I can only imagine many of you have experienced this reader problem – because I know I fall into a menu planning rut myself all too easily, especially in busy seasons, tired seasons, and transitions. (Oh wait…I’m a parent of four kids…every day is like that!!!)
We’re going to spend the next couple of weeks tackling a mini-series of sorts on meal planning, which I’ve written about many times but continue to return to.
I’m convinced that meal planning is vital if you want to cook both frugally and nutritiously for your family.
Meal planning helps you eat healthily because it gives a great motivation to cook good meals, even when you don’t feel like it and might not have the energy to follow your plan by the time you actually get to the end of the day on a Wednesday.
How does that work?
Once you’ve thawed the meat, or committed to using up something you cooked the night before to prep for a meal, or purchased the fresh produce that is losing nutrients every day it sits in your fridge, you just have to cook.
There’s a certain pressure not to waste food or money, so you push ahead with your plans, energy or not. I feel like there’s a momentum to the week once I’ve got ingredients in the house. People must eat one way or another, and if the plan is in place, I am likely to follow through with it.
Nutrition benefits of meal planning:
- more likely to choose healthy meals instead of relying on stand-bys that may or may not be the best nutrition for your family
- have the forethought to do healthy things like soaking your own dry beans
- easier to plan healthy sides and remember to get the veggies in
- can soak grains
- can avoid the microwave for defrosting and cooking
Budget benefits of meal planning:
- have the forethought to do inexpensive things like soaking your own dry beans to save money
- avoid last-minute trips to the store
- pass up fast food
- make sure you’re buying items on sale/learn to stockpile
- able to use up all your perishables, produce and leftovers
- remember to plan in “low-budget” meals
Time-saving benefits of meal planning:
- avoid last-minute trips to the store
- take advantage of “cook once, serve twice” strategies
- spend less time frantically checking for ingredients/deciding what to make right at dinner hour when everyone is already hungry (including you)
- big, pre-planned meals make big, useable leftovers
Happy family benefits of meal planning:
- lots of variety!
- can answer the question, “What’s for dinner…on Friday?”
- less stress right before dinner…ok, no promises on that one, but it’s a nice thought
Finally…the Answer to the Question
So how DO you get out of a rut with meal planning? How do you make it work for you, even if you’ve tried before and ended up falling back on those same familiar, probably easy, maybe less nutritious or more expensive, recipes??
Here’s my advice:
1. Start with something that inspires you – is it a good sale on meat? Some local produce from the Farmer’s Market? A recipe you stumbled across that sounds divine? Or just a healthy food you know you should eat more of?
2. Keep a list of recipes you like, perhaps organized by the main meat or protein involved, to help you keep a balanced week. This list will also help you out when you think: “Hmmm, dinner. Spaghetti, tacos….or spaghetti.” Ask your husband and kids what their favorite meals are, too. Put stars by those!
3. Try new recipes. A friend of mine has a goal to try one new recipe every week. She and her husband then decide if it’s a “keeper” or…not. In order to add new recipes to your meals list for the family, you have to find some you want to try. You can start with the Recipes at Kitchen Stewardship, of course, or just Google “recipes” and the food you want to use. Use blogs as resources – you know real people tried the recipe for sure!
4. Intersperse your new recipes with the tried-and-true meals as you plan, so that you’re not biting off more than you can chew, getting overwhelmed, and giving up.
5. Build a bridge: Start with a familiar recipe and see if you can find a new recipe to piggyback onto a favorite. Maybe you have a recipe that uses half a bag of spinach – time to find another recipe to pair with it in the same week to use up the spinach. Your family favorite might include beans – find another recipe and double your batch of dried beans on the first day.
6. Put your meal planning on your *real* calendar. I really think this is key. If you don’t look at your meal planning except at dinner, you might not remain inspired (or on the ball with prep!). Here are some ways I incorporate meal planning into my regular week-at-a-glance calendar:
- There is a list of categories on the side: beef, chicken, fish, broth/stock, beans/legumes, eggs, meatless, budget
- I plan backward to make sure I’m prepared, and I write it down on the calendar. For example, when I put in a meal for Monday that includes beans and ground beef, at the end of the day for Sunday I write: “soak beans, thaw meat.” Then Monday morning I write “cook beans”.
7. Let someone else do it for you! If you’d like to try some of my meal plans, I just added a two- week comprehensive meal plan to The Everything Beans Book, one of my favs for this time of year especially. There’s also a two-week meal plan included in The Healthy Lunch Box, which I know many of you have – time to open it up!
You can see how I work backward and plan out the prep, how I connect meals to use everything up and “cook once, serve twice,” and how I intersperse simple and complex meals (and create leftovers for easy lunches or other dinners). Grab it now for a healthy fall!
As part of this meal planning mini-series, I’ll also be compiling a pro/con list for every type of meal planner I’ve encountered (and can remember) over the last 6 years – look out for that!
Consider this post the “first steps to meal planning for rookies” – the next one is my Ultimate Guide to Meal Planning the brings together all the advice I’ve shared from everything I’ve learned managing a kitchen and household for over ten years now. (Phew!) It’s going to be a good one!
This post is part of a mini meal planning series, including so far:
- The Ultimate Meal Planning Guide to Eat Real Food Every Night
- The Busy Mom’s Guide to Getting Real Food on the Breakfast Table
- How to Survive Dinner Time When Your Meal Plan Falls Apart
- The Busy Mom’s Guide to Getting Real Food on the Dinner Table
- and more to come!