Meal Planning Makes for a Well Planned Week

Even before I had children I'd stop my work day to make that infamous call to my husband to ask what he wanted to do for dinner that night. Of course, it was never an easy answer and it was usually preceded by..."I don't know...umm...", which would then be followed by a trip to the market (which seems to be when everyone else is buying dinner ingredients too). I hated thinking about it. I just wanted it done for me. Now that I have two children, I need to be a little more 'well planned'. Not only do I not only have time to buy ingredients everyday, I couldn't fathom braving the grocery store every day with two kids in tow. It's hard enough to do it once a week (which is why I'm a big fan of Peapod).

I hate that feeling at 4 o'clock when you realize dinner time is coming but you're not quite sure what to do and whether or not a trip to the market is in store (no pun intended;-). With two small children, I really need to be more well planned than that. So I've been dabbling with a few meal planning solutions, both of which I'll share with you since everyone should find a system that works best for them.

But first a few reasons why it's so important...(Note: this is a long post, but well worth the read if you struggle with the infamous question..."what should we have for dinner tonight?")
  • Meal planning saves you time. Yes, you'll end up spending time up front putting it together, but you won't have to worry about it all week (or month if you're that ambitious) nor will you waste countless hours on various trips to the market figuring it out as you go.
  • Meal planning saves you money. How many times you do use one small portion of a fresh bunch of basil or cilantro and then the rest goes bad before you use it again? When you menu plan, you can select meals with some similar ingredients to get the best bang for your buck and you can plan to use your leftovers more wisely. You can also use your weekly supermarket flyer to plan your meals, buying on-sale meats and vegetables. Most stores make them available online now, so you can take a quick glance before you plan for the week.
  • Meal planning means healthier eating. When you know what's for dinner and plan for it, you're less likely to give-in to ordering out or eating cereal for dinner (although my husband would eat cereal for three square meals a day if he could!) When you plan for well-rounded meals your family is more likely to consume fresh fruits and vegetables.
Some simple tips on how to make the most of your menu planning...

  • Look at your calendar and determine what nights you'll need to have dinner ready for (some nights you'll be out, some you'll get home late and will eat leftovers, etc.). Identify how many meals in the week you'll need to plan for.
  • Pick a day that you'll habitually do your meal planning for the week. If you're a bargain shopper, sit down with your weekly sales flyers (if you get them - or look it up online) and your recipe binders (or cookbooks) and pull out meals that use on sale ingredients and fit your schedule for that week. 
  • Pick recipes with similar ingredients. You'll get more bang for your buck when you do.When you settle on a meal with ingredients in small amounts (like coconut milk or cilantro), try to find another recipe later that week that will use the remainder so as not to waste it.
  • Scan your pantry and refrigerator for items that are on their last leg (or near expiration) and should be used soon. Plan a meal around the polenta you bought on a whim and have been meaning to chef up.
  • Don't forget to think about lunch (and snacks, especially if you have young kids). We tend to forget to think about lunch in the overall plan and end up spending extra money and time figuring out lunch on the fly.
  • Create a shopping list based on the ingredients of all your meals. The meal planner I'm going to share with you below has spaces for ingredients, but I also like the Real Simple version available at Target. If you're overly ambitious, draft your own based on the aisles of the store you frequent.
  • Consider doubling recipes and freezing them for two weeks from now. Homemade mac & cheese and lasagna are great for this. It will lighten your load quite bit by just taking it out of the freezer the day before and popping it in the oven. I try to use a frozen meal once a week. It makes a big difference.
  • Make a list of meals you know your kids will like and eat (for lunch or dinner) and refer to it when planning your menu for the week. Even knowing what's on the menu for my kid's lunch is one less thing I need to think about.
  • If the idea is to reduce trips to the market, consider drafting a list of items you always want on hand and check that list before you head to the store.
  • Post your meal plan to your family calendar, the fridge or another visible location. It creates accountability to use those fresh ingredients in the refrigerator before they spoil. It also helps me remember why I bought that ginger root.
  • Be flexible. Life always throws us a curve ball now and again, so don't fret if you can't make that night's meal. Just remember to make it within a day or two before the ingredients aren't as fresh.
  • Save your meal plans and reuse them down the road. This is when the electronic versions are handy!
  • Don't make it harder than it is. Use at least two tried and true recipes each week to reduce preparation time.
  • Start slowly. If you've never planned your meals before, start slowly. Don't rush out of the gates trying to plan out your entire month - you'll likely fall victim to quick burnout, thinking it's too much work. Start with the next three or four days, a week at most.
I personally, plan my menu for one week at a time. A dear friend of mine, Kimberly (author of The Sweet Spot blog), created an awesome monthly meal planner that I tried but never really got a handle on as you need to dedicate one block of time to do it, but then you're done for the month (how great is that?!) I may get there over time, but for now I'm sticking with the weekly meal plan until I can reuse previous weeklies and just plug them into the monthly plan - then bam...I'm done! Kimberly gave me permission to post her monthly version too, so you can try what will work best for you.

My weekly meal planning document has a space for kids and parents. Let's just state for the record, I am not one of those parents that typically cooks something different that we're eating. However, I've found that there are occasions when I do. This is usually when my husband and I are out or when I find a recipe that I really want to try but know that my kids won't eat it for whatever reason, so I plan something that they will eat. These rows dedicated to the kids is also helpful for lunch and snacks, when they have a simpler version of what I might have.

Below is a sample of one of my family's weekly meal plans. If you'd like the blank template, click here.

You'll see I've listed space for breakfast, lunch, dinner, dessert and two snacks over the course of each day. I also have a column for "Happenings". This is just a mental reminder of what might be going on that day that might affect a meal (such as a dinner party or PTA Meeting). And lastly, I have a column for groceries associated with that meal that are needed. I find this extra handy when I want to get an ingredient with a short shelf life (like fish) the day I'm using it. The electronic version in Excel is nice (for Type A's like me) because I can add little notes about where the recipes is (what cookbook or binder) so I don't go on a wild goose chase looking for it.

Kimberly's monthly meal planner allows you to bang it all out at once and not deal with it for another month. It has tabs for each month so you can just keep building on it, or reuse menu's as you go. You'll also see that I attempted to add a grocery list tab in October (when I tried this method) so I could keep everything in one place. If you choose to do the monthly planning, I would definitely recommend using this or something similar (edit it to fit your needs). Half of the work involved in planning menus is building the shopping list, so if you have all four weeks of lists done at once and all you need to do is print them out and go to the market...how nice is that?! The version available here is for 2009, which is almost over, but if you'd like the 2010 version without updating it yourself, post a message and I'll email it to you when it becomes available.

Happy meal planning!

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