I’m a recent convert of weekly menu planning. For a long time, I viewed “menu planning” as “Hey - I’m going to have guests for dinner, so I should buy stuff ahead of time,” or “I should use up the chicken in the fridge…” I had admiration for those motivated, extra-organized people who are able to menu plan for a whole week ahead of time, shop ahead, etc. I always felt like this level of planning kind of cramped my breezy “What do I feel like eating tonight?” style. It was almost like menu planning would somehow be a hindrance to my creativity in the kitchen, or otherwise too rigid for changing schedule obligations. I felt like menu planning was better suited to more organized homemakers, and not quite as compatible with the romance of a more carefree lifestyle.
However, as life changed, I needed to readapt. I had so many swirling factors going on: full-time work plus teaching 1-2 nights per week, a stringent budget, a super picky eater, plus a ton of other considerations (is it healthy, is it delicious, OMG – I have a ton of things to use up in the fridge…). So, I sat down one day and decided to actually write down what we were going to eat every night for the next week; shopping only from the fridge, freezer, and pantry. Things I noticed - this was way easier than I thought. I looked at things like all the produce, what would go bad first, and then filled in gaps around that. I also noted things like evening meetings, or other scheduling considerations. What kinds of meals would take extra prep, and what kinds were easy (i.e., leftovers, soup/sandwiches, etc.). That first week went really well. I didn’t realize how much stress the simple matter of making dinner had added to our daily routine. Once it was down on paper, there was also less of a temptation to say, “I’m tired - let’s just go out, or get delivery.” Fewer things were being thrown away, and there were fewer trips to the grocery store.
Moreover, as our son started to get older, keeping him on a regular schedule meant that dinner time had to happen sooner than what we were normally used to. Getting home around 6-6:30 often meant we would eat around 8 or 9 at night. When I could just put the little one in a high chair with some finger foods while we took our time eating, it wasn’t a big deal. Plus, when he was in daycare, he had a couple of nap times, and a looser schedule worked. However, when preschool hit, and a much more regular and earlier schedule was needed, we didn’t have the luxury of taking time to figure out what we wanted to make. This resulted in starting to make dinner after 7. Menu planning helped to keep us on task in order to have family dinner time, bath, and a regular bedtime.
Planning one week at a time -- I have to say I really admire the families who can map out a month’s worth of meals. I feel like our household needs more flexibility. The flexibility factor was what had scared me off this planning previously, but I found that a week at a time was super manageable, and gave us room for spontaneity, while still keeping us on track. When I tried to do 2 or more weeks in advance, I found it was really easy to get pulled off track after the 4th day. However, one week was enough to allow for the kind of flexibility we wanted, without being discouraging. Part of successful goal setting is to plan some short-term, achievable goals. For me, it was one week at a time.
Shopping from my pantry/fridge/freezer -- By taking a quick inventory of my staples once a week, I was less likely to forget about things tucked in the back, and cut down on “mystery” items. We get bi-weekly produce boxes, and there was always something I forgot about in the back of the fridge. This approach encouraged me to investigate what was about to go bad and needed to be used up quickly. It also reminded me of leftovers, and inspired me to plan on how those were going to be eaten (discussed more below).
Planning according to my schedule -- I really, really love eating a nice lasagna made from a luscious homemade Bolognese, or a roasted chicken with mashed potatoes, or a hearty, slow-cooked stew. But those take a lot of time, and are usually relegated to Sunday dinner. One key thing was that we would often eat out on a weeknight, or get delivery, because we were exhausted... and cooking a meal seemed like just too much. Planning out a meal, assembling ingredients, etc. can take up a LOT of mental energy. Then you have to actually execute. After a long day of work, or other activities, it can be very tempting to skip making dinner altogether. Or, if you have some kind of evening meeting, who has time to make something beforehand or after??? But these are perfect nights for pulling out a quart of frozen soup (which reheats quickly in a large saucepan) and making sandwiches, or plan for leftovers night.
Leftovers -- While reheating leftover Chinese food is perfectly acceptable for a weeknight dinner (or breakfast), the key is to remember to eat it before it goes bad. I love “leftover” nights for midweek, or if I know I’m going to be home late from an afternoon meeting, etc. I also like to look at how to reinvent leftovers. Sandwiches, soups, salads, or even homemade pizzas are really good ways to use up leftovers.
Comfort on a weeknight -- Remember that stew or lasagna from a delightful Sunday night? Well, after we had it for dinner, I probably portioned up and froze half of it. I can’t even tell you how much I love to pull out a portion of lasagna, put it in a small baking dish, freshen it up with a little sauce or cheese, and bake off. Or, plan a slow cooker dinner that can cook while you are at work and is ready when you walk through the door. Prepare a side salad, and you have Sunday dinner on a Wednesday.
Planning for a picky eater -- My preschool aged son is a ridiculously picky eater. Menu planning for him was extra frustrating for both me and my husband. While menu planning for us, I also mapped out his dinners, which included stuff he would eat that was similar to our foods. This also gave me the opportunity to talk to him about what kind of foods were on the menu, in order to prepare him. (I’ll re-visit this whole issue in a future post.)
Spending a few minutes on Saturday morning mapping out the week to come also helped to satisfy that urge to read cookbooks and fantasize about recipes. By adhering to these simple considerations, menu-planning became a game-changer and sanity saver for our family.
Stephanie is mom to an amazing son, was formerly AFC's Babysitting Co-op Chairperson, and currently spearheads our delicious Cookbook Club.