Or Busy Dads! It goes without saying (because I use the word Mom sometimes as a universal word for Parent, the same way you might use the word “he” to signify all of humanity. I.e. “He who laughs last best.” “Moms who plan meals laugh last.” See?).
This might seem like a kind of un-glamorous post (honestly, where are all my posts about high-falutin book parties and designer dresses, hmmm? I thought that’s what I was signing up for when I became a writer!) but it’s completely necessary. And, when looking at my Facebook feed I see I am far from the only parent with this problem, no matter what the job is.
Because those darn kids just INSIST on eating every single day. Who knew this would happen? For eighteen years, times three?
I work (yeah, I know it doesn’t seem like it. Pre-order SISTERS OF HEART AND SNOW now! You don’t have to pay until April!) but because I work from home, the menu planning always falls on me. As it should, because if it fell on Cadillac I do believe we’d be eating hamburgers or cereal every night of our lives. (And because you would laugh, seriously, if I told you all the stuff he does around here. Meals are my one job besides picking up kids from school, and he does 99% of everything else).
Yet I struggled, because I don’t like to plan stuff. I like to sit around doing my creative thing and being eccentric and making Art (art with a capital A!). Why don’t I have a personal chef? Where is my delivered meal service? I’m so thwarted, dude.
However, I finally pulled my head out and came up with a system (as opposed to doing nothing and then begging Cadillac to pick something up on the way home).
First, I bought me some chalkboard magnets.
I really wanted whiteboard magnets, but couldn’t find any. I was going to make some, but I kind of forgot. Then I was at Target and saw these on clearance.
I wanted to write down all the meals, then be able to either erase them or switch them around in case something didn’t work out.
You don’t have to use magnets. You could use a calendar or just check Pinterest for millions of other cute ideas.
I wrote the weekdays on the refrigerator. Who cares about weekends? You might– if you do, include them.
Then, over the weekend, I take an inventory of my fridge and cupboards. What needs using? What’s in the freezer?
This week, I saw that I had ONE PACKAGE OF FROZEN CHICKEN BREASTS. This is enough for one stir-fry meal, but not enough to eat if we’re just eating chicken breasts on their own. Also: ONE 1.33 POUND PACKAGE OF GROUND BEEF (organic grassfed, worth the extra money in my opinion because the non-organic was giving me tummy aches).
Then I asked Cadillac what he wants to eat this week, or if he cared. Fish, he said.
The only fish everyone likes is wild salmon. Ever since my son learned that farmed salmon have artificial color and junk in them, he won’t eat it at all. But no big deal– I like wild salmon better too. I wrote that on the list.
I then looked at my calendar to see what we have going on this week. Workwise, I have my middle grade book edits. My first-pass pages for SISTERS OF HEART AND SNOW arrive on Tuesday, and I have a 1-week deadline for those. For my other obligations, I have scheduled Pilates, a museum morning with a friend, and a meeting with a HS English teacher to plan our creative writing club.
I decided I will have time to get veggies and other gap-fillers on Monday. The salmon will be easy– the kids like it with a simple honey-mustard sauce (basically Dijon, soy sauce or gluten-free tamari, and honey mixed together, all of which we have).
Simplicity in Meal Planning
When planning, use the KISS Method: Keep It Simple, Stupid. This will make it more likely that you’ll actually be able to enact your menu. I usually don’t troll for recipes because they take too much time and usually involve buying more stuff that I may not use again. And then it’s intimidating! “Buy GOOD EVOO!” What the heck is good EVOO? What is EVOO??? (Extra virgin olive oil). What? No. I mean, sure, if I see something that looks delicious I might try it. But my favorite thing to do is look and see what I have, then make something based on that– it doesn’t always work, but it’s very fun, a la Top Chef. However, planning ahead is more practical when you have five hungry mouths.
I also like to keep staples on hand: chicken broth, tomato sauce, rice, pasta– that I buy in bulk when I can. For example, I like to buy my gluten free pasta at Trader Joe’s, but I rarely make it there. When I do go, I buy quite a few packages.
Your meal should hit all the good food groups: a simple protein, with lots of vegetables and a whole grain or starch.
For example, grilled or baked chicken is easy– you can marinate with Italian salad dressing or top it with BBQ sauce. You can sprinkle it with cheese if you’re crazy. Have it with a microwave baked potato or rice.
Consider using meat as an accent, like in a stir-fry. You can also choose to make extra meat– grill up a whole pack of Costco chicken breasts– and freeze it or use the rest in another meal a few days later. For example, you could cook up all of your ground beef and use some in spaghetti sauce, and save some for tacos this weekend.
Take Your Schedule into Account
I used to forget this part and just randomly schedule a meal that took 1 hour to bake on a water polo game night. Um, NO.
After looking at my calendar, I decided to buy skinless boneless chicken thighs (2-3 meals), wild salmon (1 meal), and some pre-cooked foods at Costco (the sausage). I already had pasta, marinara sauce, and ground beef for spaghetti with meat sauce. I’ll add veggies to the sauce to make it a one-pot meal. Or we could have a salad with it.
The Ten Tips
Here’s the simplified break-down, if you didn’t want to read my oh-so-interesting thought process.
1. Decide and purchase your menu planning method– from a simple calendar to a cute bulletin board.
2. Over the weekend, or even during the previous week if you’re ambitious, take an inventory of cupboards and freezer. While you’re in there, also do an inventory of school lunches and snacks.
3. Decide what meals you can make using your inventory.
4. Look at your calendar and determine what days will be super-busy around dinner time. On those days, plan for a Crock-Pot meal, a pre-cooked meal, or eating out. Or, if someone else will cook for you, ALL THE BETTER.
5. Look at your calendar and determine when you will have time to go grocery shopping. If you don’t have time to go until Tuesday, plan Monday’s dinner with stuff you already own.
6. Make a grocery store list. I go to Costco and a local farmers market-type place for veggies and sometimes Albertson’s to fill in the gaps. A lot of people I know also swear by home delivery services, like the kind Von’s provides. They often have coupons or free codes to try the service. The time saved may well be worth the delivery fee.
7. Write down your menu.
8. After you grocery shop, freeze what you’re not going to use in another couple of days. Take out and put into the refrigerator those items you will use in the next two days. Repeat every couple of days.
9. Make your food every evening.
10. If anybody complains, they have to make dinner the next night.
This rule comes from Cadillac’s house and it’s only been broken once or twice here. I am NOT THE ONE when it comes to me doing all this work and cooking. We also feel like this is important in terms of manners when you go to someone else’s house– if you complain about the food at your friend’s, you ain’t getting invited back.
I find that having a menu takes a little bit of time to plan, but actually saves more time than the planning takes. No more do I have to wonder what we’re going to do for dinner. And, when it’s written down, if I find myself tired or sick or whatever, I can ask Cadillac to make it and he will, because it’s all spelled out already.