One question I often hear in regards to keeping the home is how to manage meals. Most moms I know don’t mind the actual cooking; many tell me that they really enjoy cooking. The part that many struggle with (myself included) is in planning. Making your dinner plans each morning or afternoon doesn’t often work out too well when you have little children at home. Afternoons are when you’re longing for a good nap, and the last thing you want to think about at 3pm is “What should I do with that defrosted chicken?” or “Oh no, I forgot to defrost something! What am I going to do for dinner?” Likewise, moms of littles don’t usually have flexibility and time for frequent shopping or last-minute ingredient grocery shopping. During this season of life, grocery shopping is difficult to do more than about once a week, so some amount of planning is essential if we want to have three meals on the table every day.
Moms, I’m with you and have had the very same struggle. My personality is one that does much better if I’m simply following plans rather than creatively deciding as I move along. I’ve written about menu planning before (here and here), but it’s been a while, and I’ve changed some things since then, so it seems time to give this topic another go. Here’s the best advice I have to offer on this subject.
1) Create an Master List
Unless you love the flexibility of being able to creatively put together a new dinner idea each day, you may need a little inspiration to keep you out of a rut. If this describes you, put together a master list of meals that you can turn to for inspiration when you do your planning.
Grab a notebook and a pencil, and start brainstorming. Begin writing down some of your favorite meals. Then start asking your husband and children what their favorite meals are. Ask them to be specific. If they tell you “chicken,” ask them what kind of chicken. Write it down. Write down any other kinds of chicken that come to mind when they answer. Ask them to tell you the complete meal; what side dishes do they like with that? Write down the entire thing (i.e. “barbecued chicken with corn on the cob, macaroni and cheese, and black beans” or “cheeseburgers with french fries and apples”). The more specific, the better.
Does your family need some more inspiration? Ask them pointed questions:
- Have you ever really enjoyed a meal at someone else’s home, that you would like me to cook? What sides did they make with it?
- What’s the best meal you ever ate at a restaurant?
- What meal makes you think of vacation?
- What’s your favorite meal you’ve eaten during a special holiday?
- If your birthday were tomorrow, what would you request for your birthday dinner?
- What’s your favorite Italian meal? Chinese meal? Mexican meal?
- What are your favorite picnic foods?
- What are your favorite “fancy” meals?
- (For your husband) What were some of your favorite meals when you were a child?
As mentioned before, don’t just write down the main dish. Write down the whole menu. It can really give you the needed dose of inspiration when it comes time to do your planning and preparation!
After you have a nice list, put it somewhere you will easily access it. You might type it up and save it on your computer. You might tape a copy somewhere in your kitchen, or put it in your favorite cookbook. If you have a household binder, file it in your “foods” section.
Did you do it? Congratulations! This is honestly the most difficult part. You now have inspiration to turn to, a tremendous list of meals your family loves, which you can pick and choose from as you plan your meals week in and week out!
2) Make a Menu Calendar
The idea of using a calendar as a menu plan is a new one for me, and it’s so simple I don’t know why I didn’t think of it years ago. Print out a simple, blank calendar (Donna Young has nice calendars available to print for free, here.) If you also want to plan ahead for your breakfast and lunch menus, print out three copies and label each one accordingly.
Next, get out your master list of menu ideas, and start filling in the calendar! Keep in mind how much time you have to prepare your meals on any given day. If Mondays are typically crazy but Thursdays are lighter, you may want to do the quesadillas on Monday and save the Chicken Cordon Bleu for Thursday. Don’t forget to write down what your side dishes will be. Come Thursday, you’ll be glad you won’t have to make a last-minute trip to the store for asparagus!
Fill in as much of the calendar as you like. I’d recommend at least one week’s worth of meals, but if you want to, go ahead and fill in the entire month. I do suggest writing in pencil, because sometimes plans change. We want our calendar to be a useful tool for us, not a master over us.
Cowgirl usually makes breakfast, and Writer usually makes lunch for our family, so they create menu calendars of their own. I keep all three on the refrigerator with a clip magnet. Knowing their plans ahead of time helps me to ensure that they always have ingredients they need as well.
You might consider saving your calendars. In a few months, you’ll have a nice collection of well-planned menu calendars which you may be able to reuse!
3) Grocery Shopping
Look over your upcoming meals, and write down any ingredients that you will need. Even if you have your entire month’s worth of meals planned, you probably won’t want to do your entire month’s worth of shopping.Your plans might change from that far in advance, some of it may spoil before the month ends, and if you have a large family especially, you may not have the space to fit it all in your kitchen. I typically do my grocery shopping once a week.
I love my grocery list. The list is a table with eleven blocks, each block labeled with a category in the grocery store. When I notice that we need something, I simply jot it under the correct category, automatically organizing my list as I go! With my list categorized, I can zoom through the grocery store very quickly. Iron Man and I have also been known to tear the list in half so we can divide and conquer!
(to print out a copy, click here: Grocery List)
I do as much shopping as possible at Sams Club, using their online shopping feature to simplify shopping even further. Since we buy a lot of food in bulk, I will usually separate the meat into smaller amounts before freezing it. I place the meat into plastic storage bags labelled with the contents, approximate weight, and date. Storing the meat in plastic bags additionally speeds up the thawing process when I need to use it at a later date.
4) Follow Through!
Your plans are already made, your kitchen is stocked, and you are well-prepared. The rest is easy! Be in the habit of checking your menu calendar every morning and thawing whatever you’ll need later. My routine is to take the meat out of the deep freezer every morning when I start the laundry. Since I usually defrost our meat the day that we need it, I will fill up large bowl of cold water and place the sealed meat package there. The meat usually thaws in three or four hours, and I still have several hours left to marinate it if needed.
If meal prep time is a difficult time of day for you (for example, if you tend to be very tired at that hour after a long day of homeschooling, housework and caring for little ones, or if you’re pregnant and tend get morning sickness around that time), then plan to do your chopping, mixing and slicing at lunch time, so you’ll have less to do in the hour before dinner.
Have you used this system or anything similar? I’d love to hear your experience, and any other ideas that may help other moms striving to bless their families with well-planned meals!