Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Meal Planning Baby Steps

My meal plan last week turned out to be more wishful thinking than anything else, so this week I'm skipping my produce box to get a handle on what I already have on hand, and pretty much planning to reuse most of my intentions for last week.  Summer is finding us quite busy out doing things, and barely inclined to cook at all.

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:

Wednesday, 7/9

Main Dish Salad
Homemade Salad Dressing

Thursday, 7/10

Fruit Salad
Zucchini Noodles

Peach Crisp

Friday, 7/11
Breakfast Dinner:

No Grain Blueberry Waffles
Sweet Potato Hash Browns

Saturday 7/12

Slow Cooked BBQ Brisket

Sunday 7/13


Monday 7/14

Kielbasa and Cabbage

Tuesday 7/15

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)
a Casserole

Leftovers/No Cook

Sauteed/Stir-Fried Protein & Veggies

Main-Dish Salad

Bunless Brats/Sausage & Sweet Potato Fries

Chili with Toppings

Leftovers/No Cook


Taco Salad (no chips)

Leftovers/No Cook

Stew/Soup - one pot meal

Breakfast for Dinner

Bunless Burgers
Roasted Veggies

Chicken and Sides

Leftovers/No Cook

That gives me 5 meals a week, and two planned no-cook/leftovers days weekly, which is about realistic to what happens with us.

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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Meandering Mondays

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  1. I will definitely be using these steps, as I'm about to embark on a pretty strict diet for Gestational Diabetes. I've hear that planning ahead, and knowing what you are grabbing for makes it a lot less stressful to follow.

    1. I definitely think some sort of "If it's Monday, the Menu is..." plan would be the best way for you to quickly get into the habit for the next few months, so you can focus on establishing that routine, rather than finding 100's of different recipes to try out. Figure out about 3-4 different meals for breakfast, lunch and snacks, and 7 dinners, and rotate those.

  2. Very helpful! I hate meal planning. Probably because I hate cooking and grocery shopping. Plus, our schedule is crazy and always changing. I have a friend who does a slightly more complex version of your mom's plan. Soup is one day, pasta another, pizza night, etc. She'll have like, 5 versions of each category and just mix it up. I keep saying I"m going to do that, but it never has happened yet! Thanks for sharing at Fridays Unfolded!


  3. great hints, tips and insight into starting your own menu plan. We actually sat down this month and wrote out a menu for the whole month in one shebang using recipes we typically like. So far so good with it, just missed one day. Next month I plan to add in a few new recipes!

  4. Hi Lynda,
    Your meal plan looks fabulous! Thank you so much for sharing your awesome post with Full Plate Thursday. Hope you are having a great week and come back soon!
    Miz Helen

  5. Summer is a great time for easy laid back type of meals. We bbq a lot and enjoy lots of yummy goodies from the garden! Thanks for sharing your tips with SYC.

  6. Great tips for planning meals - especially love your Dad's quote! I appreciate you sharing with Home and Garden Thursday,

  7. I could never plan my whole week but I like the leftovers options to allow you to create from what there is. I think every night is a leftovers night for me! #TastyTuesday

  8. Thank you for sharing this Meal Planning post at City of Creative Dream's City of Links on Friday! I appreciate you taking the time to party with me. Hope to see you again this week :)

  9. Thank you for sharing. Hello from Pennywise Platter.

  10. Yes! Where to begin is the hardest! Thanks for sharing on Sunday FUNday!

  11. Great tips! Thank you for sharing a Grain Free Meal Plan!!

  12. very nice tips, thanks for sharing with Hearth and soul blog-hop, pinning it.

  13. I've pinned this to my menu planning board on Pinterest. You've shared some really helpful tips here. I like what your Dad said about salad making it a meal too! Thank you for sharing with us at the Hearth and Soul hop.

  14. These sound like terrific meals to make. I do need a lot of help and tips for meal planning.
    twinkle at optonline dot net