Posted on January 15, 2015 at 6:00 am
I might have been spending too much time on Pinterest, but last fall I had an overwhelming desire get it together in the kitchen, so I started planning meals for my family.
There were a few driving forces behind this decision. For the first time, I had to start figuring out breakfast and lunch for my school-age kids. I had been flying by the seat of my pants for several months, since school started, and it was not going well. Also, my husband was one year into a three-year graduate program. Both of these things had me looking for ways to save time and money.
Before I started meal planning, it would be late afternoon before I started thinking about dinner that night. I would often be running to the store to pick up whatever ingredients we needed. Lunches were even worse. I would stand in front of an open fridge with my morning coffee, trying to piece together a semi nutritious meal. That kind of poor planning was time consuming, expensive, and stressful.
When we decided to improve our diet, meal planning really saved my sanity. There is no way I could have undertaken the major dietary changes without this strategy in place. At first it was very difficult to come up with meals for the week, since most of my go-to items, like pasta and sandwiches, were no longer an option. I spent several months looking for and trying out new recipes. It was exhausting.
Now with over a year of meal planning under my belt, I feel like I have a very good selection of things that I like to cook, and my family loves to eat, for every season. I still pepper in new recipes here and there, to keep things from getting boring (mostly for me.)
Preparing as many as twenty meals a week can tax even the most experienced cook’s sanity. Even after a year of doing it, I still sometimes find myself burnt out and overwhelmed. In order to help with that, I try to do the following each week:
Plan all the meals. It can be tempting to leave holes in my schedule but I’ve found that even if I have something, anything, planned it keeps me motivated and my stress levels down. (Which isn’t to say my schedule has to be set in stone.)
Allow for flexibility. Really what this means is that I allow myself to not feel tied to a certain meal I’ve planned. If Wednesday comes around and I don’t want to make the grilled steak and Brussels sprouts I planned, then I either switch with a different night, or use the same ingredients in a different way. Just knowing that I am not tied to the menu plan can keep me from feeling quite so crazed.
Anticipate busy nights. When planning for the week, I keep my calendar at the ready. Since I am the primary meal maker in the house, I focus on when I have a busy day, or things to do after work, and plan an easy dinner or leftovers.
Let one meal feed another. For example, I might make frittata for dinner early in the week and then use that for breakfast a couple days later. Or the rice for stir-fry could become fried rice for lunch.
Eating organic, local, and fresh can get a little spendy. To help save money, I consider the following when making my plan:
Eat for the season. This is easy when our garden is in full swing and the fruits and vegetables are plentiful. However, the seemingly endless winter we have here can often make eating seasonally a little boring. I just make the switch to more frozen vegetables and buy less variety in my fresh produce. We also stock up on berries during the summer to keep in our freezer for smoothies and such during the long off-season.
Shop my larder. There are various things that I almost always have in “stock” around my kitchen. For example, I buy grass fed beef in bulk from a local farm a few times a year. Plus, I stock up on various canned goods and frozen vegetables when they are on sale. Then, every couple of weeks, I will first shop my freezer and pantry to see what I can use for that week’s meals.
Pick a major food. Sometimes, instead of picking a recipe, I will just write down a major food group in that night’s slot. For example, on Monday I might simply write down that we are having chicken. Then at the store, I buy what is on sale to create the meal. I admit doing it this way is a little trickier and does stress me out a bit more. This works best when you have an established repertoire of meals you know how to make well. Because of the extra stress when shopping, I will only do this on one or two meal slots for the week.
Last but not least, I take into consideration my family members’ tastes.
Include family favorites. I alternate these with new recipes or less loved dishes so that we don’t have a disappointing meal more than one day in a row. For example, eggs are one of my kids least favorite breakfast meals. So I’ll plan them for midweek and the next day can be either a favorite breakfast or a free choice day.
“Eat out” during the week. My family loves to eat out, but it’s not in the budget for us every week. To make that easier, I have several go-to meals that feel like restaurant food, but are made from scratch with wholesome ingredients. These are things like sushi bowls, fried rice, nachos, taco salad, and French fries.
You can download my weekly meal planner here. You could print this and laminate it for repeated use. I like to print a new one every week because I like to be able to look back on previous weeks to remember what we ate.
Now it’s your turn, what are your thoughts or tips on meal planning?