I have always enjoyed putting together weekly meal plans or planning out a themed meal with recipes that complement each other. In fact, this activity was the initial inspiration for Cozy Cuisines, the personal chef service that I started with my friend and fellow lover of food. We used to plan out these elaborate meals and choose several recipes that we thought would go well together and then get together on a weeknight after work and cook it all together over a bottle of red wine. It felt so rewarding to be able to start with this seemingly random pile of groceries and turn it into a delicious meal. I still love that feeling!
So even after the Cozy Cuisines era came to an end and I was no longer preparing large quantities of food for other families, I continued on as a personal chef of sorts for my own growing family. And I still love providing healthy and delicious meals for people. I think it comes from my partly Italian mother to whom FOOD = LOVE. <3 However, the constant demands of parenting small children and running a household can interfere with my idea of “from scratch” cooking. In an effort to make everything fit into a busy family schedule, meal preparation can often take a backseat and we end up serving prepared meals out of a box in order to get food on the table. I recognize that there is a time and place for such options and I certainly use this when necessary. But I have found that regular meal planning (I do mine once a week and I know others who do it once a month) can greatly reduce the reliance on prepared foods and quick-fix dinners.
For what it’s worth, here is my simplified method of seasonal meal planning…
Once per week (usually on a weeknight because I find weekends to be too chaotic and unpredictable), I sit down with my recipe binder, my cookbooks, my favorite food blogs and our calendar and I plan out our dinners for the following week. During the growing season, I might also have a sticky note with a list of the fresh produce already in our fridge or in our garden or on the way from our weekly CSA pick-up or available at the local farmers’ markets. In the old days, I would then sift through countless recipes in my cookbooks or online and choose mostly brand new recipe combinations for each night of the week. As you can probably imagine, this would take me hours to figure out – not to mention the time it took to then prepare these elaborate recipes at dinner time. Not exactly sustainable when you only have approximately 1.1 hours per week available to you for any and all quiet, uninterrupted activity.
After reading a book called Simplicity Parenting, I switched it up a bit and now we have a weekly meal schedule that goes like this:
SUNDAYS – grilling night in the summer, soup/stew night in the winter
MONDAYS – pasta night
TUESDAYS – stir fry night (or a rice-based dish)
WEDNESDAYS – soup or seafood night
THURSDAYS – salad or frittata night
FRIDAYS – pizza night
SATURDAYS – wild card or “try a new recipe” night
Even on the busiest of weeks, this new planning method allows me to take any fresh produce that is in the fridge and throw it into the menu in a quick and easy manner.
[On Sunday, we might thaw out some chicken and grill it up with some fresh zucchini. On Monday, I might just toss some pasta with fresh tomatoes, basil and some mozzarella. On Tuesday, I might chop up some peppers and onions and mushrooms and thaw out some chip steak and stir fry it all up to serve over brown rice. On Wednesday, I might thaw out some salmon and grill or broil it and serve it with some quinoa and some fresh green beans. On Thursday, I might throw together a frittata with garlic and green onions and bacon and potatoes and cheddar cheese. On Friday, I might chop up the leftover grilled chicken and make a homemade BBQ sauce and have a BBQ chicken pizza. On Saturday, I might try out the latest recipe that I saw on My New Roots or 100 Days of Real Food.]
These are mostly summer ideas coming to mind right now because I’m writing this in the heat of summer. But you can imagine how you could do the same thing with seasonal produce in the spring, fall, or winter.
Once I have my plan in place, I record it in a document on my computer where I can refer back to it throughout the week to remind myself of what’s for dinner each night. In addition, I also keep a handwritten piece of note paper on my bulletin board that lists any individual action items for each day of the week. For example, I might need to thaw two pounds of chicken on Monday, soak one cup of black beans on Tuesday night, cook the beans on Wednesday morning, etc. Many times, I even do all of the chopping required for a meal either the night before when the kids are in bed or early in the morning when things are still going relatively well in the sibling fighting arena or during naptime for our youngest son. [Also, I LOVE slow cooker meals because it shifts the emphasis on cooking to the night before or the morning of rather than during that horrible last hour of the day before dinner when everyone is tired and hungry and cranky and generally out of patience.] When the cooking tasks are broken up and recorded as daily reminders for me, it helps me to manage my time better and allows us to eat fresher, healthier options instead of just grabbing for something already prepared and loaded with preservatives or additives.
I realize that not everyone may be as interested in cooking or as obsessed with planning as I am but I hope that anyone would be able to take something away from this meal planning method and be able to simplify their lives. The main points to keep in mind are:
Planning ahead eliminates the stressed and rushed feeling of “What’s for dinner?!” and allows you to be more conscious of what ingredients are included in your meals.
Planning the meals on a weekly or monthly basis can help you to rotate the individual ingredients (meats, grains, veggies, etc), which will give your body a break from too much of things that may be harder to process in large or consistent quantities, such as red meat or wheat or dairy. You can also be more intentional about doing things like having a meatless meal once or twice a week.
Having a basic outline of nightly themes (pasta night, pizza night, etc) takes a lot of the guesswork or research out of the planning process for you. [I am working on reorganizing my recipe binder into pasta recipes, rice-based recipes, seafood recipes, etc to make it even easier for me to quickly choose my recipes for the week.]
Having designated “nights” for your weekly menu outline can add some consistency and dependableness to your lives that you and your kids will find refreshing and comforting at the same time. [Now when the kids ask me “What’s for dinner?”, I can quickly and confidently respond with “Today is Monday so it’s pasta night!” and I get a lot less complaints about the menu because it’s sort of just the way things are in our household.]
Breaking each dinner into manageable steps throughout the day or week will help you to have a timely dinner on the table without feeling rushed in the end.
I do realize that although I call this a “Simplified Meal Planning” method, it may be way more complicated than what you are currently doing. I guess I called it that because this is what I arrived at after years of trying too hard and acting as though I were planning out the menu for a gourmet restaurant rather than a family of five where anything resembling gourmet would be lost on our children.
However, if even this feels like too much for you to start with, some things that can help you to implement this meal planning method are to make sure you set aside time every week for meal planning (20-30 minutes would be great!), regularly stock your fridge and pantry with fresh produce and other basic ingredients that you will need for your favorite recipes, keep your freezer stocked with meats and seafood packaged in the quantities that you need for one meal, and start a collection of family favorite recipes that you can flip through every week and pick out what works best for that time of year and your weekly schedule. Trust me, a half hour of meal planning will be time well spent and will make the rest of your week go so much more smoothly!
Good luck and good eating!