Confession – meal planning was one of the few organizational tips and tricks that I had never adopted. I have helped clients with theirs, and I definitely saw the value in it. But it just hadn’t really worked with the kind of life my family led. We had dinner together whenever practices, rehearsals, part-time jobs, travel schedules, etc. allowed. I just didn’t usually have a plan, and that worked okay for us. Honestly, it was one of the few things that I enjoyed not planning.
Or so I thought.
Enter the Pandemic
Suddenly, my usual two or three trips a week to the grocery store were not going to be an option. I did an inventory of what I had in the freezer (not much) and the pantry (even less). I quickly made a list of things I could cook with what I had. Then, I looked at a dozen or so of our favorite recipes and added what I needed for those to the list. Finally, I went to Costco and to my local grocery store and got enough food to make three meals a day, for four people, for the next two weeks.
A Journey of Discovery
- Food is expensive. I had somewhat insulated myself from that reality by making multiple trips and only buying a few days’ worth of food at a time. Yes, when I looked at the ‘Groceries’ category in Quicken, it added up to a lot of money. But we also ate at restaurants more frequently than I appreciated.
- They call it ‘perishable’ food for a reason. The berries and avocadoes that my family liked to eat? You can’t buy those two weeks at a time. Making a grocery list required some algebraic calculations. How many people would eat this item? Realistically, how many would each person eat? How many days would they keep? My family can tell you about ‘Enforced Orange Day’, where everybody ate only Clementine oranges as snacks to finish the bag before it went bad. Or ‘Leftovers Dinner’, which is a motley assortment of storage container contents the night before the trash goes out.
- I needed to expand our menu. After a few years of less eating dinner together at home, my family had a small list of favorite meals that we cooked. Eating at home for every meal, every day, those would get old really quickly. Also, shortages at the grocery store meant having to make adjustments and substitutions. Some of our new favorite recipes so far are Spaghetti al Limone, Brioche French Toast, this Fajita Marinade (discovered when our go-to pre-marinated fajitas were no longer available), and homemade pizzas with this Pizza Dough.
Meal Planning – Getting Started
You don’t need anything complicated to begin planning your meals. The online magazine The Kitchn has a free downloadable template that you can use to get started. Or, you can Google ‘meal plan template’ and find hundreds of options. Then, you can customize and adapt one of those to your liking.
I’ve found it helpful to have these on my template:
- A place to write (next to the meal for that day) what ingredients I will need to buy;
- Enough room to write the name of the recipe and where to find it;
- A section to list what perishable foods I need to use up that week; and
- Some way to highlight meals that need to or can be made in advance.
It is REALLY important to organize before you start. Luckily, this was one I didn’t have to worry about. My pantry was in good order (although, I did have to reconfigure some things to accommodate so much more food). But you will need to know what you have before you begin and that is hard to do if your pantry, refrigerator, or freezer are a mess.
- First, take everything out. If you’re working in your pantry, I always recommend taking ALL of it out at once. That way, you can see what you have and how much you have, and group things together in a way that makes sense. In the refrigerator, you can work by area (shelves, door, etc.).
- Second, throw away anything that is past its prime. If it’s expired, stale, moldy, or discolored, it goes in the trash. If it’s something you use regularly, remember to replace it.
- Third, set aside anything that has been in there for a long time, but nobody has eaten. If it’s been forgotten, put it front and center and remind everyone that it’s there. If nobody is going to eat it, get rid of it.
- Fourth, sort the food into categories – canned goods, dried goods, snacks, breakfast items, etc. That way, you can see what you already have. Hopefully, that will spark some ideas for meals to cook.
- Finally, take an inventory of what you have, and what you’re out of or running low on. Use this to make a grocery shopping list.
The ‘Planning’ Part of Meal Planning
Now it’s time to figure out what you’re going to eat for the next week or two. This was the part that I always found intimidating. Even though I’m a planner generally, I never minded winging it when it came to my meals. I thought that I wouldn’t like being locked into eating a certain thing on a certain night. What if I changed my mind?
So, my meal planning is pretty flexible. I buy groceries every two weeks, and I plan for that number of meals, but not necessarily on specific days. That way, I can adjust based on what we’re in the mood for. Do what works for you.
The essential part of the planning is to make sure that you have everything that you will need to cook that meal. Look at your inventory and see what you can make that will use up ingredients that are close to expiring, or that you have a lot of.
There are plenty of people who have been doing this longer, and better, than I have. Dozens of websites have meal planning suggestions, recipe ideas, etc. I started meal planning more out of necessity due to the circumstances. But I have found that I really like going grocery shopping with a plan instead of wandering the aisles waiting for inspiration to strike. And, I like not deciding on a meal only to find that I don’t have one or two of the ingredients that I need. So, I will probably keep up meal planning even after life returns to normal (whenever that is).
Well, January is almost over. Raise your hand if your New Year’s resolution to be more organized is on track.
If your hand is up, way to go! You’re nearly a month into making a big change. Hopefully, you’re already seeing the benefits. Now is a great time to check in with yourself and see how you’re feeling about what you’ve done. Keep doing the things that are working and try something new where they’re not.
If your hand is not up, you are almost certainly not alone. Our lofty January 1 ambitions start running up against the reality of everyday life from January 2 on. If we’re not careful, February 1 can find us demoralized and unmotivated, resigned to just accepting things the way they were pre-resolution.
Let’s Start At the Very Beginning
If you remember, on January 1, we talked about some important aspects of making resolutions. So, let’s revisit those and figure out where things got sideways.
Did you articulate a clear reason for why you wanted to get organized? We typically want to make a change because we are dissatisfied with the way things are. If you aren’t particularly bothered by your life being out of order, you will probably have a hard time being motivated.
Similarly, if you are unhappy with the way things are but haven’t connected that with the need to get organized, your motivation might not be very strong. You need to feel like what you are resolving to do is going to change your life for the better.
Finally, are you sure that the resolution wasn’t driven by someone else’s desire for you to get your life in order? Extrinsic motivation is notoriously ineffective at generating change. This has to be something that you see value in doing, or you’ll find reasons not to do it.
Did you determine what exactly you needed to change to get your life in order? ‘Be more organized’ is a pretty nebulous concept. You’ll have an easier time sticking with this resolution if you set a more specific goal.
Figure out what your most critical area is and focus on that. You can’t go paperless, clean out your garage, style your closet, and organize your pantry all at the same time. Prioritize and refocus.
Do you know what you’re working towards? It’s incredibly difficult to reach a goal if you don’t know what it looks like, or when you’ve arrived. If you haven’t already, picture what that area of your life is going to look like once it’s in order.
Did you give yourself deadlines? Were you realistic regarding the time and attention you would be able to devote to this project? Maybe you bit off more than you could chew, or you wildly underestimated how long this would take. Revisit your plan if you had one, and revise it given what you know now. If you jumped in without a plan, take the time now to create one.
Hopefully, the progress that you have started – or will start – to see will be enough to keep you going. On those days when you need a little something more, here are some key things to keep in mind:
Getting – and being – organized is a learned skill. It’s easier for some, but everybody can get there. And everybody can improve from where they start.
If what you’ve tried didn’t work, it isn’t a failure. It’s a lesson in what does, and doesn’t, work for you. Success is not about finding the “one right solution” (there’s no such thing when it comes to organization). It’s about working with your strengths and sticking with it.
It’s a Journey and a Destination
Don’t think of a resolution as an all or nothing proposition. You are committing to a PROCESS of change. If your kitchen counter is currently buried under two days’ worth of mail and paperwork, it just means that you’re still in the process.
You don’t have to (and can’t) do it all at once. Small steps are still progress. Just like losing ten pounds provides measurable benefits – even if you need to lose 100 – getting one area of your life in order provides a calming, positive impact even if five other areas are still in chaos.
The Best Laid Plans
You have a life, and life does not always cooperate with your plans. If you’ve had unexpected emergencies, illnesses, demands on your time, etc., it’s completely understandable that your resolution might have taken a back seat temporarily.
Mel Robbins has a saying that I’ve always loved – “Giving up on your goal because of one setback is like slashing your other three tires because you got a flat.” Keep up with what you can and, as soon as it’s feasible, recommit to your plan, but be kind to yourself in the meanwhile.
And look forward to the day that your life is in order. You’ll find that it’s a lot easier to roll with the unexpected when your day-to-day is running smoothly.
It Will Get Easier
The more organized you get, the less you have to work at it. In the beginning, it takes a LOT of effort – decluttering, sorting, labeling, remembering to put things away where they belong. But the beauty of any good system is that it eventually starts working for you.
You can do it!
Welcome to the inaugural edition of Ordered Thoughts. One of my New Year’s resolutions is to post to this blog every other Wednesday. So, let’s start by talking about resolutions.
A new year is a time to reflect and reset for most of us. Sometime between the end of the old year and these first few days of the new one, we examine our lives. We go back over the previous twelve months, revisiting our successes and failures; our highs and lows. We think long and hard about where we are vs. where we want to be. Then we make a list of resolutions which, for many of us, will be forgotten or abandoned long before Spring rolls around.
Why Do Resolutions Usually Fail?
Why is that? Because many of us approach resolutions in a way that practically guarantees failure. We have a vague idea of what we’re not happy with, and an even vaguer idea of what we hope to accomplish. We often dive in without any concrete goal, actual plan, or measurable way to evaluate progress and determine success. Then we’re often disappointed to find that just writing ”Lose weight” or “Get organized” on a piece of paper does absolutely nothing to ensure that will happen. Without insight, goals, a plan, and metrics, those extra pounds – or clutter, stress, and chaos – are pretty much guaranteed to remain a part of your life.
Most Common Resolution
Among the Top 5 resolutions (after losing weight, getting in better shape, and improving our health) are getting organized, and reducing stress. We know that never being able to find what we’re looking for, never being able to relax in our home, and feeling anxious all of the time about those things, isn’t fun. It also has a negative impact on our mental, emotional, and physical health – to say nothing of our happiness.
So, if getting organized is on your list of resolutions this year, how do you improve your chances of success?
Consider why you want to get your life in order
What is your motivation? Are you tired of wasting time looking for things? Frustrated that you can’t have people visit your house because it’s a mess? Feeling weighed down by years of accumulated clutter? The clearer you are about why you want to make a change in this area, the better. Motivation for any lasting change has to come from within, so find yours (or pick a different resolution). If you’re only doing it because a boss, spouse, roommate, magazine article, guilty conscience, etc. says you need to, you will find it hard to succeed. If it helps you to write this down, do it.
Determine which areas of your life are out of order
It’s possible that your entire life is a disaster, but that’s probably not the case. So, think long and hard about, specifically, what is making you feel as though your life is out of control. Are you paying late fees on overdue bills that you forget to pay? Have you been constantly scrambling to meet – or worse, missing – deadlines at work? Is getting dinner on the table every night a challenge? Do you miss events or appointments? Do you dread opening your closet? Identify the things that always seem to be falling through the cracks or stressing you out the most. Make a list.
Don’t try to tackle everything all at once. Identify the biggest problem area, and address that first. Look at everything that you previously identified as not working, and ask yourself “How much does this bother me?” For now, don’t worry about whether it should or not. It’s your life, your home, your office, so be honest with yourself. Take that list you made of ‘out of order’ areas and rank them.
Once you identify what isn’t working, think about exactly what isn’t working. That pile of paperwork on your kitchen counter may be your biggest problem area. Is it because you hate how it looks? Do bills and important documents get lost in there? Are you out of space to cook? Those are different problems that will require different solutions to address the core issue.
Understand what you are doing now that is working
Is there any aspect of your ‘out of order’ areas that is working? Think about the areas of your life that are in order, and what you do differently there. Don’t judge your systems! There really aren’t any one-size-fits-all ways of doing things, and the latest, most popular way may not work for you at all. So, don’t worry if you write your grocery list on a scrap of paper while it seems like everyone around you seems to be using a smartphone app. If you leave the store with the groceries you need, then your system is working for you. On the other hand, if you frequently get to the store and don’t have your list with you, or don’t look at it while you’re shopping, then maybe that system isn’t working so well. Think about how you are approaching things right now, and where the breakdown seems to be happening.
How do you want this problem area to look when you’ve achieved your goal? Again, be honest with yourself. If you won’t truly feel successful until you have an aesthetically pleasing, color-coded filing system for all of those papers, then that’s your goal. If you’ll be happy just having that pile off of the counter and on your desk, then that’s your goal.
Make a plan
Do you have the tools that you will need? Do you have the time to tackle this right now? How are you going to get from where you are to where you want to be? This is one of the primary areas where resolutions fall apart. Sometimes that is the result of a genuine lack of knowledge – we don’t always know how to get there. Sometimes it is a result of vague goals – it’s hard to make a plan when you aren’t clear on what you’re doing. If you have trouble making a plan, revisit your goal and make sure it’s clear enough. If lack of knowledge is an issue, it might be a good time to contact a professional for a consultation.
Make a timeline
When do you want to start? How long will this take? If it’s a complicated project, you will probably have to break it down into steps. This is another point at which resolutions tend to fail. We are notoriously bad at estimating time requirements. If you give yourself an hour to do something that is going to take five hours, you’re likely to get discouraged after that first hour. You thought you’d be done and instead you haven’t made much progress at all. If you’ve been realistic and detailed, you have a greater chance of designing a plan that will accurately reflect the time commitment necessary.
Just get started
Once you have your goal, your plan, and your measure of success, the most important thing to do is take that first step.
At the end of the month, we’ll check in and see how things are going. Happy New Year!