Is it a fairly common occurrence to find yourself standing in the kitchen around 5:32p.m., on the verge of a nervous breakdown, while you seriously contemplate making dinner out of a can of condensed soup and a jar of olives that is questionably near its expiration date? I confess, like many other mothers, I once viewed meal planning as equivalent to scrubbing the toilet with a q-tip. However, there was a point when it became apparent I was sacrificing my sanity, the health of my family and our household budget. Something had to change.
Probably the most common obstacle to meal planning is the perception that it takes too much time. Yet, honestly consider how much time you spend playing out scenarios like the one described above each night when the dinner hour rolls around. It’s your lack of a plan that is wasting your time and making you anxious about meals. That anxiety manifests in a habit of avoidance. Changing that habit, means altering the way you picture meal planning in your mind. Visualize what it would look like and imagine how it would feel when early evening approaches, the kids start whining “what are we having for dinner?” and you actually have an answer. You open the refrigerator or look in the cupboards and everything you need is right there waiting. The meal is on the table, on schedule, and your reward is TIME. Yes, by facing the dinner dilemma head on, you’ve reclaimed a portion of your day.
Building on that inner vision of dinner zen, let’s talk about how to make it a reality in your household.
The most essential tool is a weekly menu planner worksheet, you can find a free printable one at www.theorganizedhome.com. Print a whole bunch and put the extras in a two-pocket folder that will become the center of your dinner universe.
Stock up on Staples
There are key ingredients that serve as a foundation for a large variety of healthy basic meals. These include spices, sauces, dry goods, condiments a few canned products and some frozen items. Stocking your shelves with these items will make your weekly shopping trips faster and less costly. Watch for these items on sale and use coupons to affordably build up your supply over time. (Read HERE for our post on stocking a practical pantry)
Create a Healthy Recipe Repertoire: When you meal plan, it is not only possible to eat healthier, but also to do it economically. An array of websites as well as PINTEREST offer an almost endless selection of minimal ingredient (budget friendly), easy to prepare (quick) and good for you (but still actually taste really good) recipes. In less than 30 minutes, you can choose and print off at least fifteen “go to” recipes. Combine these with a few of your family’s tried and true favorites and you will have a full month’s rotation of recipes. You can repeat the same line-up or add a few new options each month. If you want to check out Sunshine and Hurricanes Pinterest Boards below, I’ve actually created 4 boards (one for each week) with some of my favorite and kid approved recipes that are part of my rotation.
Ready, Set, Plan & Save
Using your primary grocery store’s weekly circular or website, determine what primary ingredients such as meats and vegetables are sale and use those to drive your weekly recipe selection. Also consider your family’s schedule for the week and what time constraints you may face. If you’ve got a big meeting at work that may run late the same night as your daughter’s soccer practice, then it sounds like leftovers or make your own sandwich night may be the right call. Anticipating potential supper sabotage can significantly cut down on how often you end up resorting to fast food and reduce if not entirely eliminate unplanned for expenses and serious nutritional compromises.
Other Simple Shortcuts
Another meal planning strategy that people swear by is the cook once and freeze approach that has two different implementations. In some cases, you simply double up on recipes that are part of your existing weekly menu and freeze the extra servings for future fast fix meals. There are also people who use the weekend to prep and freeze meals for the entire week ahead.
Crock Pots have experienced a resurgence recently and can be a life saver for busy families. Being able to throw everything together in the morning before leaving for the day, then coming home to a ready to eat meal is yet another way to avert the fast food trap. High quality slow cookers can be purchased for under $35 at Target or Wal-Mart and make for a very affordable addition to your cooking arsenal. However, be aware that crock-pot recipes are not always the healthiest options. Just pay attention to the nutritional information when you select your recipes.
Rarely does an individual attempt meal planning who doesn’t quickly adopt the new habit. When we live in a world where we often feel like so much is beyond our control, what we serve our families to eat and how much we spend is a rare exception. Happy Planning!