week.  And I sat down to set up a flexible meal plan so that hearing someone ask "What's For Dinner?" would no longer send me into a panic.

First, I looked at our schedule to see which days of the week were mad rushes and which days were more conducive to recipes that required a little chopping and simmering, and I organized my ideas accordingly.  I'm not the sort of person that operates well with either rigid schedules or having to plan 30 days in advance, so I decided to create a loose framework by which to narrow down the options for each day.

The meal plan framework ended up looking like this:
Mondays - Mexican
Tuesdays - Rice bowls
Wednesdays - Emergency Night: Leftovers or Pizza
Thursdays - Pasta
Fridays - Soups or Uncategorizable Oddities
Saturdays - Vegetable Plates
Sundays - Every Man For Himself (because I only cook six nights a week)

Then I took my recipe binder and organized my recipes behind tabs labeled with the categories listed above.  For good measure (additional idiot-proofing), I used a binder that has clear pockets on the outside, and I created a title page that lists the four to six options under each category.  Having a handful of options for each category means we can go at least a month before repeating any of the recipes.

Wednesdays are booked to the gills, so I try to make sure there are leftovers of either Mondays or Tuesdays meals, but since things don't always go according to plan, we keep the idea of $5 take-out pizzas in our back pocket for emergencies.

Here is what our menu looked like last week:
Monday - Black Bean Chili
Tuesday - Cauliflower & Tofu Curry
Wednesday - chili or curry leftovers
Thursday - Spinach & Ricotta Manicotti
Friday - Frittata & Mediterranean Butter Bean Salad
Saturday - Braised Green Cabbage, Spicy Corn on the Cob, & leftover butter bean salad
Sunday - leftovers for some of us, popcorn for another, nachos for another

I resisted making a meal plan for years because I was put off by the whole idea.  Meal plans often seemed overly complicated or too restrictive, and the whole idea was just overwhelming to me.  The idea of using a theme-based framework works very well for the way I operate though (I need some choices, but for heaven's sake, not too many), and now it takes about 15 minutes to come up with a menu and a grocery list each week.  I'm currently toying with planning two weeks at a time so that I can further reduce the number of trips to the store each month, but the jury's still out on that idea.


Lee said...

This is an extremely cool meal plan idea. I troll meal plans trying to find one that seems adaptable to our life style. I did not enjoy cooking for a month and losing an entire weekend in the process when I tried the freezer plans. I did not like the hit to my budget with the "cook double" method. I like to take advantage of sales and fresh produce but I have nights that are insane!!! And we wind up eating veggie burgers ad nauseum. So this looks like it could work!

Sarah Beam said...

Lee, those were my thoughts, too, about freezer plans and double-cooking plans (and then there was nothing worse than having a lot of pre-made food around that I wasn't actually craving). I hope this plan helps.

Amy Olson said...

Thank you for the term *decision fatigue*, much appreciated. Distilling written expression down to the essential details is a good thing.

Rigid structure sucks but a loose and flexible framework makes life easier. You've created the beginnings of a more user friendly family management system.

Sarah Beam said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sarah Beam said...

Thank you, Amy. Rigid structure is the sort of thing that makes my brain shut down.

Anonymous said...

I enjoy your writing. I also enjoyed your mom's blog so much. I do not know her personally, nor do I have any adopted children, but I got so much information and information from her. I respect her need to go private, but please tell her that someone in the next county feels as though they lost a friend and wishes and prays for her and hers all the best. Peace.

Cindy said...

Anonymous - email me at Lee, have I added you?

lee woo said...

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