Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Meal Planning Tips

If you've followed my blog for any length of time, you'll know that meal planning is a way of life for me. I'm not necessarily an organized person in other areas of my life, but when it comes to cooking for my family, I must have a plan.

I started meal planning when I was first married, almost 13 years ago. I was working full-time and didn't get home until 5:30pm. Planning out my menus in advance took so much stress out of the evenings. Back then, my meals were very, very simple. We had spaghetti at least once a week if not more often. It was just me and Charles, and he wasn't picky at all, as long as he got his belly full!

When the kids came along, I branched out and started cooking more from scratch. I was determined that my children wouldn't confine themselves to the typical American kid diet of fries and chicken nuggets. (I know, that was a sweeping generalization.) So I introduced them to a variety of veggies and all kinds of fruits. That has paid off. They will eat just about anything now.

Some people are intimidated by planning menus. Really, it takes a few minutes and pays off greatly throughout the week. It doesn't require fancy worksheets or gourmet dishes. Here are a few tips I've learned over the years.

1. Keep it simple. I use a simple spiral-bound notebook to plan my menus. Nothing fancy. I write down the days of the week, then list a main dish and maybe one side dish or bread that will go with it. The next week, I draw a line down the middle of the paper and do the same. Two weeks on one page. This comes in handy to keep track of how recently I've made a particular meal. I just glance back at the last few pages to see how often I've had it on the menu.

2. Plan your meals around what is on sale. Just doing this simple thing can save you big bucks. Browse your local stores' ads and take advantage of discounts. When chicken goes on sale, I usually plan two or more chicken dishes for that week. I'll even buy extra to freeze so next week when it's not on sale, I can still have chicken. Stock up on other deals, too. Buy pasta, rice, noodles, beans, whatever. You can use those for side dishes. By having a well-stocked pantry, you give yourself more options for quick, easy meals.

3. Cook what you know your family will eat. No one knows your family's tastes better than you do. So why subscribe to a menu planning service that has no clue what your family enjoys? Sit down and make a list of 10 meals you know how to cook and that your family likes. Add a couple of side dishes. There - you've done it! You've made a meal plan!

4. But don't be afraid to try new recipes. I try to incorporate one new recipe each week. It might be a side dish or a dessert. But it helps break up the routine a little and expands my family's culinary horizons. When looking for something new to prepare, browse sites like Allrecipes.com and food.com. These recipe sites have ratings systems that allows you to read what other cooks have said about the dish or changes they made to the recipe.

5. Be flexible! Sometimes our week doesn't go according to plan. And that means that sometimes my menu plan gets out of whack. It's okay! I just postpone making that meal until another day. But I take comfort in knowing I have the ingredients on hand to make it when I can.

6. Make a store list based on your meal plan. There's nothing worse than starting a dish and realizing you're missing a key ingredient. Ack! So, once you've settled on the dishes you want to make for the week, write down what ingredients you need from the store. This helps to reduce impulse purchases and ensures you have everything you need when it comes time to make the dish.

7. Get your family involved. My kids love to make suggestions for meals. Every couple of weeks I'll ask them if there's something they'd like me to fix. They will even volunteer to help in the kitchen! When they are part of the planning process, they feel an ownership of the meal and usually eat it with great enthusiasm.

8. Schedule a leftover night. After you've prepared a full week's worth of meals, there are bound to be leftovers. We usually eat them the next day for lunch, but sometimes we still have a little of this and a little of that. So I set everything out like a buffet. There's something for everyone!

Meal planning definitely works for me. If you're not a meal planner already, now is a good time to start. For more helpful hints and tips, visit Works for Me Wednesday over at We are THAT Family.

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