Simplifying Expat Life with Meal Planning
After college, I worked at a pregnancy resource center where a fantastic team of volunteers taught classes for our moms-to-be. I got to sit in on one about meal planning, shopping, and preparation."Make a list of dinners," the instructor told us, "and repeat it every week."She assured us that it would save time, energy, and money if we had a weekly meal rotation. Monday is always spaghetti, and so on. Your grocery list is nearly identical from week to week and you don't have to panic over what's for dinner."Great idea," I thought. "I'm going to do that!"Well, I didn't.I'm a planner by nature, and I think expat life would drown me if we didn't have routines in place for our family of five. There are already too many daily surprises while living in a new culture; I try to keep home life consistent. We have a morning routine, a weekend routine, a quiet time routine, and a bedtime routine. Not to say we don't deviate from them, but it's our normal.Up until a couple of months ago, however, when it came to dinner planning, I'd wait for inspiration. I'd spend a good chunk of time online, looking for "the best" recipe for the meat I'd pulled out of the freezer. Then I'd figure out if I could even make it here in Armenia, since many ingredients common in American recipes aren't available. (I miss you, cheddar!)I had no reliable dinner routine…just a hungry family and a dinnertime to shoot for.Because we move into a new house every year or two, I have to relearn to make family favorites on each new stove or oven. Gas versus electric, new versus old, American versus European appliances. Then throw in the availability and quality of ingredients in different areas and different countries, and I felt like I was learning a new recipe every single night.It was exhausting.But it was a sneaky sort of weariness. I had been warned to fear the pre-dinner hour with kids (and there is something about it, believe me), so I didn’t realize I was causing the biggest issue by not having a meal plan.A few months ago, we had friends over for dinner. I cooked dishes that I've made many times before—but not on this stove (or in this country). Result: the rice was undercooked, the vegetable sauce thin, and the chicken dry.I hadn't yet perfected those dishes in this kitchen. Instead of focusing on making a few things well, I was making something different every night and doing it poorly.(There's a larger life lesson in there somewhere, I think.)So I wrote a list on a scrap of paper:
Monday – Korean-style ground beef with rice and ginger cabbageTuesday—Baked chicken thighs, roasted broccoli, and breadWednesday—Spaghetti and sautéed spinachThursday—Chicken tacos and saladFriday—Mac and Cheese with cucumbers and apple slices for kids; adults: takeout date nightSaturday—Roasted pork with stir-fry noodles and veggiesSunday—Leftovers/Soup
I followed that list every week…and the number of compliments on the meals shocked me. The kids began to look forward to certain nights for their favorite dinners.I asked my husband if he was getting bored by the rotation."No way," he said. "If I like something, I'd probably be happy eating it every night."With one weekly meal list, I perfected my recipes, spent less time online, and reduced decision fatigue. Plus, I can prepare dinner on autopilot, enabling me to give the kids more attention while getting dinner on the table. Instead of creating boredom, a weekly meal rotation created simplicity and comfort in a new routine.I can even relax when guests come over, because I have my list of foolproof meals.I still like trying new recipes, but I save those for weekends when I can spend more time in the kitchen. I don't try something new on busy weekday evenings.I recently remembered another thing that the meal-planning class instructor told me: "I spent a decade wasting time and money without a dinner plan after I got married. Once I had a weekly meal rotation, I wasn't stressed about dinner anymore.""Good thing I'm getting this advice now," I thought back then. "I'll be ahead of the game."Our 10-year anniversary is coming up this year, on a Thursday in July.Looks like we'll be having tacos with our champagne.Do you have a weekly meal rotation? What's on your list? How have you simplified your life in regards to meals?