Taking the Mystery out of Meal Planning
Food. Planning. Lists. Grocery shopping. Organization. These are a few of my favorite things! (Cue the von Trapp’s)
Right out of the gate, I’ll tell you that I’m a Registered Dietitian, so I literally studied food in college and was graded on my chimichurri sauce and angel food cake. Combine that knowledge with my natural bent toward all things order, organization and, ok, CONTROL, and you’ll understand why this topic is so dear to me.
Some people dread meal planning but know that it makes the week run smoothly, others like to decide what’s for dinner at 5:05 pm, and then you’ve got people like me who sit on the couch surrounded with cookbooks, a notepad and a calendar and there’s nowhere they’d rather be. Ok, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but it’s no secret in my house that meal planning brings Mama joy!
In case you need convincing, I’ll start with the “why’s” of weekly meal planning:
- Crazy Busy: 3 kids who are in a million after school activities means I can’t be a taxi driver and a chef at the same time. If having dinner together is a priority, some pre-planning is key.
- Saves Money: Hey, I swing into the drive thru once in a while, but having a pan of enchiladas cooked and in the fridge ready to re-heat keeps us from last minute takeout which adds up for a family of 5 over time.
- Less Waste: If I’m cooking pot roast on Monday, I’ll use the leftover meat in tacos on Tuesday. Planning this ahead of time means I use everything I buy and cook.
- No Surprises = Less Fits: Who hasn’t served her kid a plate of chicken pot pie and gotten into a power struggle over how many bites he has to take before leaving the table? Writing the week’s menu in plain sight on Sunday evening gives my kids plenty of time to mentally prepare themselves for ravioli or salmon. With a family of 5, everyone has a different favorite meal and besides taco and pizza night, someone is griping about something while someone else is raving about it. The kids accept that not every night will be their FAVORITE MEAL.
My youngest (age 7) is often found reading the menu board and muttering to himself, “I just have to make it through Wednesday,” when he sees a challenging meal ahead. On the flip side, if he sees “In-N-Out” listed on Thursday, I’ll hear cheers and squeals and I know I’ve already scored Mom points on Sunday. Yes, I also plan for occasional meals out because it’s a reality with busy kids and a treat for us all.
Nuts and Bolts
I’ve given you the reasons to meal plan, now here is a how-to guide for what works for me:
- Consistency: I actually schedule a block of time every Sunday to plan the week’s meals. Have your calendar and grocery list handy so you have what you need to get started.
- Gather Resources: Some people love Pinterest for recipes, but I’m drawn more to cookbooks that I can hold in my hand while flipping the pages and writing notes on the oil-splattered pages. Some of my favorites are: 100 Days of Real Food (I love the clean eating approach to family meals), Cooking Light magazines (I’ve been a subscriber for years) and all things Pioneer Woman. I mean, come on. Do you see the balance I’ve got going on? Find your own personal favorites and go from there. I do use emeals, but rarely utilize the app as it was intended. I just like to have access to new recipes each week in case I stumble on a gem to incorporate into our rotation, like their chicken chimichangas.
- Not All or Nothing: I look at each weekday and see who has soccer or dance and what time dinner will be each day. Sometimes we all eat together, sometimes we eat in shifts. Some days I rely on my slow-cooker (usually once a week), so dinner is ready when we walk in the door from practice. Allowing for variations of the same dish works too. If I’m serving shrimp pesto fettucine, I don’t mind if my kids serve up their shrimp pasta before I mix in the pesto for the grown-ups. I know they’ll be eating broccoli on the side, so we are essentially eating the same dish, no more work for me, and everyone’s a little happier.
- Simple Sides: I plan the main dish and then add either raw carrots, steamed broccoli or Caesar salad for vegetables. Some meals like casseroles already include vegetables so I don’t need a side. My kids eat enough variety of fruits and vegetables during the week that I keep the same few veggies I know they love in rotation to minimize the struggles.
- Framework: My brain loves to think in terms of categories, so you can be super random with your menu, rummage through your pantry and freezer to see what you already have on hand to give you a starting point or you can draw up something like this:
SUNDAY: Casserole – Something that requires a lot of chopping and time because we’re home watching football and maybe I can get some other sucker to chop the onions.
MONDAY: Entrée Salad or Soup – Not my kids’ favorite category, but I’m intent on stretching their taste buds. May include Cobb, Italian chopped, salmon Caesar, etc.
TUESDAY: Mexican – because #tacotuesday. Enchiladas, tamale pie, chimichangas, burritos, super nachos will also be in rotation.
THURSDAY: Anything Goes – Flank steak and potatoes, pulled pork sandwiches, BBQ chicken, pork tenderloin, meatloaf, etc.
FRIDAY: Pizza – Every Friday until the end of time. Homemade, delivery, doesn’t matter.
SATURDAY: Freezer Food – kids rummage for corndogs or whatever. Mom’s not cooking.
- Execute: That’s right! You’ve made your meal plan, now head to the grocery store and make it happen. For me, some days I have to make a pan of lasagna at 10:00 am and throw it fully cooked into the fridge so we have something to re-heat when we walk in the door from afterschool activities in the evening. Whatever it takes, right?
Bottom line, if you desire to feed your family mostly homemade food around the dinner table, you’ve got to put in some effort to plan and execute. Be realistic and plan for eating out and leftovers.
Have some fun, try out new recipes but keep those old family favorite go-to’s in rotation.