I began menu planning when I was a little girl. Kid you not. I thought hamburgers were a weekly necessity, so I created an alphabetic list for them. A for apple burgers, B for breakfast burgers, C for carrot burgers. Yikes. Good thing I didn’t use that one.
I’m one of those moms. I like to organize. (My kids definitely know that. And they are now, for the most part, organized themselves.)
As a mom, I’ve written extensive monthly menu plans, weekly menu plans, specific recipes and grocery lists attached to those menu plans.
I have also forget to pull frozen things from the freezer, realized, at the last minute, that I’ll be in town over dinnertime, realize I had a lot of leftovers in the fridge and didn’t need to make another meal and often enough, ignored the plan just to ask ‘what’s in the fridge?’
Still, it is always my experience, organization breeds freedom.
Too much organization, though, makes a mama crazy. Strictly adhering to regimens is not a useful strategy to happy family making. Just as having a flexible educational plan is helpful, mama’s got to determine a flexible meal plan too.
Assume you’re going to individualize your menu plan for your family. Assume you are not locked in. Assume you’re going to buy dinner out unexpectedly. Assume you’re going to have more leftovers than you thought. Assume you get invited over for dinner.
But train yourself to organize your menu plans with regularity.
Plan in advance for greatest simplicity. Plan in advance, and you’re more likely to make healthier choices, you’ll always have ingredients on hand, and you’ll spend less. When my eldest daughter recently began housesitting, she returned home and expressly thanked me for having a stocked pantry. Jaw drop.
I’ve found my own rhythm. Every family will have their own. Since we have children eagerly involved in all sorts of extracurricular activities, we find ourselves in town plenty of days. So I prefer shopping once a week.
My weekly plan looks like this: Monday Fish night. Tuesday is Chicken night. Wednesday is Vegetarian Night. Thursday is random night. Friday is Fun Food. Saturday is Leftovers night. Sunday is a meal shared together: fancy night (unless it’s not fancy).
Consider your best nutritional choices. I’ve had many dietary tweaking moments over the years. I know I should be eating fish twice a week, and you’d think I would do that being as close to the coast as we are, but I don’t have eager fish eaters, except for one child. So once a week we eat fish. (Twice a week if I’ve forgotten to pull out meat from the freezer, because frozen fish cooks quickly).
Lightening up the pocketbook, and the digestive system, I’ve learned that beans, lentils and eggs make for less expensive meals, so I always include one of these once a week. I actually prefer lentils and rice for lunch. It is inexpensive and it’s also tasty with curry, easy to prepare and you can prepare plenty of it on Monday so it will last every weekday.
Chicken is never difficult to prepare. Just like tofu, you can add pretty much any sauce, create any flavoured meal out of chicken, and they all taste great. (Okay, I hear you, all chicken meals taste great, not all tofu meals.)
Red meat is necessary for me, at least a couple times a month. I have tried a cow-free diet, and I wilt, aka anemia. I’m clearly a farm girl by genetics. I don’t prefer minced beef but it is easy, inexpensive, but fatty. I’d rather have a solid cut of steak or roast a couple times a month.
We like making pizza. We have capable bakers and cooks in this family. So Friday night is usually pizza night. Pouring a glass of wine or pop and listening to cooking shows while we prepare it is a fun Friday night festivity.
Leftovers are delightful after twenty years of family making. Assigning one evening for leftovers will be your saving grace. Breaking from routine on the weekend benefits me: to not cook once a week, bravo! and fewer dishes for the kids to wash. Save leftovers all week, freeze them, pull them out for one big buffet. (Or if you’re out for date night, get the kids something from the freezer aisle, just for fun).
Sunday night is optional. We can continue with weekend leisure, if we want to make breakfast for supper. (I’m not so eager for pancakes, but my kids sure are). Or make it a fancy meal, crepes with fruit filling, or a meat roast and invite someone over. A nice roast, potatoes, Yorkshire pudding. (Nothing says I went to a lot of work when Yorkshire puddings come out of the oven.) Sundays are also the night I try to make a fruit pie for my fruit pie loving husband.
Keep the whole week flexible. If you can happily recreate leftovers for the next night, do that.
Now you decide. What works for you?
GROCERY STORE TIPS
Meat. Meat is likely the most expensive part of your grocery budget. Include lentils, beans and eggs, even tofu. I know, I didn’t grow up that way either. Assume that twice a week, you’re not eating meat (unless, of course, you’re already a vegetarian;). You’ll definitely get used to this, and appreciate the benefits of eating lighter.
Buy on sale. Stock the pantry with things you regularly use. Chia seeds and pine nuts don’t need to be on hand. But pasta, rice, and potatoes do. (Unless you’re gluten free, but you already knew that then.) Buy fish or meat on sale, stick it in the freezer. If you’re routinely eating similar foods, you know you’re going to eat again, so plan for that.
Buy in season. It’s less expensive. Buy enough for the week. Don’t get fussy about having Brussel sprouts paired with roast or green beans with salmon. Use the vegetables you have on hand. (If you have a bag of precut carrots or snap peas, pull those out for alternative kid veggies when you’re serving the adults rappini).
Think partitioned plate. Half veggie, quarter meat and quarter carbs. Simple.
Buy expensive ingredients sparingly. Prepared foods are more expensive. Specialty ingredients like cans of roasted red peppers or European cheeses are more expensive. Organic oranges and produce with thick skins are expensive organic purchases.
Use the same grocery store. Your mind knows where to find maple syrup in the main grocery store you use. Go to another store, and they’ve got it somewhere random. Every time you walk past the peanut butter section, that will be your reminder to grab it. (Also, teach the kids to find things for you, a treasure hunt for the younger kids.)
Cook more than you need. If you’re cooking from scratch, make more than one meal. Freeze the rest. But label what you put in there so you don’t have random surprises like ‘chicken broth’ for lunch, instead of the butternut squash soup you thought you were defrosting. You’ll thank yourself later.
Teach the kids to cook. No greater freedom than not to have to cook all the time. Let the kids feed you. Try this when they’re younger when they’re certain cooking is just fun. If they’re old enough not to burn the house down, they are old enough to cook. If they’re not, then wait. When they begin to cook, walk away from the kitchen. “Your way” might be better, but natural learning reigns in the kitchen. It is a guarantee that if they put too much baking soda in their cupcakes, they will never do it again. When they start getting good at food preparation, tell them you’ll clean up if they make dinner. Win win.
Recreate leftovers. Leftovers are a mama’s best friend. Learn how to turn a basic beef roast into fajitas. Learn how to turn baked salmon to salmon cakes. Chicken to chicken pot pie. Pork chops to stir fries. Learn to recreate.
Cook flexibly. I know we were taught that a Caesar salad is a good compliment to lasagne. That biscuits and gravy must go with grits. That roast chicken and tiny roasted potatoes pair well with a nice sauvignon blanc. But we have other stuff to do! Just feed the kids. Get a veggie to fill half that plate, a quarter plate of carbs and a quarter plate of protein. Ta da.
Learn to cook. The more you learn to cook many things, the easier it is to improvise. Now add a glass of vino, turn on a YouTube cooking show and have fun. This night, send the kids to watch television or screen out with the iPad.
Takeaway Tips. The first two years we lived in this rural community, we drove a half hour to our extracurriculars. We ate out four times a week. This was expensive. Eating out regularly eats up monthly budgets.
So we learned a few simple recipes for takeaway food. Plastic food containers were designated to each of your travelling family members.
These are recipes that our family enjoys toting along in our extracurricular adventures: Chicken Caesar Wraps, Pizza (of course), Veggie Burgers, Pasta, Lentil Nuggets, and Quesadillas.
Build the list that works for your family. What will they actually eat? What can you easily eat without a mess in the car? What can you eat in between errands and activities?