I was a latch-key kid. Back in the late 80s and early 90s that was still a thing. At 3:30 sharp every afternoon, Mom would call. Not to check in or anything expected like that, but to frantically start planning dinner. Her loud and shrill voice would demand that we go out to the deep freezer and take out something or another (usually chicken of some sort) in preparation for mealtime. Her freezer was/is the size of a large vault and could easily house up to three grown men. Funny though, there was rarely anything much in there. We’d stand there with our faces cradling the cordless phone to our shoulders while she instructed us to look to the left, right, or underneath whatever was in there on that particular day to find “x” and put it in the sink . Not much has changed. If I visit my mom today or tomorrow, the age old question of “What’s for dinner?” is likely to send her into a tizzy.
I just can’t. I’ve tried, unsuccessfully, on several occasions to fly by the seat of my pants. Such spontaneity is a no go for me. Even on such simple tasks as, well, planning dinner. It’s just not in my DNA. I guess, given what I just noted about Mom, it is. But, my logic just won’t allow it.
I. Am. A. Planner. There! Whew! I’m glad we got that out of the way. It’s a part of who I am. Honestly, it works for me way more often than it works against me. For that reason, it’s a part of my personality that I’ve learned to embrace.
I’m prepared to explain and even psychologize, if you will, my mostly rigid personality as a direct response to how haphazardly my parents approached life. This is not a complaint or criticism. Hey, I turned out okay…right? It’s just that I find myself needing a little more security than the freezer-yelling method. And, really, Mom’s technique must’ve worked out okay because we, thank God, ate a hot, home-cooked meal every night. But I just couldn’t figure out why the dinner discussion had to be such an ordeal. Every. Single. Day. I digress. I say all of this to say that once you’ve made your health, and dare I say sanity(???), a priority, meal planning is life.
Perhaps I’m a little biased based on my propensity to plan, but I find that having a fairly detailed menu makes my life infinitely easier. I know you’re busy and your plate is full, but, adding this little ingredient (pun intended) to your weekly or monthly routine can’t be anything but beneficial. I’ll share my process and, hopefully if you haven’t already, you’ll find what works best for your household.
First things first, I am a collector of recipes and food ideas. This is not necessarily a first “step” in my process, but it’s something that’s always kind of going on in the background. For example, I love Pinterest. I browse through a couple times of week and save things that I find intriguing. If I think I want to give them a go soon and I have most of the ingredients required, I save them on my “This Week” board. If it requires that I purchase more ingredients than I want to budget for, I save them on different boards for later dates. Same deal with Instagram; I love, love, love following food blogs. If something catches my eye, I create a pin and save it.
Despite the ease of social media and online searches, I still enjoy good, old-fashioned cookbooks. I have my favorites from forever ago that don’t necessarily correspond with my current lifestyle, but you’d be surprised at how you can alter old favorites with simple ingredient swaps to make it more in tune with where you are today. I don’t necessarily search cookbooks weekly, but every now and then I’ll pull one out and intentionally add something to the menu from it. It narrows down my thought process some and justifies me holding on to them.
Assuming I’ve saved a few menu items throughout the week, I start with examining the freezer and pantry to see what we already have in stock and what entrée items I have on hand. If you don’t do much cooking, you can probably start by considering your budget and build around appropriate entrées and preferences. We’re meat eaters over here, so I generally start there.
I like to keep chicken (white and dark, both bone-in and boneless), ground meat (beef and/ or turkey), and “cleaner” brands of chicken sausage on hand. In addition, we always have chicken stock, canned tomatoes and tomato sauce, various grains to throw at my husband, sweet and some variation of a white potato, onions, garlic, canned coconut milk, and ALL of the dried herbs and spices. Looking at my “on-hand” list, it seems pretty lengthy. But, don’t let that discourage you. I’m a moody eater, and with this variety, I can generally go into my kitchen and go in any direction I choose. My goal is to be able to whip up whatever in the world I have a hankering for. Please, don’t go out and rush to buy ALL the things at once. Adjust everything to your liking and your needs. This is just my method and what works for me, er, us. In addition, I always keep in mind what I’ve eaten over the last week in efforts to maximize variety.
From there, I think about a few themes. Don’t fret, it’s nothing super fancy. I simply identify a few simple categories that we usually see throughout the course of the week. These may include a one-pot or sheet-pan meal (think soup or skillet), Taco Tuesday, something new, or, because I’ve not yet acquired an instant pot, a crockpot meal. Themes may be altered based on the season; i.e. we almost always have a soup on the menu during the winter months. I choose maybe three meals from the newly gathered ideas and one from our tried and true family favorites reservoir, plus one thing to prep for a simple lunch plan, then, I just plug my recipes into the appropriate box on this handy-dandy worksheet I found in Real Simple magazine years ago and voila! A meal-plan is born.
I plan the next week’s menu on Thursday night or early Saturday morning. I clean my fridge on Saturdays, do my shopping on Sundays, and then, time and schedule permitting, I do bulk cooking on Mondays. Bulk cooking corresponds with a gym rest-day so that I can spend all morning at home if necessary. I like to drop my oldest off at school and then I’m headed home to work. After a second cup of coffee of course.
On bulk day, I’ll go ahead and cook anything that will keep for a few days or that needs to just bake in the oven. I’ll do some chopping, cook a pot of rice for D, measure out a few spice mixes to easily grab later in the week. You get the picture, just anything that will make my life flow a little better for the next several days. Yes, I do enjoy cooking, but I don’t always have the time, energy ,or focus. Doing a lot on one day is easier, for me, than dedicated time in the kitchen daily. Plus, once this step is out of the way, I can be more present for playtime adventures, errands, chores, and family fun.
So there you have it. You may read this and find my methods absolutely inefficient. That’s okay because the goal is not to mimic my process, but create your own. We have different lives so what works for me may not work for you.
So, in a nutshell, my process basically looks like this:
- Gather ideas.
- Do freezer and pantry inventory.
- Organize meal plan by theme and what’s readily available.
- Clean my fridge
- Do my shopping
- Cook and prep my fridge for future meals- Bulk Cooking Day
There. Easy as pie. So let’s hear it, What’s your method? What can do you do to help yourself later in the week?
Happy Meal Planning!