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Meal Planning: What is your strategy?

Choppingboard Two of my kids are in baseball this spring and with practices and games at least three evenings a week, it is clear I need to step up my meal planning game. The most stressful part of my day is coming home from work and cooking dinner as three hungry boys forage and constantly remind me that they are hungry. If I am prepared, I can give dinner on the table in 20 minutes. More often than not, I am scrambling. It's not pretty and I scramble to throw something together that's available from what we have on hand.  My go to meal is pasta with a quick and easy tomato sauce. 

Feeding the family is favorite topic on urbanMamas, we've talked about meal planning loosely especially as it relates to Sunday night stress, running a tight ship, and recently about how much does dinner cost but I am in need of specific ideas and to compare notes on strategies to make meal planning an integral part of the family routine. Do you plan meals? Do you plan by the week, two weeks, a month?



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I plan weekly so I can use the plan for my grocery shopping trip. I plan things based on my daughter's activity schedule with crock pot meals for the evenings we have less time so we can just eat right away and other meals on the days when I have a little more time. It has worked out well this year. I also sometimes plan in super simple meals like tuna sandwiches with salad and fruit or soup with fruit and bread on those days.

My husband's response to the dinner time chaos was to assign a "category" of food for every night of the week (pasta, stir fry, soup, sandwiches night, pizza night, etc). We have 4-5 dinners that fall under each category and we write up a monthly dinner plan based on these meals and it goes onto our Google calendar. We don't stick to the monthly plan religiously since things obviously comes up when you're meal planning a month in advance, but it provides a back up plan when I can't think of something else I'd rather cook. It sounds lame to be so regimented, but it eliminates a lot of the stress around what's for dinner.

I admire meal planning from a distance, and I use a very general schedule as a guideline when I get stuck (Sunday hamburger/roast/sausages; Monday beans/soup/leftovers; Tuesday tacos/burritos/chili; etc.). but my meal planning goes in fits and starts. if I do plan, it's a few days in advance and based on what I bought at the farmer's market or what's in my cart that week in the buying club, or based on a large quantity of something I've made (beans, pasta sauce, grains) that I need to use up.

I just bought Heidi Swanson's 'Super Natural Every Day' and she has lots of stories in the book about how she makes grains and beans and then freezes them for use later that week, which is a great concept and something I need to imitate; I end up feeding too much of my leftovers to my chickens. (they'll make them into nice eggs, of course, but it's expensive chicken feed...)

I need a post on how to get inspired to plan meals (and keep the energy up week after week). it's such a stress-reliever.

I find the weekly planning and shopping so tedious, and I always procrastinate! I think the most difficult for me was when we had swim lessons each day from 6-6:50 for two weeks. I had to cook the dinner the night before and have it packed up and ready to eat for the next day... which basically started the Sunday night before the week. My trick is having quick cooking meals. Two of my favorites (and I use these loosely, more like guidelines than exact recipes) are:
after work pepper steak: http://www.cdkitchen.com/recipes/recs/374/After-Work-Pepper-Steak81153.shtml
& Savory pork chops: http://www.tasteofhome.com/Recipes/Savory-Pork-Chops
I think the key is getting some prep work done the weekend before, where possible (when one is not procrastinating, that is). I agree about the pasta/sauce thing - that's what I do when I'm really slammed. Tacos are also heavy in the rotation around here. Lastly, a healthier fare is a fish and lentil favorite of our family:
When I'm unprepared and need something quick to go - it's pretty much always Los Gorditos, though. For "Cart food" it's not *that* unhealthy...

I'm not the best meal planner, but I wanted to share my strategy for dealing with the "I'm hungry" cry while I'm cooking. I put an "appetizer" out, which is usually raw veggies or some apple slices, things I would typically include with dinner and won't necessarily interfere with their ability to eat when the meal is ready. That can often buy me the time I need to cook.

In wintertime its easy to have a soup or stew in the crockpot and make a last minute batch of cornbread. In the summer, I get at loss because my kids are not big on salads. They like their meat and potatoes a lot of the time. But truthfully, I didn't do a lot of organized activities with my kids for this very reason.. it steals time away from the dinner table and family time or you end up eating junk out of bag. And that is were we draw the line. No junk from a bag for our dinner.

We use usually plan our meals around our schedules. Busy days its slowcooker. I usually double alot of recipes and freeze. Super easy to thaw and serve. My kids love beans, some sort of pork product, and rice. We sometimes pre-make a meal and have it ready to go. Some nights i cut veggies and have the ready to go for the next day.

We pick up a CSA share every two weeks. We menu plan for the next two weeks the day after we pick up the share, and then do our grocery shopping within the next day or two to buy any missing ingredients. We try to only shop twice a month to stay within our budget. We use the more perishable vegetables earlier in the cycle and plan meals that use fewer fresh ingredients at the end. The last day before the CSA pickup is almost always a minestrone, with beans and whatever vegetables didn't get used up.

We also use a Google spreadsheet for menu planning, and we use the same sheet to keep track of advance prep [like soaking beans or starting bread dough] or plans for dinner guests. My husband cooks the nights I work; I cook on my nights off. We each plan the meals we cook, pulling from a list of 20 or 30 quick cheap meals that we came up with several years ago -- if it takes more than an hour to prepare, we save it for special occasions. We cook enough for leftovers for lunch the next day.

Some of the meals on heavy rotation are pastas [puttanesca, bacon & peas, bitter greens & cream, tuna & capers, broccoli], soups [black bean, lentil, split pea, minestrone, chicken, hot & sour, tortilla, avgolemono], frittatas, fried rice with vegetables, and many variations on beans and rice [indian, mexican, caribbean, italian, moroccan].

The motivation to plan is pretty strong -- we can't afford to shop more than twice a month, so if we don't have a meal plan before we go to the store then we'll have fabulous meals for two days and unadorned beans and rice for the next 12.

I struggled with this issue FOR YEARS. I am a single working mom with three adopted special needs kids. I always felt like I had to get a balanced meal on the table every night or else be the Bad Mommy.

Well, one day I decided, to heck with it. I was going to go renegade! What was so magic about the dinner meal anyhow? I spent tons of time with my kids. They know I love them and they love me. Why not simplify? Now that I think about it, maybe I was ahead of the trends. I was so far ahead no one has caught up yet. I have simplified the ultimate issue.

This is what I did: I stopped trying. It was like magic. I made sure the house was stocked with tons of wholesome food. When someone was hungry, they could eat. I was available, I'd cook for them It sounds crazy but it has worked. Here's how last week worked at my house:

Monday: I got home a little late from working and the two teens had already put out food for themselves and the youngest. They had put out a huge plate of cheese and crackers, along with baby carrots and ranch. Everyone was full and happy, so I made myself a leisurely dinner that I enjoyed all to myself. Total bliss.

Tuesday: I had time so I made a huge crock-pot pot roast. My teen daughter ate all the baby carrots out of it. My teen son ate perhaps five pounds of meat and followed that by helping himself to grapes. My youngest won't "eat anything with a face" so he had leftover noodles. Done.

Wed: Teen daughter made herself a turkey sandwich and a microwaved cooked sweet potato. Done. Teen son wasn't hungry. He made himself burritos after sports practice later. Youngest son ate cheerios and blueberries. I made cookies later and we had popcorn and grapes. Happy, relaxed night.

Thursday: I can't remember.

Friday: I had big imaginary plans I was going to cook pasta with seafood sauce. Why? I have no clue. I didn't have any seafood in the house. I let my dreams go and made grilled cheese sandwiches to go with some leftover crock-pot bean soup from the freezer.

I do have some ground rules for my system. I am not a short order cook. If I don't want to make it I will teach them to make it themselves. Obviously this works best with older kids. But when they were younger it also worked. I would make something simple, like noodles and peas. If they didn't like it, fine, they could have something super easy, like applesauce. The big point for me was not getting my ego tied up in cooking. If my kids don't like something I make, I really don't care. They can have something else. Surprisingly they have turned out to be very open-minded, adventuresome eaters. They are all slim, active and super healthy. Our doctor says they are some of her healthiest kids. I think it helped for us to take all the stress out of dinner and eating. Also, they eat intuitively this way and have never had weight problems. My two cents.

Rebecca, I love your approach. We have way too much emotion tied up in food at our house and meal time is often quite unpleasant. I think you nailed it on the head that if you teach them how to cook and have healthy food in the house, then it doesn't matter if everyone "agrees" on the meal.

I took old-fashioned file cards and wrote down our favorite main dishes, salads, soups, etc. Once a month, I go through the cards and plan the next month's meals. It takes about 30 minutes tops. I also try to cook 2-3x the normal amount for a dinner, then enter that meal ahead in the calendar so I can schedule it to be pulled out of the freezer. It really helps! I also switch out dishes when there are great deals on produce or whatever.

Here is a link my friend recommended, http://www.5dinners1hour.blogspot.com/

It didn't work for me, my husband won't eat anything that is slow cooked or in a casserole, my kids mostly like food that is white, and I am a has-been foodie. So dinner can be stressful for us, too.

I try to make a few salads (black eyed pea, lentil and feta, beet and fennel, pea and bacon) in the fridge for quick meals. And to keep my husband happy, some meat on the grill. Pasta is another weekly staple.
My four year old makes a huge jar of pesto once a week. We throw in a couple bags of steamed spinach, so they get some greens. Then, we can fancy up a sandwich or white beans, use it on pasta or as a dip.

I love Rebecca's approach, and have gone more in that direction recently as my husband and I have rotated on business trips. If we're eating anything remotely healthy at the same time, it counts as a good dinner. My secret special meal for my 7-year-old son is "smorgasboard." He thinks it's great because I'll give it to him on a real serving tray, but really it's just a collection of whatever finger foods I have in the house - roasted turkey or chicken, cheese, grapes, blueberries, fresh veggies... anything that can be thrown on a plate and eaten with fingers. That might be what we eat tonight!

We are daily decide for what we will eat today but we forget that what is the better mill for us .

I plan a week out--especially as it helps with my one-trip-only weekly policy of going to the grocery store. "Breakfast for dinner" happens every week, with varying elements such as french toast, fruit salad, veggie patties and/or pancakes (from the Bob's Red Mill mix--yum!). Quesadillas are also a staple, as is spaghetti. I agree that serving cut-up veggies when the kids are clamoring for food works well. When my husband and I talk about making Indian food or Thai, we instead schedule a date to a restaurant, and hope that someday the little ones won't declare this food "yucky."

A friend recommended The Six O'Clock Scramble cookbook a couple years ago, organized seasonally, with week by week menus and a grocery list (on line). It pushed me to set a menu for the week, get the groceries in the house on Sunday so that everything we needed was there. Yes, we switch it around a bit in the daily execution, and some weeks, we wing it totally.

Now we're a bit bored with the recipes and have recently purchased the Real Simple weeknight cookbook and a couple books from Cooking Light (weeknight dinners and superfast) at Costco. Not liking the Superfast book as much because it depends on prepackaged, prepared foods as ingredients more than I would like (I didn't even know one could, ostensibly, purchase refrigerated mashed potatoes!). But the other cooking light book is more my style so far.
I still wish we had a better system for using leftovers before they become destined for the compost bin, but I've compensated by cutting recipes in half to make it fit my family's eating habits. With two adults & an unpredictable 4 year old, it's a challenge. I'd rather cook more often than throw out more food.

I haven't finished reading all the comments, but 2 things I do....make a bunch of meatballs at once and freeze them for later use. careful to not overcook them the first time so they won't overcook and be yucky when heating up later....freeze on a tray and put in a bag, they stay loose.
fried rice...my kids LOVE it and so easy this way. make the rice a day ahead, won't be mushy when cooking it the next day. grate or julienne carrots, slice onions, saute in oil, when done push aside and scramble some eggs, then add rice and soy sauce. can add peas at the end, too. starch, protein and veggies!
another thing i recently discovered....chicken marsala...so quick and easy. i pound out some boneless, skinless chx breasts, put flour and seasonings in a bag, add chicken and shake it to coat, fry in your oil preference on each side 2 min, take out, add more oil if necessary and add mushrooms, after a couple min. add marsala and reduce. i also turn the heat down a bit and put the chicken back on top to finish cooking. whole thing takes 30 min. or less.
lots of crockpot recipes. citymama's chicken cacciatore is fantastic!
sometimes leftovers work well to make burritos when i have a little of this or that, depending....not enough lettuce for salads or a half a can of leftover beans, etc....
something my mom used to make....tortilla on plate, smear on some refried beans, layer of hamburger, olives, lettuce, grated cheese, then heat in micro or over ( i personally like the lettuce warm in this case), then top with tomato and sour cream. she called them tostados, but i suppose it's like an open face burrito!
ooooh, which reminds me, open face sandwiches, and recently i discovered making french dips at home, yum! and easy =)
oh, and occasionally there's breakfast for dinner =D
so right...back to the actual question....meal planning strategy....things that freeze well i make extra when i cook, then freeze a batch.
i have a list in the pantry of meals i can cook. sometimes i get stuck and just forget about things i haven't cooked in awhile. take a look in the fridge and pantry and see what i have, make a list of what i need to buy to use with stuff on hand and get all that on the weekend for the week's meals.

KarenMN, that is so sweet of you to say. Our meals used to be stressful too. I'd spend so much time trying to cook something everyone would like, and then when they didn't eat it, I'd get upset. My grocery bill has gone way down because I stock what I can afford and the kids eat what is available. There is no waste. But one thing that is easier for me is I don't have a partner. So I don't have to worry about pleasing any adult palate beside my own. And I really had to let go of this societal pressure to create this fantasy meal every night. I wonder where that comes from? Men don't get the same pressure.

cc, I love your smorgasbord approach. I'm stealing it! Kids think anything on a tray must be fun to eat. It would be fun to get some old-fashioned trays, and then we can play butler with each other.

Rebecca, thank for sharing. It is so refreshing to hear how you are making it really work. It sounds like your kids will grow up with great life skills too.

I have planned and not planned. Honestly, I don't know how I'd do with three weekdays away from home--sounds totally stressful to me!

One thing I wanted to address was SusanOR's comment about leftovers. I used to hate them, but now I love leftovers! In fact, I rarely make just enough of something for just one meal, but intentionally cook more than I think we'll eat and then come up with a way to creatively "reuse" whatever's leftover. Having some leftover cooked meat or vegetables in the fridge has saved me so many times and you can go in all sorts of directions. They can go into soup, stir-fries, casseroles, salads, tacos... I have a whole series of "leftovers by design" posts on my blog: http://lostartskitchen.wordpress.com/?s=leftovers+by+design .

Here's another "cook once, eat twice" idea that starts with Chicken Paprika and then transforms into Roasted Red Pepper Soup with Chicken: http://cookinggaps.wordpress.com/2011/04/04/chicken-paprika-with-red-bell-peppers-grain-free/

And there's a whole bunch of more COET recipes here: http://www.suite101.com/content/the-mini-meal-plan-a22697

Ideally, I grab 30 minutes or so on the weekend and sit down with a favorite ccokbook or food magazine and map out meals for the week whilst making a grocery list. This, as you can imagine, doesn't happen as often as I'd like! On the more usual week, I jot down ideas and groceries needed to make those ideas reality, often relying on quick favorites like curried chicken salad sandwiches (rotisserie chicken can also stretch to a second meal, like tortilla soup), chicken and grapes couscous (the only Rachael Ray recipe I like! http://www.rachaelray.com/recipe.php?recipe_id=1366) or bean and cheese burritos. We often have raw veggies as a side - quick and can be prepped ahead of time! One of our favorite quick, no-cook meals is to pick up a baguette and a couple of interesting cheeses and serve it alongside nuts and fresh fruit and veg - my 4-yr-old eats best on those nights! It's tough, and there are weeks where we order takeout or dine out most nights.

This is very important when we decide what we will eat today it will be tasty and helthy .

This is a hot button issue in our house. I do my best. Some weeks I have it all pulled together (I also use the Six O'Clock Scramble - I like it, but some of the recipes are just so/so)others it's pasta & sauce night after night. What makes it hard is my husbnad who never gets home at the same time every night and my three year old who is picky. I hate to waste food! I am open to any and all suggestions. My husband gets frustrated with how much I spend food shopping - I have a tough time budgeting when I'm only buying a few days at a time. But when I only shop once a week, my veggies rot. What do you do for end-of-week meals? And a big kuddos to the family who shop twice a month - you are my husband's dream!!

Wow, I'm so glad I'm not alone on this issue! I always feel like a bad mom/wife for not having a perfect gourmet healthy meal on the table every night (husband is a total foodie which adds to this stress).

However, here are some of my strategies just to stay sane. I use a slow cooker about 40% of the time. I prep everything the night before and just start it up in the morning. It's soooo much easier to make a meal after everyone is in bed. This and making up school lunches has actually turned into a relaxing evening activity for me (when I don't have work deadlines).

I do at least one stir-fry a week. To make this a snap I load up a big box of kale, broccoli, cauliflower, purple cabbage, carrots, tofu, etc. from the salad bar at New Seasons. Then I can just toss it in the wok. Good to go. To keep this interesting, I just use different veggies and bottled stir-fry sauces.

I buy canned/jarred whenever I can. My latest fave quick meal is boxed cheese tortellini, canned alfredo, and sauteed asparagus.

I always fall short on the side dishes/veggies. I usually only have time to throw some lettuce in a bowl with dressing. Sigh.

So great to hear all the other strategies on this thread. Thanks everyone!

Wow, I can't believe how much planning some of you do for dinner! We tend to eat simple, yet healthy meals and we never really plan ahead. Over the weekend I buy lots of veggies (fresh and frozen), fruit, grains, yogurt, etc., but rarely any main courses. Since my husband likes to fish, there's always fish in the freezer. Other main courses I pick up on my way home from work. On busy nights, I might pick up a rotisserie chicken and my husband might cook up a grain (brown rice, quinoa, couscous, etc.) or sweet potatoes, steam up a green veggie, and throw a salad together. On nights when I get home earlier, I might pick up some chicken hind quarters or steak, or we might thaw out some salmon and have similar sides. We alway make extra chicken or steak and the following night have fajitas or stir-fry. We rarely make anything that takes more than 10-15 minutes to prep.

I normally plan and make my groceries for 2 weeks. That way it is easier to make menu plan for a week and you can have different variety of meals as opposed to planning for a week, and a month or 3 weeks is too much of a stretch for me.

I am in a bit of a rut regarding meals. I'm a vegetarian and avoid most processed soy products, and I feel like I eat the same 5 or 6 things:

Broccoli/rice/feta/bean/garlic stir fry
Enchilada casserole
Lentil and barley stew
Soy beans/rice/ sweet potato/coconut milk meal

I like to make one dish meals in large quantities, then freeze them in single servings for lunch. Please help me with new ideas!

Pauline, I swear by three cookbooks: Feeding the Whole Family and Eat Well, Feel Well (grain free recipes), and The Whole Life Nutrition Cookbook. All of them make generous portions and work well around our multiple food allergies (chiefly gluten, casein, eggs, corn, and cane sugar). Particularly, Eat Well Feel Well has recipes for really huge portions that feed us for several days. They are also really tasty! I usually have enough to throw half of the meal into a Pyrex container and freeze.

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