There are a few chores that I really don’t mind doing: washing and folding laundry, making beds, picking up toys. There are others that I procrastinate on: actually putting away that folded laundry, cleaning bathrooms, and meal planning! Why does meal planning feel like such a chore? Our family doesn’t go without food if I neglect to meal plan, we just end up spending a lot more money and eating a lot of the same things.
The struggle with meal planning is I want it to be perfect. I want to make meals that are nutritious, cost efficient, vary in cuisine, appeal to my children, and look presentable to guests (as if there’s a chance we may have spontaneous company one night). The problem is, I don’t know how to cook like they do on Pinterest or make my dinners look like the pictures featured in the cookbooks. My kids are particular about what they like, and they all like different things. And I definitely don’t have the extra margin to try new recipes each night! So I find myself throwing in the towel on meal planning before I even begin.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Cooking and sharing a meal is meant to be an enjoyable task. It is where we will have conversation, connect with our families, and take time to sit together. And with just a little bit of effort and a few easy steps, we can eliminate a lot of 5:00 headaches by taking time to plan in advance.
- One of the simplest ways to start a meal plan is to bring a clean sheet of notebook paper to the dinner table. Start by going around the room and asking your family members what their favorite meals are and then write those down. It is actually fun to hear what they have to say and this process can provoke great conversation.
- Next, fill in with the meals you tend to make on a regular basis, if they weren’t all mentioned already. You will be surprised at how many meals you can jot down just from a quick family poll and from your go-to dinner list. (And trust me, our go-to dinner list started off as cold cereal and take-out before we had kids – but each year it seems to expand.) Another quick tip, anytime you make a new meal, print the recipe. I keep all my printed recipes in a 3-ring binder in a kitchen cabinet. This proves to be a great tool whenever I can’t think of what to cook and can help you create your initial list.
- Now that you have your list, start to categorize your meals. You can categorize by protein (chicken, beef, pork, fish,) or by cuisine (Italian, Mexican, American). I sometimes even categorize by type of meal, for example: tacos (we have quite a few variations of taco recipes), crock-pot meals, soups, casseroles, pastas, etc. Creating categories really helps with the next step of laying meals out for the week and month.
- Now, grab your calendar. I like to meal plan in month segments. You may just want to start with a week at a time. If you don’t use a written calendar at home, just print a blank calendar for the month and start to fill in your schedule. Is there a night your family orders pizza or likes to go out to eat? What about kids’ sporting events? Are any during dinner time? Meal planning actually made us more intentional about having family nights when we would order pizza. It also helped me prepare quick meals (like tacos or wraps) to bring in a cooler on nights we were at the football or soccer field. What about a date night? I love putting that one in the meal plan calendar because that means I don’t have to cook! But I’ll make sure we have something simple for dinner for a sitter to prepare. I like to fill these nights in first, before planning the other meals.
- Lastly, fill in the remaining nights by using your categories from your list. The categories help you to plan a variety of meals each week, so it’s not tacos and enchiladas back-to-back or all pasta dishes another week. As a general rule, I try to leave one night open later in the week for leftovers.
The whole process of meal planning is truly not as time consuming and overwhelming as we make it out to be. So drop perfection and get practical. Get in your kitchen and enjoy cooking because you know those memories around the dinner table are the ones that will last. And put your laundry away.