“Mom... what’s for dinner?”
Oh, how I hate that question. I don’t know why. There is nothing wrong with my kids wanting to know what they are going to eat. We all like to know if its worth being excited about or dreading. I’ve been told that the way to prevent being asked that question is to have a chalk board in my kitchen that lists the meals for the week (or day). Sure, that sounds like a real novel idea, but the problem is that it requires organization. Especially lately, but there are days in my life that I have no idea what I’m making for dinner until it’s time to eat.
Getting organized and staying organized for meal planning is always a challenge. You don’t need to have a large family to feel the pressure of this sometimes mundane task. To top it off, once you get your act together, life comes along and messes every thing up. Yet, for me, even though I know that my best organized week will never go as I planned, I always find that planning still helps a week go smoother than it probably would have otherwise.
I have also found that my life has gone through many different seasons. The needs, schedules, and tastes of my family have changed so often that I have learned to adapt and flow with them. Just because I find a planning routine that works right now, it is very likely that it won’t last for long. I have had to accept the fact that my one procedure of planning and organizing is not guaranteed to work for the rest of my life.
That is why through the years, I have created several different approaches to organizing meals and shopping. As my life and family have changed I have had to make adjustments. Each of these strategies have worked wonderfully for the time in which I used them. I give them to you now so maybe you will find them useful for the season in which you find yourself.
Method #1: Week by Week
This is the strategy that I have used the most often. It is the most flexible of them all. In this routine, I sit down with my computer (which is my external hard drive to my brain containing the calendar filled with important meetings, appointments and practices), a scrap piece of paper, and several of my favorite recipe books. I write out the days of the week, making note of the activities that will likely interfere with dinner plans. For instance, since Wednesday evenings at this point of my life is filled with religious training classes for my children, I have to plan a meal that can simmer on the stove or cook slowly in a crock pot, while I run children around and then feed them later. Most weeks, I have to plan dinner around trips to the airport, sporting events, and the delightful date night. After listing those activities, I write out the meals that work best, trying to keep variety and excitement to the menu. I always like to attempt new recipes, so I usually start there. After exhausting the options in my cookbooks or Pinterest account, I settle for the ole faithful family favorites for the rest of the week. As I make out this list, I keep a running grocery inventory as well. That way, I will have an idea of what groceries need to be purchased to pull of the week.
The pros: The flexibility of this approach is the biggest benefit. It also allows for great diversity. You can plan meals that seem appealing to you at that moment.
The cons: I have found that the biggest draw back is the time it requires of me. I put it off because I don’t want to spend the mental energy needed to search my cookbooks, working around events, and still providing diversity each evening.
Method #2: Multi-Folder Recipe System
This approach was my attempt to ease my exhausted brain by placing my favorite recipes into a simpler to find construction. During this phase of my life, diversity in meals was not as important as ease in planning. It took me one evening (while my husband watched a football game) to print out or photo copy the recipes that I use the most. I organized them into little folders and labeled them by food category. ( You can see in my picture below that I used a high tech labeling system. I have a “chicken” folder, a “Meat” folder, a “side dish” folder, as well as, “dessert”, “bread”, "breakfast", and "soup". Once the folders were finished, when I sat down to do my planning, I just had to grab my stack of folders and hunt through the recipes I knew we liked and felt comfortable making. These folders are also great for displaying my recipe as I cook. There is no need for a bulky book.
The pros: The convenience of having all of your favorite recipes together is agreeable. Also, having to exert less mental strain helps you to be more motivated to sit down and plan. As a side benefit, the process of printing and organizing your recipes into little folders, making labels, and the like, feeds the creative cravings of most type "A" people.
The cons: Even though you can be open to adding in new recipes from time to time, this method can become repetitious, lacking diversity. Some may also find the whole process of making folders overwhelming.
Method #3: The Three Week Rotating List:
This was a great strategy I created years ago. I loved the simplicity. My children were young so our schedule was simpler and more predictable. I wrote a list of all the dinners we liked to eat. I had enough meal options to fashion a three week schedule of dinners. For example, Monday, week 1 was tacos. Tuesday, week 1 was pasta. Wednesday, week 1 was chicken noodle soup. Once each week, I left an evening open for trying a new recipe. I kept the master list hanging on the fridge for all to see. Since I chose dinners that I knew we all liked, there was little complaining. I had a master grocery list for each week and would do the shopping a day before the new week started. After finishing the three week schedule, it just started over. No real planning necessary.
The pros: The best part of this option was the simplicity in planning. Predictability provides peace, especially to children. Giving myself a three week rotation guaranteed that we were not eating the same meals every week. Even though we like tacos, my kids didn’t have to eat them every time mom couldn’t think of what to cook. Furthermore, budgeting my groceries was also easier. Since my shopping list rarely changed, we knew how much to set aside for that expense.
The cons: Boredom is the biggest draw back. I like to try new recipes and I am always reading about health, so I ended up dropping this routine because I needed to change things up and start a new diet.
Method #4: Pantry Master Grocery List
This planning option is one that I have been using more recently. Scheduling meals has become more difficult, but I don’t want to give into unhealthy eating. What I have found is that keeping the right food in the pantry, fridge, and freezer is key. When you have the right ingredients, you can whip up simple healthy meals pretty quickly. This method is more about planning your grocery shopping than planning your cooking. I have a master list of groceries that will guarantee quick, simple, and healthy meals. I always need to have canned salmon, canned tomatoes, honey, raw nuts, almond flour, frozen fruit, chocolate chips, and good seasonings (to name a few) stocked in my kitchen. When my freezer is full of meat, I can reach in and grab out several cuts to thaw in the fridge. At dinner time, I can choose the meat that is ready and throw it together with the vegetables I have stocked. Keeping meals simple is the key to this strategy.
The pros: The best part of this method is that there is basically no planning necessary. I also think there is great benefit to simplifying meals. I find that my kids eat better when I make basic meals with little flare.
The Cons: This method requires that you have a basic understanding of cooking and making food taste right without following directions. It also mandates that you keep up on your shopping. That is where the actual list helps. You can compare your stock to what you need before heading to the store.
Meal planning can be completely exhausting. It's easy to avoid it. Yet, there is great benefit to planning the meals you feed your family. I hope you find some help among these methods.
*** Please feel free to share and leave comments. I would love to hear about any meal planning method that has worked for you.
***Stock photos provided by: dollarphotoclub.com