Lately, so many people in real life and on social media have been throwing out the meal planning angst – I should do it, why don’t I do it? It is so hard! I have been meaning to post some of the tricks I have learned 8 years into this feeding kids business, as well as growing up in a large family where I got some of my skillz. (Ok, really, all my siblings used to tease me for having a snack on hand for a trip to the mailbox. Needless to say they are not surprised I have a food blog now.)
I think meal planning is totally related to our personalities. So think about what type of planner you are in general and try to relate that to food. If you are a detailed Type-A person, you are gonna want a really detailed meal plan. If you are a spontaneous personality like I am (ENFP here), you are going to detest that sort of planning. (How am I going to plan what to eat next Wednesday? I won’t even know what I am in the mood for!) If you don’t care about food that much, like some friends I know, but still want to effectively manage that necessary part of raising small humans, than you are going to be somewhere in between.
I by nature rebel agains meal plans because I don’t like knowing what I am going to have every night. I like spontaneity! Surprise! Rolling with what I feel like! But I also like to only make one grocery shop a week, if possible. So I tend to loosely plan my meals, like grabbing the makings for Greek Tacos that may turn into a pita lunch with hummus and tzaziki and a pork tenderloin dinner.
But here are the principles I gravitate towards that really help me not have the meal planning angst:
1) Figure out 3 dinners a week and shop for them. If I am really on the ball, I try to buy 6 dinners and only have to do a big shop every two weeks. This was reinforced on the popular site, The Kitchn, who in their meal plan only planned three dinners. They said “you’ll have leftovers one night and you’ll order out the other.” You know what? That is exactly how it happens at our house, week in and week out. On the weekends we are either traveling, getting together with other families or my husband and I have a home date night and one of us will run to the store for fresh fish or steak. Check out their great meals for the week at the Kitchn here. And if you are looking for ideas on where your budget should be look here. For our family I try to stick to $250/week.
2) Let the grocery store be your sous chef. That butternut squash I used in a recent recipe I posted? Cubed and bagged at the store. Broccoli in a steam bag? Yes please. Chicken tenders instead of breasts so I don’t have a knife and cutting board to wash, game on. Jacques Pepin (the French chef who used to make PBS cooking shows with Julia Child and now has his own) first taught me this lesson, to let the store do some of the prep work. And if you have access to any media source at all, you are probably aware that in-season produce is always choice pickings. So I stick to getting three dinners a week usually around what is in season and easy, often cooking one protein and stretching it over a few meals. I do make a list of what we need and what 3 dinners might entail, but I often decide what they’ll be at the store. I might see lovely artisan bread and bags of fresh basil and decide to make this. Or organic local kale is on sale and I’ll stock up and make this.
3) Stock your freezer. I buy my beef and pork from farmers once a year and store it in a chest freezer in the garage. So many of my friends want to order from my farmer but they don’t want to spend between $100-$300 on a freezer. But you save so much money in your grocery bill every week, it truly pays for itself, you support local farmers, and you know where your healthy food is coming from. BUT the real reason I do this? Laziness. Having a full freezer of ground grass-fed beef is the #1 reason why I don’t stress about meal planning. That very frequent panic that ‘it is 4 o’clock and I have no idea what we are going to have for dinner’ isn’t there. I can defrost a 1 lb. bag of grass fed beef in 10 minutes, and have burgers, tacos, meatballs, meat sauce with spaghetti, mini meatloaves, zucchini boats, stuffed squash with rice, and…you get the idea. Ditto for pork chops and ground pork. (Some years we buy a half cow, and have even more cuts of meat).
I also stock my freezer with frozen veggies, preferably ones that steam in the bag. Less pots & pans for when my husband is traveling and I am doing kitchen clean up and putting kids down. And did you know that frozen veggies can often be less expensive and more nutritious then fresh, since they freeze them at the peak of their growing season when they are plentiful (cheap) and full of nutrients? The struggle to get dinner on is real. Treat yourself with easy veggies.
And I always make sure I have giant bags of potatoes, and carrots, celery, onions, since mire poix is the basis for so many meals. And I have herbs outside in the warm months and in my produce drawer in the cold.
4) Stock your pantry. Almost every good cookbook I have read has a ‘what to stock in your pantry’ section. There is a reason. Good food requires staples like tomato paste, herbs, grains and beans, stocks, pastas, flavor boosters like sun dried tomatoes and artichokes and olives. It also means when you shop for your meal planning you are only buying a few ingredients for them since you have a stocked pantry. Here is a great comprehensive list from the Pioneer Woman for both your pantry, freezer and fridge. Use it, and your meal planning will be so much easier.
5) Have Fun. Enthusiasm goes a long way in the kitchen, as in life. I get such a kick from trying out a new recipe and learning what a new combination of ingredients can taste like. So find recipes that you are really excited to try, and share it with the people you love. I have seen meal plans that serve the same thing for a whole month on the same nights of the week, and maybe that works for you and that is your idea of fun (less hassle!). But that makes me want to just sit on the couch and order pizza, so I have to keep it creative.
6) Own your power. Mommas have a really big power – we are creating culture in our own families. Food is a really big part of culture. Your kids will have such a gift as they grow up and have business dinners and cultural connections and maybe even become great cooks themselves. At the very least, they will have food memories they can associate with their moms. And how about those studies that show family dinners are linked to better health and grades. If you don’t love to cook and rely on spaghetti and cereal like a lot of fabulous moms I know, then the likelyhood is you show them this in another way. (My friend Traci takes each of her 4 kids on a trip every year and lets them do all of the details like reading maps and checking in at train stations. She travels a lot for work and wants to show them how to be a safe traveler. So that is her power and I love how she owns it.)
I am so passionate about this I started to show the mommas at our local pregnancy shelter how to cook meals that stretch one protein like chicken or beef into two or three meals. You know what I started with? Chicken Pot Pie and Chicken Soup. Because every momma who knows how to make Chicken Soup has a power that is impossible to calculate.
Off soap box now. I hope this helps, and if you struggle with a certain area of meal planning that you feel like bouncing off of someone, I’m all ears.
Cheers to your full freezers and pantries, friends.
^^The makings for chili are usually in my pantry and freezer, because I can get pretty lazy on weekends.