When we were first married, my husband and I would try to be the first to ask the dreaded question at the end of each day, what’s for dinner? We never had a plan, and it took us forever to figure out what we wanted to do. We’d end up eating dinner at like 8:00 in the evening. I dreaded those moments, and now that I spend my days at home with the kids having to prepare three meals a day, everyday, for four people, the question of what’s for lunch, or dinner–even a mere I’m hungry, can send me into a mild panic.
Struggling each day with what to prepare and wondering if I have all the ingredients is tiring, frustrating, and downright stressful. I reached a point when I said to myself, this is ridiculous. It was around this time that I ran across a post in my google reader about menu planning. I had never heard of this before, but it sounded worth looking into. So, I set out to read up on menu planning as much as possible. About 15 blogs and websites later, I was pretty sure I had the idea, and thought about giving this whole thing a try.
I must confess, I am not the most organized person. I try, but it usually doesn’t end up sticking. During my research, I learned that in order for your system to be effective and efficient you need to take some time to sit down and organize. I feared this concept at first. Me, organized? Gulp. Still, I faced my fear and sat down to make my plan.
I started my menu plan over the summer, during a week my husband was out of town, and kept up with it for a few months. When I first started it was fun. I enjoyed finding new recipes to try, and inventive ways to serve them. But as I said, I am not very good at organization. I started to make excuses as life got busier, and began to dread having to sit down and plan. Needless to say, I didn’t keep up with it. A year passed, and we found ourselves needing to save money wherever possible. Still facing the, what’s for dinner dilemma and knowing that our fall back plan of just ordering pizza was no longer going to cut it, I decided to start menu planning again. This time I was armed with past experience, knowing what worked for us and what didn’t. And the truth was that it was much easier when I had a plan for every meal.
I found, for me, it worked best to come up with a theme for each day. Such themes in our house are crock pot Mondays, Italian/Mexican Wednesdays, casserole Thursdays, something new on Saturday, and something easy on Sunday. You can even take one day a week, or month, where you do something special like having breakfast for dinner, going out to a favorite restaurant, have take-out Tuesday, or make it the kids-choice. This helps make things fun and keeps you from being stuck in the mundane. If you start to get bored with your routine, you risk burnout and giving up.
Consulting our family schedule really helps make a smooth flowing plan. If you know Mondays are tough, you need time to recover from the weekend and your energy is lacking, it’s best to make this day something easy like using the crock pot, or having leftovers. If you know Fridays are slow, it’s the end of the week, you get home early, therefore allowing more time to prepare, this would be the perfect time to plan a fancier, more time consuming meal.
Now, if you are shaking your head, a bit apprehensive, and thinking this might not be the thing for you. Trust me, I was there too. But, if you are also sitting there thinking to yourself, would this really make dinners easier? Yes, it will. And here are a few more tips to help you get started.
1. Start small. No one says you have to jump in, all or nothing. Start by planning only for the week ahead. Do this for a month or two. Then once you get a hang of the schedule that works for you and your family, work up to planning out your entire month of meals in advance.
I plan two weeks at a time, then repeat those weeks for the rest of the month. This means, our menu for week one and week three are exactly the same, and week two and four are the same. Then I change things up the following month. This way, I only have to plan two weeks worth of menus in order to have my whole month planned. I found this process to be less intimidating. I might decide to work up to a new menu each week as time goes on. We’ll see.
2. Not every meal has to be elaborately planned. I don’t plan out three or four course meals for my family every night. Far from it. We have our favorites and most often that consists of something super easy. A few of these meals are: homemade tacos, beef noodle casserole, chicken and rice, and homemade lasagna. Sometimes we have garlic bread with our lasagna, or rolls with the casserole, and maybe even add a salad to start off our meal, or have a simple side like corn or mashed potatoes. But mostly our meals tend to be enough on their own.
3. Utilize the tools you have on hand. Using your google calendar to plan out your meals is a good tool. It allows access to your family schedule so you can better determine what recipes work best on certain days, depending on how busy or light your day looks. You can also download, or make your own, menu plan worksheet. This is what I use. I created my own where I have my two weeks in one snapshot. I then go through my recipes, keeping in mind our family favorites, and write down my plan in the space provided.
4. Post your plan in a visible place. I like the refrigerator door or a frequented message board. I am a highly visual person, and find I work best when I can see all the tools and materials available to me. It makes sticking to my plan much easier when I have it staring me in the face.
As I said before, menu planning requires a bit of time, especially in the beginning, and a bit of organization. But the benefits of a menu plan far outweigh the negatives of not having one. You save money by not buying anything more than what is on our list, and reduce the need for multiple trips to the grocery store because you know exactly what you need each week. You eat out less often, which will not only benefit your wallet, but also your health as you will be eating more healthy, home-cooked meals. You get a variety of meals because you planned them, allowing yourself to never eat the same thing two days in a row (unless you want to). Cooking becomes more enjoyable, and ultimately easier, because you are better prepared. But my favorite is no longer having to wonder what is for dinner, putting an end to my 5 o’ clock panic attacks.
*I want to point out that I only mention planning out dinners because this is the meal that requires the most pre-planning for my family. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t menu plan other meals. If you feel you need to plan three meals a day, go for it! Menu planning is all about what is easiest for you.
I’d love to hear what you have done, what works for you and what hasn’t. Happy Meal Planning!