Menu-planning is one of those elusive domestic tools that so many people swear by and that I never could really figure out. Last fall, though, something clicked.
I’m the primary planner and preparer of meals around here. In an ideal world, I love cooking and browsing through cookbooks and food magazines and plating and serving. In reality, with two little ones under 3 last fall, the late afternoon and early evening became a sort of nightmarish part of the day. For whatever reason, it was the most stressful, the most chaotic, the least pleasant. Anyone else?
I began to realize that if I didn’t come up with a clear plan, dinner time was going to be stressful and chaotic and no fun ever again, or at least for another three years. Our grocery budget was out of control, we were wasting a lot of food, I was wasting a lot of time (see “wasting perfectly delicious food because we forgot it was in the fridge”), and nobody was having a good time.
Well, my toddler probably was. Possibly my 4-month-old who has loved to eat since she first saw daylight. But nobody else.
My meal-planning process, as most of my plans, began too elaborately and optimistically. The last year or so has seen serious edits to the process, but I can confidently say this: IT IS WORKING.
We still can’t figure out where exactly our grocery budget goes. But we now waste SO much less food. Dinner time is not UN-stressful, but it is far less stressful. Mostly, I never ever ever find myself wondering “What the heck should I make for dinner?” at 5:23 p.m.
I never do this anymore because I already did it at a different time that week, one more filled with convenient brain-space and pretty food inspiration and a sense of the week’s flow and less full of the hangry stressful grumpings of harried adults and the frantic shrieks and sobs of the hungry heathen zombies that replace my cute children around 4:30.
Normally, menu-planning happens at naptime on Sunday afternoon these days – it used to happen on Tuesday evenings. IT DOESN’T MATTER WHEN IT HAPPENS. My menu-planning session normally takes a grand total of about 15 minutes MAX. It has taken as few as 5.
I am not planning a wedding or a fundraiser. I am planning 7 (and really, closer to 6 or 5) reasonably nutritious and not-completely-boring dinners for two adults and two tiny humans. My greatest pitfall in this process has been over-planning and over-thinking.
I sit down with one or two cookbooks (The Kinfolk Table is one of my favorites) and some food magazines, our schedule for the week, my computer, and my grocery/menu notebook. Also, I always make sure that I have a a good pen because there is nothing less inspiring than a terrible pen.
I always try to build in the following:
- At least one meal that can serve two nights in some way. [link to recipe]
- One night of eating out or takeout (not necessarily fancy – just not me cooking or cleaning.)
- Any groceries we already have.
- The assumption that at least one night we will be spending with another family or some friends – sometimes this includes an actual prepared meal that I have to plan for and sometimes this includes four adults throwing grapes at children and hoping it counts as dinner, so this might be accommodated in different ways.)
- Only one new recipe.
- A couple of meat-less meals like this hearty salad.
- A few really familiar meals that I know I can prepare quickly while managing a multitude of distractions and serve without a lot of hassle or stress.
My pile of cookbooks, my recent magazines, and my Pinterest board for “Food & Drink” are my muses during this process.
This sounds really complicated, but once I found my rhythm, it became pretty effortless and definitely fun. Here are my steps for planning out our meals:
- Write down all of the days of the week.
- Check the refrigerator and pantry so that you can build the menu around food you already have.
- Plan your grocery list as you go – so for each recipe/day/meal that you assign, check to see what you have and what you need and write it down immediately.
- Figure out the one big new meal or recipe that you plan to make.
- Decide which night makes the most sense for the most involved cooking.
- If the one big meal or recipe can serve two evenings, then make a note for the next night as well. If the one big meal can’t, then pick which two nights in a row it makes the most sense to have “grouped”.
- Decide which nights are “easy” dinners (normally for us, several of these are meatless or familiar routine recipes).
- Fill in the remaining nights with familiar recipes. Mark one night as “eat out!” or “takeout!”. If we don’t eat out on exactly that night, then I just shuffle. The numbers matter – the exact night doesn’t, necessarily.
Don’t get too caught up in the process. I’ve learned that as long as I make sure I have 4-5 meals planned for the week, my dinner woes tend to be solved.
So here’s what a week might look like if I meal-plan on Sunday:
- Monday: Some kind of marinade or spice rub on chicken and quinoa.
- Tuesday: Quesadillas (using the leftover chicken from the night before) [This would qualify as an easy night]
- Wednesday: Homemade pizza [Not meatless for us this week, but it could be]
- Thursday: Mexican Quinoa [This is my EASIEST go-to one-pan meal. It’s also meatless.]
- Thursday: This butternut squash and quinoa salad.
- Friday: A frittata along with leftovers from night before.
- Saturday: Plans to eat out.
- Sunday: Pasta with pesto, Parmesan cheese, veggies (whatever I can find to throw into a pan).
That’s it! In reality, I end up planning and making fewer meals than this every week – we’d probably eat the leftover pizza from Wednesday on Thursday. Also, depending on the season, Mark or I might have a recurring church commitment on one of the evenings which means that the other parent just throws fruit, nuts, and maybe some hummus and pita bread at the children and calls it dinner.
If you plan a meal that doesn’t happen, make that meal the first meal for the next week’s plan. In the example above, Sunday night’s meal would be Monday night’s meal for the following week. This minimizes grocery waste and mental energy.
I order my groceries online based on this menu (another post about this coming soon!) and voila. All done. So much time and headache saved with just a tiny bit of planning.
What are your tips for getting dinner on the table with a little bit more celebration and a little less headache?
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