Even though we aren't getting our produce box this week, I still plan for Thursdays - Wednesdays because I generally have a lot of perishables come in on Wednesday afternoon and don't always know what they'll be.
This is our plan for this week, mainly using what I already have in the house:
Main Dish Salad
Homemade Salad Dressing
No Grain Blueberry Waffles
Sweet Potato Hash Browns
Slow Cooked BBQ Brisket
Kielbasa and Cabbage
Open ended - use up perishables and leftovers
Given the way the summer is going, I am going to take things easy and go back to some earlier-style planning, altered to our current dietary preferences.
It occurs to me that one of the hardest parts about planning meals before you've gotten into the routine is simply figuring out where to begin. It seems like the process of preparing meals -- something we all need to do (or get someone else to do) every day should be easy if only due to practice, but it isn't.
I remember that I started planning meals when my children were small, and the whole 'stare into the refrigerator until inspiration strikes' method was really wearing me down. A lot of times, no inspiration found me, and then I made the mistake of mentally calculating just how many hours I would be putting into preparing meals before I died (it was a huge number -- don't do the math. It will make you need a nap!). Planning and preparing meals are the very definition of doing something that doesn't stay done.
My mother's meal plan was as simple as it got: If it was Monday, it was spaghetti, Tuesday was pork chops, etc. For years, it was that simple and while it was pretty boring, it was also easy to plan for, keep groceries on hand for, and eliminated most of the decision-making time necessary. As a busy working woman, that just wasn't time she had to give without stealing it from somewhere else. I say most of the decision-making time, because this was back in the day when everyone ate seasonally simply because you couldn't really get most produce out of season. So, she stuck to main dishes and mixed it up a bit with the sides, and that gave us enough variety to enjoy most meals as a family.
My Dad's rule was 'if there isn't a salad, this isn't a meal - it's a large snack'. So that took care of all necessary planning except for any additional sides... we'd always know the night's main dish and a salad would be on the table, no matter what.
Now, I tend to quickly get bored with this really rudimentary method, so it isn't one I follow, but I am going to suggest that if you've never meal planned before, you start by doing this for at least one month, while you work on getting ready for more advanced meal planning. Or, who knows -maybe this will be enough for you for a good while. It worked for my mother for at least 20 years.
How to Set Up A Very Basic Meal Plan
Step 1: Jot down meals you and the people you cook for love and already eat a lot.
Depending on you and your family, you may have a half-dozen to a dozen meals. I don't suggest going over 12 for now, and at this point don't include 'we never have this but wouldn't it be nice if we did?' items. Just the ones you actually prepare frequently already that are popular with the majority of the family.
If the total number is under 6, you'll be planning for a One Week Rotation. If it's closer to 12, you'll work on a Two Week Rotation - you're already bringing in a decent amount of diversity to your meals, so now you're just getting used to scheduling them.
Step 2: Give extra attention to the picky eaters.
If you have a picky eater that tends to not love otherwise popular meals, make sure that person is able to list whatever they do enjoy, and include those options regularly.
Obviously, if someone is dealing with a limited diet, you may need to take additional steps to ensure that they are able to eat every day - and I suspect you're already a master meal planner. But I'm talking about the kid (or spouse) that just likes to eat very few things - no matter what, the night's meal is going to be problematic, so make sure that the few things they do like are going to show up! I think it helps picky eaters to know that their preferences will happen regularly, even if it isn't 'their turn' everyday. It may even help them risk trying something new, because they know that if it's Thursday there will be hot dogs, so there is no risk of getting stuck eating that other thing forever if they agree to try it.
(On the other hand, I used my mother's meal plan to know which date to try to get to sleep over at a friend's house to avoid what I didn't care for. Picky survival skills are a form of problem solving....)
Step 3: Think about your regularly scheduled life.
Do you have a standing social night out on Mondays? Tend to work late on Fridays? Is Saturday the day you have the most time for leisurely cooking and preparation? Select meals that don't involve a lot of preparation and/or cooking time for busy days. Let something you enjoy but that takes more time and energy to prepare be a part of a more relaxing day.
Are any of your meals do-able in the slow cooker, or something that can be deliberately doubled so that you can have leftovers on a hectic day and not have to cook at all? Try to line those dates up so that you can include one or two 'no-cook' nights into your plan.
You may also want to try to spread around the main element of the meal - if you're having something chicken based on Mondays, maybe have something other than poultry on Tuesdays, etc.
Step 4: Taking your scheduling needs into account, fill out a weekly calendar with your plan.
No matter what,give yourself at least ONE day a week where you don't have to prepare a meal. I regard that as a mental health necessity, and if you establish it as a routine, everyone will get used to it.
If your kids are old enough to help themselves, this can be a full on 'Fend For Yourselves' Night. No one has ever died from eating leftovers or making themselves a sandwich once a week, and of course you also have the option of designating this the 'You Cook For Me" night, or the "Here's a Few Take Out Menus - Surprise Me" night. Do whatever works for you, but the main cook gets at least one day off a week.
If you're doing a Two Week Rotation, spread around your 12 or so meal ideas the same as above - but if you're really just starting, keep things simple and go with a One Week Rotation. You're only going to commit to a month or so, so don't worry about getting bored just yet.
A few years ago, my six items would have looked pretty much like this - not all that inspired, but it did the job:
|If it's Monday, it's Sketti Day!|
These days, we're not eating much in the way of grains, so none of these are regulars, but I still enjoy them enough that they are still on the rotation with modifications. In the interests of taking things easy during the hot days of summer, this is where I'm going for the next couple of months, while focusing on the produce box for my sides.
Here is my new, grain-free, modified "If It's Monday, It's Sketti Day" Menu Plan, which I will start following next week. The actual elements are open ended enough that I have a lot of freedom to get specific depending on what we have and my own whim.
Italian Meat Sauce with Non-pasta Noodles (zucchini noodles, or spaghetti squash, or steamed cauliflower)
Sauteed/Stir-Fried Protein & Veggies
Bunless Brats/Sausage & Sweet Potato Fries
Chili with Toppings
Taco Salad (no chips)
Stew/Soup - one pot meal
Breakfast for Dinner
Chicken and Sides
A slightly more advanced method to insert more variety would be to filter about 8 favorites among two weeks, include a no-cook day, a planned leftover day, and one day a week to try a new recipe - as you get comfortable, there is lots of room for that sort of expansion, while still having a really good idea of what's for dinner most days! But if you're just starting out, save that for later.
For now, identify the meals you already cook regularly, throw them on a one week calendar, and start developing the habit of planning what's for dinner every day.
Soon, I'll talk about how to work with your basic meal plan to set up a grocery list so you can be sure to have the items you need to prepare your meals on the day you have planned.
For today though, I'm curious - if you did a basic one week rotation, what would be your family's five or six go-to favorites?
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