I wish I was a fancy menu planner.
For some reason I get asked often about how I plan meals, part of that probably because it's really helpful and natural for other moms to talk about that but part, I think, is because people have the impression I have something very elaborate going on. I don't. But I have figured out what works well for my family and have lost (mostly) the stress of family meal planning.
I love to eat, yes, and I love to eat good fancy things and wish I could eat those good fancy things all the meals all the days. All true. But planning and executing good fancy things for a family where those good fancy things would not really be that appreciated? Not worth it. I married a simple man with simple tastes and so far our children are simple children with simple tastes (though the Luke is showing some promise with being my exotic eating partner). So it makes sense, despite the boringness for me, that I keep our meal plans simple and healthy. Plus, I like to not lose my mind. There's that, too. The idea of having to figure out every single day or even every single week what we are going to eat is very overwhelming to me. I'd much prefer to put that energy elsewhere. For some reason waking up already knowing what's for dinner that night and it not being a four o'clock crapshoot makes me feel like my life is a little bit more put together and that's a good thing.
So behold my five favorite tips for boring yet sanity-saving meal planning :)
Simplify Breakfast and Lunch
First off, get a breakfast and lunch routine down so you can stop thinking about it. I'm genuinely intrigued by people who make meal plans that include breakfast and lunch. Wow, that's a LOT of work. The Boring Children here at the Boring Home eat almost the same things for breakfast and lunch every. single. day. And it works. It's just what they know and expect. For me, choosing something simple, healthy, and nourishing and developing that as your routine is SO worth the sacrifice of novelty and diversity.
So for breakfast every weekday and Saturday the Boring Children have steel cut oatmeal (soaked overnight) sprinkled with a bit of brown sugar (unless they were naughty and got up too early and woke up their brothers then nada on the sugar), a banana, and, as long as the hens are laying well, scrambled eggs with some cheddar cheese. Every few days I may include a small green smoothie, too. On Sundays they get cereal (from the box! Excitement abounds!), a banana, and I make eggs after Mass.
For lunch? A peanut butter and honey sandwich on homemade whole wheat bread (I like the Trader Joe's natural peanut butter best and we try to use only raw honey.), a piece of whatever is in season or at least not too expensive fruit, and usually a few slices of cheese. (If no cheese because it's kind of expensive and goes fast, then maybe another piece of fruit or some almonds or something.) On Sundays we have "snacky lunch" which is a very lame name for eat whatever you want or that one of your parents has the motivation to prep for you. Lunches for me are usually leftovers or when I'm healthy, a salad or tuna fish or something.
See? Boring but healthy, enjoyed, very financially lean, and you won't lose your mind.
Create Your Go-To Working Meal List
So now we come to the big meal. Dinner. What I did and what might work for you is to come up with an actual list of your family's favorite go-to meals and organize them by category. I have mine organized by protein type: beef, poultry, seafood, pork, vegetarian, and soups. Ones that can be made in the slow cooker have an asterisk. Some people might prefer to organize them by season or ease of cooking and that's fine. Whatever makes the most sense in your head. This is something that will be added to and played with a lot so start with the basics and as you remember meals that work for your family, add them on. I typed mine out so that I can easily add to and edit it. As you come across new recipes that you might like to audition for your list, create a Pinterest board and/or a paper folder for that purpose. If they win, they eventually can be added to the list.
While having a set meal list to work from isn't fabulously exotic or exciting, it's sanity saving and for me, that's worth it. I don't have the mental energy or desire to come up with unique and exciting anyway and even the idea of perusing recipes every week or month for new ideas is exhausting. It's just not my thing. Even if I were to want to try lots of different ideas, the rest of my family prefers much simpler so for me, the trade-off is worth it. Plus, it makes eating out all the more special. Having a list to work from of meals you know your family likes, you know how to make, and that you can easily throw on the schedule is really helpful.
Get a Reusable Monthly Calendar.
(Or weekly, if you'd prefer. But I like to do this task as least often as possible so I go monthly.)
I have a simple dry erase poster that is hung on the refrigerator that I picked up at a garage sale. It's not pretty but it works. You could also type it out each month which may be an idea I switch to in the future so that I can easily save past months' plans. I do prefer something tangible that can be hung or is visible over something digital. Not only is it a physical reminder of the things I'll need for groceries that week but the littler Boring Children have learned from it how a calendar works and it builds anticipation for special days they see coming up.
Set Up Your Calendar - Special Meals First and Fill in the Rest
Now, for the actual dinner planning. On the calendar I fill out the dates and important occasions that may fall on those dates for the month. This includes birthdays, feast days, holidays, family celebrations, party invites, etc. Basically things that may be the occasion for a special or already taken care of meal. I figure out what I will serve on those days of the month first. So, for example, if I know Boring Child X has a birthday and wants a certain meal, that gets filled in first so that I can plan around that day without repeating something similar within a few days. Or if I see that a special saint feast day falls in that month and I wanted to have something specific for that, I put that in first.
After doing those special days, I then use my handy dandy meal list to fill in the rest. I first fill up with the favorites that no one minds repeating (Tacos. Always with the tacos.) and then fill in with ones that we haven't had in a while, ones that may be more labor intensive, or a new recipe that I came across that struck my fancy. At the same time I try to separate similar types of entree (like not putting two days of ground beef meals next to each other) and make Fridays meatless. I also try to take into account leftovers I will have from a bigger meal that can be used in something else later in the week. If we roast a chicken on Sunday, then I may make stock in the next day or two and use that for soup or the leftover chicken in a casserole a few days later.
Days that I know we'll be out of the house for much of the day or when we're otherwise very busy that day get slow cooker meals, one of my "cheater" meals, or a freezer meal.
I wasn't kidding. It's not even the littlest bit fancy and neither are the meals on it. BUT it works.
Use Your Go-To Meal List to Create a Simplified Grocery Plan
One of the best benefits of a basically set meal list? Grocery shopping becomes so very much simpler. At one point I went through my meal list and made a set grocery list with a space next to each item to check off as it was needed. That was really helpful. Have a working knowledge and list of the ingredients you need and use with the meals that work for your family. Keeping your recipe inventory to those that use real ingredients and are cooked from scratch means that a lot of those items can be used for a variety of recipes on your list not just that one (plus, better for you!). That means, for me, I forgo recipes that contain ingredients that are limited in their use or that are expensive or have a small shelf life. I'm now at the point where I can just mentally go through my cupboards and fridge and know what we usually buy and whether or not we need to restock. Unless I have a real hankerin' for something different or one of those special night meals requires certain ingredients I don't usually have, our grocery list remains basically the same each month which saves time, mental energy, and a whole lot of money.
It's not perfect but it works for us. There are still days, of course, where I get distracted and forget to take the meat out of the freezer to thaw or we did overlook a necessary ingredient on the last grocery stop. There are also days I just feel lazy or maybe inspired to do something else and I veer from the plan. But the funny thing with all this is when I have a plan in place, I feel much freer to go OFF the plan as I feel like it. (I'm that way with homeschooling, too. I need to have the reassurance of a plan but without necessarily always planning to follow it.) I'm not a slave to the calendar but it frees me up to think about things that are more important to me or to go off the plan if I feel like I have the energy or desire on a certain day. So, many of the nights I don't end up making what's on the calendar because I just felt like doing something different and it's my boring plan anyway so I can do that.
Maybe someday I'll be one of those lovely people who gets a thrill over meal planning and creates specialized menus for every day of the week and whose palette is stimulated at every meal. Or maybe we'll win the lottery and I'll just hire one of those people. Until either one happens, I'll keep doing what works for us, boring as it may be. Maybe you do a lot of this already but maybe something on this list will work for someone else out there, too :)
Linking up with the lovely Jenna for Five Favorites!