I will be the first to admit this is not a ground-breaking blog post. However, I know that everyone does things a little bit differently and maybe the way I do things can be helpful to you. I know finding your meal planning mojo takes both inspiration and practice. If I’m being honest, I would rather clean the toilet instead of meal-planning, but I also know it’s a crucial step for not only my grocery shopping for the week, but my sanity too. I’m not good at coming up with stuff on the fly (read: I like to have a recipe) and I don’t like to run to the store every day to pick up something for dinner, I just don’t have time for that kinda crazy. So despite the fact that I really don’t like to meal plan, it saves me time in the end. I’ve been meal planning for 17 years so you could say I’ve learned a thing or two! What I am sharing today is what I do to make my meal planning as painless as possible. If it’s any help to you – great! If not, may you find your meal planning mojo soon.
1. Create a template
Planning your meals has to work for you and your family. I use a weekly meal planner printed on paper. For the LONGEST time, I created my meal plan on one of those magnetic lists you could buy from the $1 Target bins. You know what I’m talking about? Anyway, I grew weary of it because the menu was always so squished and hard to read and I could only fit one week worth of meals. I decided I wanted it to look like a calendar where I could also have room to write notes on the day if needed. A little tweaking here and there and I came up with this template, pictured right. I have used it for over a year now and I absolutely LOVE it. You can download a BLANK one HERE.
There are also great apps such as PlantoEat, or AnyList to name a couple. My sister uses a white board. Find what works for you and your family. Give it a test run for a few weeks or even a month to see if it fits or if there are tweaks you can make to make it a good fit.
2. Keep it simple
Like I said above, I don’t enjoy creating meal plans so I’m not one to plan out every single meal of my day. I find even the idea of that exhausting, but I know some people find it liberating to put a detailed plan together. If that’s your thing – go for it. However, if you are new to meal-planning or dread it as much as I do, I would recommend starting with the biggest meal of the day and if you feel inspired, you can always add more meals later.
One of the reasons I like keeping it simple is because I am on the Specific Carbohydrate Diet. While I usually make SCD legal dinners, I don’t make the rest of my family eat SCD for breakfast and lunch. For lunch I usually eat leftovers, but my kids and husband eat a lot of cold/sack lunches so I need to keep a variety of things on hand to create those. As far as breakfast goes at our house, it’s whatever you want. Sometimes I make special things for the kids on weekends like pancakes or waffles, but for the most part we all fend for ourselves. For these meals, I just remember to keep our favorite foods prepped and on hand.
3. Have themed days
I’m sure you’ve heard of Meatless Mondays or Taco Tuesdays. Personally, I don’t like to lock myself into those kind of meals every single week, but the idea of a themed meal can release a lot of pressure in trying to come up with 7 days of meals. At our house we have family movie night on Friday nights. Every week a different family member gets to pick the movie and choose what meal we should have for dinner. I also have one night a week as “breakfast” night. It’s very economical to have eggs and toast/sausage for dinner! If I’m feeling really organized, I will also include a new recipe every week. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t. Other themed nights to consider: hamburger, pizza, salad bar, slow cooker, pasta, soup, etc. And don’t forget about leftovers night! When I make something big like a roast, I plan for leftovers the following night.
4. Fill out your meal plan from on-hand items
Once I’ve filled in my ‘themed’ days, I take a look and see what meat I have in the freezer/fridge. Since I follow the Specific Carbohydrate Diet, meat is an important portion of our meal. Seeing what meat I already have on hand gives me a starting point for looking at recipes I want to include for the week, making sure I rotate the kinds of meat. Although my youngest still calls nearly every meat chicken. lol!
5. Have all your go-to recipes in one place
At this point, I pull out my recipe binder where I keep all the recipes we’ve tried and liked, organized in different categories like “Breakfast”, “Main Meal”, “Side Dish”, etc. This summer I went through and organized the ‘Main Meals’ by the kind of meat (i.e. all the chicken, all the ground turkey, etc.). Once I’ve chosen the recipes for the week, they get pulled from the binder and put on a magnetic clip on the fridge so they are easy to find. Once I’ve completed this step, I make my grocery list and I’m done! Woo-hoo!
6. It’s okay to stray from the plan
So you’ve created your meal plan, you have your recipes out and ready to go when you need them. Here’s the truth. Though you’ve created an awesome plan, things happen: You forget to defrost something, marinate the meat or put it in the slow-cooker in the morning. You’re human, you’re a mom. I don’t know about you, but sometimes I can barely remember to put my shoes on before I walk out the door.Because of your overloaded brain, feel free to skip around within the meal plan.
In order to have that flexibility, plan and shop for two weeks of meals. (I don’t buy all the veggies that far in advance, unless they are frozen) If you’ve done that, you won’t have to meal plan every week AND it gives you the option to pick and choose from another day should you forget to do the appropriate prep work for the meal that was planned for that day. Giving yourself wiggle room will ease the stress if something should not go as planned. As if that ever happens!
7. Have a back-up plan
Speaking of wiggle room: it’s great to have a back up plan (or two) if the original meal plan, or ‘stray from the plan’ doesn’t work out.
BACK UP PLAN #1 is when you have time and some energy to cook, but totally forgot to pick up one of the ingredients or defrost the 3 lb. roast, etc. If this is the case, plan a ground meat dinner. Even if the ground meat is frozen, it’s easy enough to defrost in the microwave and create a really quick meal in 30 minutes.
Brown 2 lbs. of ground meat with some salt, pepper and garlic in olive oil in a pan. Drain and set aside. Add seasoning of your choice to the pan-my favorites are basil and oregano. Add veggie(s) like zucchini, tomatoes, broccoli, carrots, beans, anything you have on hand and add to the pan until cooked through. Add the meat back in, mix together and cook 1-2 min. longer. Serve. Easy. Peezy.
Another option is to brown the ground meat (with salt, pepper and garlic) and let everyone else add their own toppings. Spinach, salsa, cheese, black olives, pickles, tomato sauce, pepperoni, etc. the sky is the limit…or whatever is leftover in your fridge.
BACK UP PLAN #2 is when you have no energy, you had the worst day or you have to eat dinner quickly so you can head out the door for another event. Enter: breakfast for dinner. I always have homemade sausage in the fridge or freezer because that’s what I eat every morning. My kids think ‘cereal night’ is the “best thing ever”! We also have eggs and toast on hand. If you were feeling ‘slightly’ motivated, you could whip up some pancakes pretty quick too. Breakfast for dinner is the best. My kids think it’s extra fun when they can say they had breakfast for breakfast, breakfast for hot lunch and breakfast for dinner!
Does this feel overwhelming? It’s okay. I still feel overwhelmed when I have to sit down and plan out my 2 weeks of meals. That being said, having a system in place lightens the load and ensures that we aren’t spending money eating out or grabbing junk food. Over the last 17 years, my meal planning and recipe organization has changed many different times. Don’t be afraid to try a couple of these ideas and tweak it to make it work like Goldilocks for you.
Are you finding your meal planning mojo – what works for your family? Share your tips in the comments!