Remember school lunches? Imagine what it would be like for the lunch supervisor to spend the first part of each day deciding what to make for all those kids. I can just see her, warily approaching the great stainless steel refrigerator, opening the door, and standing there, wondering, "What on earth am I going to feed all these kids?"
The most difficult part of dinnertime is deciding what to make.
When I first took responsibility for our family meals, I was pretty lost. I was concerned about the cost, since we had reduced our income by half, as well as the quality of our meals. I tried looking for advice, but I quickly became frustrated with "money-saving" meal planning systems that relied on grocery store sale ads. Some even recommend shopping at several different places to get all the good deals for the week. I found this to take an awful lot of time and gasoline, and definitely not worth the hassle, especially with small children in tow.
I also found that most of the grocery store sale items were prepared, processed foods, with high price markups. So there I was sacrificing quality--and ultimately not saving money--and starting to realize that cooking from scratch was often just as easy.
Finally, I took a cue from the school lunch system. For the most part, the same meals repeat in cycles, greatly simplifying the meal planning process.
Here's how to easily create a 4-week dinner plan:
1. Make a list of meals you like. Note just the main course--you can easily supplement with simple side dishes of bread, vegetables, etc. If you can't think of anything, ask others living with you. Or keep track of what you eat each day for a month, and simply jot down each meal on your calendar as you go.
2. Briefly describe each meal on a separate note card or sticky note (e.g., Spaghetti, Casserole, Beans & Rice). If you don't mind eating the same meal frequently (we make pizza every other week), repeat it on another card. Be sure to include meals you can fix ahead of time (casseroles, slow cooker meals, chilled salads, etc.) for your busiest evenings.
3. Arrange the cards in four rows (weeks) with seven cards (days) in each row. Rearrange them until you get a nice balance of meals throughout each week and over the course of the month.
4. Write your plan on a piece of paper, and put it where you can find it. Alternatively, arrange your note cards in a recipe-card box. To save stress in the evening, refer to your plan each morning; this will ensure that you have plenty of time for any defrosting or other early preparation that may be needed.
5. Be flexible. If you need to swap dinners in a given week, that's fine! You don't have to follow the plan exactly, but at least you have a meal idea for each day. (In the 'cravings' stages of my pregnancies, I abandon the meal plan altogether.) Just do what you need to do to make each day easier.
Start with a 4-week plan. Later, if you'd like even more variety, add more meals to create a 5- or 6-week plan. Repeat the meal plan until someone complains, or until you find a new recipe you'd love to try. Change the menu with the weather. You could try one menu for warm weather (Summer) and one for cooler weather (Winter).
Allow more flexibility with summer meals. Improvise with produce from your garden or local farmer's market. A great resource is the Simply In Season cookbook by Mary Beth Lind and Cathleen Hockman-Wert.
The key to a successful meal plan is in your staples. Staples are different for each family, depending on what meals you regularly prepare. Some families eat potatoes by the cartload; we buy rice in 25-pound bags. When any one item gets low, put it on your shopping list for the next trip to the grocery store. Then use your meal plan to guide the rest of your grocery shopping.
When you see any of your frequently used ingredients go on sale, stock up. Our family drinks a lot of orange juice. So when OJ goes on sale, at a savings of 40 cents per can, we buy ten cans and save $4.00 (It helps to have a large freezer.) Ditto for canned beans and diced tomatoes.
If you're still short of meal ideas for your plan, browse VegFamily's Vegan Recipes index, organize a recipe swap with your friends, or take a look at some of the other meal planning websites out there.
Jennifer Swanson is a professional organizing consultant, popular speaker, and frequent media guest. She publishes a free monthly e-newsletter that is designed to help you simplify your life. For more tips, visit www.JenniferSwanson.com