I was asked recently what I do for meal planning. I believe making a plan is essential, and here’s why. It seems, in my household at least, that my children become the most needy at exactly the time I need to be making dinner. My husband and I were also prone to petty arguments over whose turn it was to make dinner (sound familiar?) So I thought, even if meal planning turns out to be more work, it HAS to be better than wanting to scream in frustration every day at 4:45pm.
I have made a monthly meal plan for 6 consecutive months and have found it incredibly helpful in relieving the aforementioned meal-time stress. Now I have a plan every morning, and can start meal prep as early as 9am (when the baby naps) if the meal is more effort intensive that day. In my present baby and toddler season, everything seems effort intensive… but really I consider thawing, marinading, chilling, or making dough to be “effort intensive”.
Without further ado, here’s my meal planning process:
1. Print out a meal calendar to keep on the fridge door. I use a simple Microsoft Publisher pre-made calendar and fill in the squares. To save my brain power, I have a recurring theme each week. Sunday is salad, Monday is leftovers, Tuesday is baked or crockpot, Wednesday is pasta, Thursday is leftovers, Friday is fried, and Saturday is new recipes. Then for a splash of variety, I added little changes, such as Soup and Salad for one Sunday, Pizza for one Friday, Breakfast for Dinner for one Saturday. You get the idea. I then compare my meal calendar to my master calendar so I know which days I don’t have to make a meal, such as “Birthday Dinner for So and So”. Writing out the meals is SO quick and easy now that I just have to tweak a basic outline each month.
An aside to #1- now that I’m looking ahead each month, I’m much much better about remembering birthdays and anticipating calendar conflicts. Just last week I was able to point out to the hubby that we both had a meeting on a particular evening. Thankfully we were able to change our agenda and avoided a huge “Oh crap!” moment.
2. My grocery shopping list consists of “the staples” such as bread and eggs, and the extras I need for my meals that week, such as mozzarella or cashews. Basing my grocery list on my written meal calendar helps me to remember key ingredients. For example, I don’t normally buy limes, but my pad thai recipe calls for them next week. Following my grocery list also helps me to not impulse buy. Ok, I’m still guilty of the chocolate grabbed at the last moment (Seriously, who can pass up Trader Joe’s peanut butter cups?!), but I am not buying everything that “may” end up in a meal or getting sucked into buying the product that just looks so yummy!
3. Choose one food item per week to prep ahead of time. This rule has allowed me to make wholesome, nutritious meals even on the days when I’m scrambling for time (or clarity of thought… just depends on the day). So what does this look like? My family buys in bulk, so I choose 1 vegetable in bulk at each shopping trip. Then I come home and wash, skin, chop, bag, and freeze that one item. Last week it was carrots, this week it was lemons. Having done this over the course of 6 months, I now have a great variety of ready-to-cook fruits and vegetables. This shaves off a lot of cooking time, as well as makes our meals healthier because I can throw an extra vegetable into a recipe or quickly steam a vegetable for a side dish. Voila!
An aside to #3- Going one more step to puree the vegetable before bagging and freezing has made baby-food-making a breeze. I thought making baby food this time around (with a toddler at my heels as well as a baby on my hip) would be a nightmare- but it’s actually easier this time around!
4. When life happens and I just cannot make the planned meal for that day, I have a list of “Meals in a Pinch”. These meals are easy to make and fan favorites. My list is: grilled cheese, fruit and spinach smoothies, frozen cheese pizza with added fresh toppings, hot dogs, and macaroni and cheese.
5. Give yourself a break. Not every recipe will turn out. You may make a mistake, your ingredients may be stale, or the recipe may just disagree with you or your family’s taste. That’s ok! Think of it as a learning curve for trying something new. Remove the failed recipe from your monthly outline and don’t get down on yourself. Even seasoned cooks have meal failures. This just means no matter how experienced or inexperienced you are, you are willing to try something new. Good for you!
If you do something additional or differently for meal planning- and it’s working for you- please let me know! I’m always game for new ideas that make meal prep a joy rather than a burden.
My February 2014 meal calendar is below. You’ll notice that I also include household chores every day. This is because I was getting overwhelmed with the idea of cleaning the ENTIRE house or doing TEN loads of laundry at a time. By consistently doing 1-2 chores per day, my house and my sanity stay clear from the “Danger Zone”.