Oh, boy, are meal planning and prep a chore! Even if you don’t live with chronic illness, you likely find these things exhausting at times. But if you suffer from pain, mobility issues, chronic fatigue, balance problems, or many other things, they can be nearly impossible. My mantra throughout my illness has been something along the lines of: “conserve where I can.” I make it my goal to conserve energy, time, and resources whenever I’m able.
From early on in my journey, I’ve found shopping absolutely exhausting. In fact, it’s often required me to be in a wheelchair, because I just don’t have the stamina during relapses to make it through the store. Frequent grocery trips were not an option, so we created a new family meal plan one month at a time. I’ll talk more about grocery shopping in another post, but let me dig a little deeper into our system.
The first thing you’ll need is a way to keep everything organized. For me, that’s with a simple composition notebook. You could use a calendar, a day planner, an app on your phone, a binder… Whatever helps you to stay organized is a good system. Don’t be afraid to experiment. It took me a few iterations before I landed on this system. It has to work for you, or you won’t stick with the plan!
Whatever system you use, you’ll need two things: space to plan out meals, and space to list the necessary ingredients to be purchased.
I’ve found that I struggle to stick with things when I assign meals to certain days. For example, if I determine that Tuesday of this week will be chicken enchilada soup night, I can guarantee with almost 100% accuracy that the last thing on earth I’ll want to eat on Tuesday is chicken enchilada soup! Maybe it’s the single rebel streak in me… The other challenge I’ve found with assigning meals to days is that I can’t always predict a bad day. When I tried doing things that way, it seemed I inevitably had a more involved meal planned for a day when I was flaring and unable to work for long in the kitchen. So for us, that plan just didn’t work.
Instead, I map out a whole month’s worth of potential meals. I can cook them whenever I’d like during that month, or not cook them at all! But I know that I have all of the ingredients on hand for the meals I’ve jotted down, and I can cook them whenever I’d like. If I don’t get to them during that month, I just carry them over into the next month. The ingredients will typically keep, so there’s no pressure to make a set meal.
You may notice I only have roughly twenty suppers planned. We don’t eat out much, but typically once or twice a month, we’ll get a meal from a restaurant. We also may have social engagements that include meals, and we almost always have leftovers. I usually have enough food on hand to whip up something quickly if we need an additional meal, but planning 15-20 dinners each month seems to be enough for our family.
I don’t plan many lunches or breakfasts, either. My husband and kids are typically away at work and school, and either take a packed lunch or eat from the school cafeteria. So I plan for a few easy lunches that can be eaten multiple times. If you tend to eat at home every day for lunch or pack more varied lunches, you would want to plan for those.
Our breakfasts are fairly simple, as well. They usually involve toast and peanut butter, oatmeal, homemade granola, or something along those lines. These are all things that can be made by the person eating (now that my kids are older) at the time of the meal, or we can batch cook a large amount of granola or oats at the beginning of the week.
We have a few snacks on hand, usually fruits or vegetables. Sometimes I will add crackers or pretzels or something like that to our shopping list, and I usually make a batch of muffins or healthy cookies that can be eaten for snacks.
I save a small section for strictly gluten-free meals, which I’ll discuss in the next section. This is typically smaller, but I also have staple ingredients on hand that can round out more meals if needed.
While I have celiac disease and have to avoid all gluten, no one else in my family has this requirement. I would love to have a fully gluten free home, and someday I will. But with growing kids to feed and no medical necessity, it’s just not feasible for us in this season. So I tend to plan a majority of meals that can be made gluten free, with some that are not. On the nights when my family is eating pancakes, for example, I will eat something different. My meals on those nights are usually leftovers, or a dinner that I’ve batched cooked ahead to be able to eat more than once.
As much as possible, we plan for meals using ingredients that are in season. In summer, our meals usually use the vegetables from our garden. I try not to buy many processed foods, but I am a big fan of using shelf-stable and frozen ingredients. There are some very healthy options, and you don’t have to compromise on quality. In fact, it’s often more affordable to buy frozen organic vegetables, for example, than fresh. Nutritionally, they tend to be on par with fresh, and they often come pre-chopped (which is a great way to conserve energy when preparing meals!). When I’m in a particularly bad stretch, I will often buy foods that come pre-cut, such as small cuts of meat, frozen chopped onions, etc. These sometimes cost slightly more, but the savings in energy balances it out in those stretches.
You may notice that we don’t eat a lot of meat, and many of our meals are fairly simple. The reason for this is two-fold: for one, simple meals are far easier to prepare, and can often be made ahead and frozen or stored in the fridge. Second, budget is always a consideration. My current health means that I’m not able to work full-time, so I offset the lessened income by reducing our grocery bill as much as possible. We do eat a lot of fresh produce and whole ingredients, but I try to buy shelf-stable whole foods whenever I can as they’re more versatile and last from month to month (which saves me energy in shopping, and tends to save on cost when buying in bulk).
In the interest of conserving energy, we tend to limit our grocery shopping to one or two stores. For us, that typically means Aldi and Costco. We’ve found that they’re incredibly affordable, offer healthy options, and have many gluten free, vegan, and organic foods to choose from. For the items we can’t get at these two places, we try make just one additional stop.
For the most part, all of our groceries are bought once a month. We do often need a mid-month top off for milk, produce, and sometimes bread. But that shopping trip is quick and inexpensive.
As I plan my meals for the month, I write any ingredients we will need on the shopping side of my notebook. As much as possible, I plan meals using ingredients I already have on hand. As I mentioned, I also try to use healthy shelf-stable foods as much as possible.
If I have to buy ingredients, I try to use them for more than one meal (especially if it is a specialized or expensive ingredient). We don’t eat a lot of meat, for various reasons. When we do, it’s typically a small component of our meal, such as in soups or casseroles. This means I can stretch it just a little bit further. I try to do the same with most other ingredients that we purchase. If I will be using an ingredient for more than one meal, I usually write the number of meals next to it so that I make sure I buy enough.
This is the system we’ve developed, and it works well for us! It helps to minimize depleting shopping trips (and with fewer trips to the store, we’ve found we also spend less money). Planning ahead saves us time, and lets me prepare as many foods as needed on a good day, or batch cook our foods. And I have peace of mind knowing I have everything I need for a month’s worth of meals easily at hand.
Whether you make the jump to monthly meal plans, or just plan a few days ahead, I encourage you to consider some form of meal planning. It will allow you to minimize trips to the grocery store, plan for meals that accommodate your current health (easy meals for bad stretches, more complex meals for good stretches), and potentially allows you to batch prepare/cook in advance, saving you time down the line. Conservation is the key to living well with chronic illness!