My background is in the Waldorf schools and they have a very steady food rhythm which I think is helpful because it narrows down the choices each day so that they are not overwhelming. In our kindergarten we had the following snack schedule:
Tuesday-- Bread Day
(Thursday was actually difficult. We started with Steamed Golden Millet with soy sauce, but few children would eat it. Then we switched to millet with maple syrup, but still few would eat it. When I left, we were having carrots and celery with humus, and millet muffins with butter. Still not a big hit.)
For children having a simple repetitive schedule is beneficial because they know what is coming each day and it gives their lives some predictability. For grown ups this is beneficial because it allows us to fall into a peaceful rhythm of activity, and we don't have to be a super creative master chef each day. It also happens that when children are faced with the same foods week after week they will (except for millet apparently) learn to like foods they otherwise would not have even tried.
I was present at a talk given by Sharifa Oppenheimer, the auther of the book Our Heaven on Earth, and she proposed a similar idea. (Oppenheimer is also quite familiar with Waldorf schools.) She had created a rhythm for dinners of the week, but instead of having specifics like "rice", "bread" and "oatmeal", she had broader categories, more like "soup". I don't remember all the specifics, but she had things like "roast" on Monday (could be veggies or meat), and "pasta" on Tuesday. I think this narrows down the options in a simple way that still allows for creativity. One could even coordinate the easy type meals with busier days.
I was present at another talk given by Monica Corrado of Simply Being Well, and she had her own spin on a balanced meal. Corrado is deeply influenced by the Weston A. Price Foundation and their take on nutrition, so she advocates that a balanced plate would have one half cooked food, one quarter raw food and one quarter fermented foods. Whenever I mention this, my husband says, "fermented! I love beer!" But that's not quite what Corrado is going for. For more information on the use of fermented foods you can check out Corrado's website, the Weston A. Price Foundation, or the cookbook Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon.
Corrado also developed a beautiful chart that outlines how to feed a baby in a wholesome way following the guidelines from the above websites. It is divided by month and slowly introduces wholesome foods that are packed with nutrition. I have been drooling over the chart since I saw it in person at our Parent/Infant class. Here's where you can get a glimpse. (You have to click the "see sample chart" button.)
And then, of course, there is the government food plate.
The center circle is the food plate. From left to right, clockwise, it reads, Proteins, Vegetables, Fruits, Grains. The blue circle off to the top right is for Dairy.
The outer circle reads (again from left to right, clockwise) Cooked, Fermented, Raw. The outer circle swivels around the inner circle, and, as it does so, it reveals through the little windows recipes for preparing the particular type of food in a particular way. For example, in the picture it is showing how to prepare cooked grains and proteins, fermented vegetables, and raw fruit. The dairy circle has its own little wheel to reveal recipes for cooked, raw and fermented milk, cheese, butter, yogurt and cream. The recipes can be found in the Nourishing Traditions cookbook. Ideally, the recipes on the chart would be coordinated so that each combination of recipes that was revealed would be a complete meal. But I didn't get that far.
There have been a number of posts on the blog Bread With Honey about how to use bento boxes to layout a meal in such a way that you can see the balance between food groups. There are some good ideas about what to do for lunch too.
I love all of these ideas! Maybe I can somehow incorporate all these systems to create one master system! Maybe I should just add a brain and some arms too, and let it make dinner for us!
But until I can figure out how to do that, I have found that a simple list of must haves for each meal has been helpful for me. For breakfast I must prepare:
1 piece of fruit
1 piece of bread
1 glass of milk
1 glass of orange juice
1 bowl of yogurt or cottage cheese
1 bowl of oatmeal (or another piece of bread)
With this list in hand, I find that I prepare all the food at once, rather than getting a bowl of cereal and staving off the hunger until the next catch as catch can "meal". Whatever doesn't get eaten becomes my snack before lunch. I can be creative with this as well. I can replace the bread and milk with a bowl of cereal, the orange juice with another piece of fruit. I can add the fruit to my oatmeal, or I can make a breakfast burrito with egg and cheese, and that counts as my egg, my bread and my yogurt.
For lunch the list looks like this:
2 pieces of bread
Filler (like egg salad or tuna) or mixture on the side
2 pieces of fruit
1 cup veggies
1 cup milk
Dinner is 1 protein, 1 grain, one veggie. These lists are based entirely on what satisfies me and my family at the moment. And I am sure that it will change. My husband also has started to develop a list of foods/meals/snacks we know we like, so when I feel stumped when writing the grocery list, I can refer to that.
After writing all this down it seems like there are a few things in common with all these ideas. First is that narrowing one's options allows one to be creative, but not overwhelmed. So whether one narrows the option to one food, one list of foods, or one type of preparation, the creative constraint allows for less frustrating planning.
The second thing that pops out at me is rhythm. If one always grocery shops at the same time each week, one becomes accustomed to writing the list at the same time each week. If one prepares dinner at the same time each day, it gets easier and easier to just slip into that activity. If one prepares the same kind of foods each day or each week, one begins to anticipate "Rice Day" or "Spaghetti Day".
Third is, "how does it look?" If one prepares food in a beautiful way, it becomes easier to notice if it seems unbalanced. Whatever balance theory you subscribe to, it seems easier to achieve it when you can look at the proportions before you.
Dinner (and all meals) can be so frustrating! I really am trying to make it easier and more enjoyable for myself. It seems like there are a lot of tools to be had from all these ideas!