Meal planning! It seems like it’s such a problem for many moms. I have friends that regularly ask “what are you cooking for dinner tonight?!” in a frantic post on Facebook. When I was on the leadership team of our local chapter of Moms of Preschoolers, it was a joke that any time we asked for suggestions of topics to cover, meal planning was mentioned… by a few people. For whatever reason, meals feel like a slippery, reptilian animal that many of us struggle to keep our grip on.
I have not perfected it, by any means, but I have finally figured out a system that really works for me. There are TONS of ideas out there on Pinterest that involve things like color-coded cards, magnets, binders, plastic sleeves, etc etc etc. For me, that’s way too complicated and something I’ll never keep up with. I tried. It was a waste of craft supplies. What works for me is a plain old notebook and a pen.
I keep a notebook that I call “my brain” that contains all the things I need to keep my life somewhat simple… it’s like an incredibly simplified version of a bullet journal. One of the things that stays in it is my bi-weekly menu plan. I plan for two weeks at a time, then – apart from some fresh produce and maybe milk – I shop for two weeks at a time. I used to do one week, but this has been much easier- and cheaper – for me. I’m super grateful that we found an old, cheap but functional fridge to live on our back porch so that I have room to store that additional week’s worth of groceries.
The first step is to write out the dates that I’m planning for, then write in any events that are happening in the evening (or all day) that would affect supper prep and cleanup. There are a lot more of them than normal this week; my husband is a youth pastor and we have lots of graduations to go to! Sometimes those magical pink lines are a ticket for not cooking (beach = eating with my in-laws) but sometimes they mean I need something that cooks fast and cleans up easily.
I always begin the actual meal planning by going back to see what meals I can roll over from the last menu. It never fails that plans change at least once and I don’t use a meal or two that I’d shopped for. Then I like to fill out the meals that have to be a “certain type”. To an extent, I have a pattern I follow. Some people have Meatless Monday or Taco Tuesday… I have One-Pot Wednesday and Slow Cooker Sunday. Wednesdays are always a one-pot meal for minimum cleanup, because we have to get to the church for youth group. Sundays are usually a crock pot meal because I plan a “big” meal for lunch that cooks during church and then supper is something like sandwiches or leftovers.
When I’m doing this, I also be sure to put in any special meals for celebrations, or meals that I need to be able to cook ahead of time – like chicken pot pie for our kids and their babysitter on Saturday evening, because we will be out on a date!
All that’s left is to plug meals in to whatever nights are left. One thing I’ve discovered that helps me a lot is to not necessarily plan sides. For whatever reason, I ended up planning more specific sides on this menu than I ever have. I usually just jot down a main course, then make sure to buy plenty of different vegetables and cook whatever I feel like having that night. This way, I feel prepared, but not locked in too much. I like flexibility.
Speaking of flexibility… THIS MENU IS NOT WRITTEN IN STONE. In fact, the only reason it in something as permanent as ink is because I hate writing with pencils. I scribble on this page for the whole two weeks it’s being used – swapping meals around as I see fit, changing my mind completely, etc. I will not be opposed to changing my mind… if the chicken is thawed, it can be cooked and used tomorrow.
(I’ll always put a bra back on if it means I’m being taken out for wings…)
Once I have the menu planned, I go back through it and make my grocery list. It’s so nice to know that I’m buying what I need and that I won’t have to run to the store because I don’t have enough cheese for the pizza I’m making on a whim. I also always keep ingredients for some “fail safe” quick meals on hand. Fried rice is an example of this; it takes few ingredients and they are all dry goods or frozen, so nothing goes bad. I keep these around for the times that there’s nothing left on the menu that requires little work, but I DO NOT feel like cooking. I usually use it. 😉
I also put stars next to the meals that I can build and refrigerate ahead of time. Occasionally I’ll be in the kitchen and feeling extra ambitions, so I’ll work a little be ahead so that I can have another night “off”.
And yes, sometimes, I literally write “buy pizza” on the menu when I know that day is going to be busy. Because life is real, man.
What kind of meal planning strategies do you use? What have you found works and does NOT work for you?