I have decided to try my hand at weekly meal planning. In order to determine whether this is a viable option for me, and whether this is something that will actually help, rather than irritate and slow me down, I decided to jot down my thoughts on meal planning he
First impressions: the good and the bad
Starting with researching and analyzing other people’s (or magazine, blog or website) ideas left me feeling like it was going to be too much work. And although some of the plans look delicious and even include a shopping list, I can only use those for inspiration. Each family meal-time dynamic is unique and changes regularly with the kids’ quirky whims (like it this week, won’t eat it next), so flexibility is key. The glossy print-outs with detachable shopping lists are an awesome marketing idea, but it doesn’t work for me. For one thing, I cook with what I have in the house, I don’t cook based on recipes. And I probably won’t want to change this habit. For another thing, I’m not one to follow rigid outlines when shopping or cooking, so that would interfere with my shopping and cooking time. Still, the meals presented in some of those media sources provide plenty of food fodder for me, so I will still gather ideas this way.
Plan, then shop? Or the other way around?
Many sources suggest picking recipes first, then grocery shopping accordingly. Since I don’t do that, and probably won’t, I’m not going to irritate myself by forcing a new habit. I do shop with a list, I keep a running tab on what’s low in the house in my memo pad part of the blackberry, but I also pick up sale items we always use, or special treats, occasionally, even if it’s not on the list. (A primary example is canned tomatos. I load up when they’re on sale no matter how many cans I have stacked on the shelf.) This may not work for some people but it has never been a problem for our budget or dietary requirements. My budget is flexible and no one has a special dietary requirement.
Who does the planning?
What I did agree with, and found to be an excellent idea, was to include the kids in the planning part. Several blogs and articles I’ve come across mention that this is key for a family with kids who tend to have a picky palate, even if the picky-ness is not regular or prevalent. (How is it that she can eat several servings of green beans for months and then one day declare them yucky?) I tried this with Benjamin. Explaining to my 7 year old athlete that pasta every other day is not a desirable option for the rest of us, he understood and agreed as long as I made extra pasta for him to take to lunch occasionally. (And this works for me because he eats it hot, or cold as pasta salad, which is perfect for school lunches. I add tons of vegetable and feta cheese and he loves it.)
What does the plan look like?
The other thing I noticed about most meal plans was that they were too detailed. This makes me get all fidgety. Who the heck are you to tell me what, or how much of a certain type of cracker I’m allowed to dish out as a snack for someone? Meh. Not for me.
I also don’t need to write down that we will have a salad, or what type of salad, with each meal since that is a given in this house (or cut up veggies, which are placed on the table several times a day including during meals). Salads of all types are a daily part of my cooking repertoire and I long for the day when the kids will contribute regularly to all the washing and chopping that is required of salads. Note to self: keep the 4yo involved now so that she makes it a habit, and have her start cleaning up her messes herself by not calling them messes and staying relaxed and happy about it. Other note to self: keep the glass of wine nearby…
I don’t need breakfast and lunch included in the plan either, nor snacks. The trouble with the detail, in my opinion, is that eating turns into a science (just like if you calculate every nutritional component in the food you consume, or add up calories). Keeping in mind that balance is key, for us generally food is a pleasure and should remain so. Cooking for me is relaxing and enjoyable. Why turn it into an exact, detail-oriented, calorie- or nutrient-adding math experiment? I don’t want to go run to a chart every time I need to cook something, nor do I have to since we are blessed with an allergy-free family with a relatively healthy perspective on food and mealtimes.*
*Please feel free to kick me when I bitch about some kids complaining about food and I feel compelled to share it with the internet. Like many families, we are not immune to issues at the dinner table. As it were just last night….whatever. You know what I mean.
The decision: making the plan
Note: at this point, looking at the nutritional aspects in terms of balance is not a concern. The type of food we consume is mostly fresh, whole foods and meat or other sources of protein from reputable places. By spending a larger than average amount of the budget on “good” food and cutting back on “bad” food (but not completely eliminating the restaurant options, or the processed crackers the kids like) we manage to feel healthy and nutritionally balanced for the most part. Vegetables and fruit rarely needs to be written down or verbally reminded about since it is habitually reached for several times a day by all members of the family. The point of the planning is to take away the ‘what’s for dinner stress’ on the busy nights. However, for some people including all sides and snacks in their meal planning will lead to better nutrition overall, so if that benefits someone, by all means plan accordingly. For us, at the moment, this is not necessary (But of course having kids around means this could change at any given moment. Have I introduced the queen of sugar and carbs yet? She lives in this house…).
The plan’s components
I designed a simple calendar in Excel with each day of the week highlighted at the top, and weekend left open (for now). The next line below the name of the day indicates the activity we have to take a kid to. Including activities directly into the plan is of primary importance to me as it dictates when I need to cook, what time we eat, and who is eating when.
At a glance I can see that Wednesday is hockey school, and Thursday is gymnastics. One is at 6:30 pm (early supper at 5:30 pm), the other in the afternoon (so I won’t be home to cook supper then). The plan needs to reflect this to simplify the rushing around getting ready and simultaneously feed starving people something everyone likes.
Consequently, pasta night makes sense on hockey night. It’s easy, quick, and everyone likes it:
- make sauce in crockpot with or without meat or meatballs (which can be purchased, or pre-made and frozen another time)
- salad can be made ahead of time and placed in fridge assembled and ready to serve
- pot of salted water on stove with lid on, just turn it on when we get home and cook pasta
Gymnastics at 1 to 2:30 pm means no time to cook in the afternoon, and little time to cook after picking up older child from school and allowing for playtime to burn energy. This means starving children by the time we step into the house at 5 or 5:30 pm, so:
- ensure good but not too filling type of snack is provided to eat on way home from school (fruit with high water content is a hit with the kids)
- crockpot or casserole meal is ready to serve shortly after arriving home
The types of meals on gymnastics day could include:
- any casserole pre-cooked and frozen that requires less than an hour of cooking in oven (one idea is to keep the casseroles small, this reduces cooking time)
- burritos that can be pre-made and assembled and covered in the fridge since they only require 15-20 minutes of re-heating
- stews or chillis (which is more difficult as the kids aren’t crazy for this type of meal, yet)
- quiche, pasta-casseroles (so sue me, it’s easy) or fritatas
- convenience meals (frozen fries and fish sticks or chicken strips)
Aside: What I quickly realized with the actual planning of our meals is that on activity nights, I may end up glad to have purchased some better-quality frozen options such as fish sticks or sweet potato fries during my grocery shopping. And we all know at some point, take-out will look to be a completely viable option as well, at times. For times like these, balancing out the convenience food with the usual veg and fruit helps keep nutrition balanced.
What about restaurant meals, or take-out?
For some people, adding a take-out night into the plan is also an option. Our kids are crazy for sushi, but that is an expensive pleasure, one we agree on satisfying no more than once every couple of months, sometimes less. Still, it takes care of a night of cooking (Friday at the end of a month or prior to a long weekend is a good reason for me to call the Japanese place). And in desperate times we may pick up some roasted chicken somewhere, or a stacked burger pre-made and delivered to the front door. We’re just like everyone else, sometimes we take the easy way out.
Ultimately, I like the idea of planning out the meals. In some ways it will help me free up some of my precious free morning time where I can actually work or do something non-kid related, rather than spend it in the kitchen yelling at the beans to start boiling already.