Meal planning. It’s often bemoaned as the bane of a busy mom’s existence.
I struggled with it for a long time (and still do, sometimes).
I thought about purchasing subscriptions to outfits like eMeals.com or Saving Dinner, but I can be a picky eater (something my kids have inherited from me, I’m afraid) and I didn’t think the meal plans would be able to account for the varied tastes of our entire family.
I used to use an iPhone app called “Food on the Table,” which browsed items for sale at your local stores and made menus based on that, but it really didn’t fit the bill either. I couldn’t account for items I already had at home, and their recipe selection was a bit lacking. Then they merged with Food.com and started charging for the meal planning service, so I just deleted the app.
There’s an interesting site called MyFridgeFood.com where you can list all the food you have in your fridge/pantry and get recipes based on those items, but not all the recipes are that appealing – and it doesn’t help me plan what items to purchase at the grocery store.
Finally, I hit on a solution that mostly works for me, and maybe it’ll work for you too. Because, really, that’s the key. Find a system that works for you and stick with it. (When I don’t stick with this system, which is about 50% of the time, our meals are hit-or-miss.) This system may not work for you, especially if you hate Pinterest or don’t own a slow cooker. If that’s the case, try something else, and keep trying until you find something that works!
First, I take stock of how many meals I need, and how much time I’ll have to cook. On the days I’m working from home (usually three days per week), I can be more flexible because I’ll have a little extra time for cooking, and the ability to put something in the oven or crockpot midday or in the afternoon. On the days I commute to my office, I will need something that can be put in the crockpot in the morning and cook all day long, or something that can be prepped beforehand and put in the oven right away when I get home but will only take about 30 minutes to cook. If we have a particularly busy day with T-ball practice or an HOA meeting or Religious Ed classes happening in the evening, I’ll usually designate that as a “Frozen Pizza Night” or an “Eat Out” night. I also plan for “Leftover Nights” or “Sandwiches and Ramen” nights for when life throws a curveball (sick kids, for example).
Usually I plan for 4-5 meals and assume that the rest of the days will be covered by leftovers, sandwiches and ramen (my kids LOVE ramen, and my 10-year-old can make it herself), frozen pizza, or eating out (we’re able to budget for eating out occasionally, but your mileage may vary). I don’t worry about lunch on the weekends because I either cook a big brunch or we just have leftovers or sandwiches.
I take a quick look in the refrigerator and pantry to get a mental inventory of what I have to work with. I take note of anything I want to use up, any meat that is about to expire, any canned goods I want to use up, and so on.
I look at my local grocery store’s app to see if there are any good sales, especially on meat. There is one particular store that I prefer to go to because I get gas rewards depending on how much I spend, which helps keep our fuel costs down. However, I have apps for the three grocery stores nearest my house and will browse all of them if I get the chance. (We don’t do bulk shopping – e.g. Costco or Sam’s Club – but that’s an option too.)
Then, armed with all this information, I turn to Pinterest, which I use as my recipe repository. I have several boards devoted exclusively to recipes, broken up into categories – Main Dishes, Side Dishes, Crockpot Recipes, Breakfast, and so on. I may further organize them one day by type – chicken recipes, beef recipes, etc. – but I haven’t done that yet (although I do have a board for Meatless Meals, for use during Lent and other Fridays when we choose to go meatless).
I have a board called “Kid Tested – Mother Approved” which contains recipes that I know my kids will eat, and that are easy for me to prepare. I have a board called “Freezer Cooking” which contains meals I’ve either made for the freezer and have been successes or ones that look promising that I want to try in the near future. (I make sure all my freezer recipes are really simple – basically throw ingredients into Ziploc bag, shut, and label, then dump and go once they are ready to be made. Nothing that involves browning meat beforehand or anything too complicated – with freezer meals I really need to operate on the K.I.S.S. principle, otherwise I get discouraged and don’t do them.)
Once on Pinterest, I either browse my recipe boards for inspiration or search for new recipes based on specific sale ingredients. Any recipe I choose, I pin to a secret board called “Meal Plan.” (I don’t know why I keep it secret – some hang-up about not wanting people to criticize my meal plan, I guess! – but that’s what works for me.) Then I have my entire meal plan for the week organized in one place for quick reference. I don’t assign a specific day to each meal (except Taco Tuesday – more on that later), which allows me to be flexible with what I make. I delete each pin as I use it. If I end up not using a pin that week because our plans changed (we were invited out to eat with family or something), then I just leave the pin there for next week’s plan.
Since I’ve already taken a mental inventory about what I have on hand, I just note down the items that I will need to purchase when I go shopping. Sometimes, if I’m lucky, I’ll have most of the items I need on hand and will only need to purchase meat, but I usually have some spices or produce I’ll need to pick up.
Meal Prep Tips and Tricks
I tend to look for recipes that can be served over rice, as I love my rice cooker (and I stock up on rice, especially brown rice, whenever it’s on sale). I often buy boxes of veggie pasta as well, especially when they are on sale for $1/box (anything to get my picky kids to eat something resembling vegetables). Anything that incorporates produce currently on sale (but with a minimum of prep time) is a bonus. Sometimes I will buy packages of pre-cut onions and veggies just to save time, although it depends on what our budget and my schedule looks like.
Some time ago (before “The Lego Movie” came out, I might add) I instituted “Taco Tuesday” at our home, and it’s been a big hit with the kids. Tacos is a family favorite and a meal they don’t mind having repeatedly, so I always know what we’re having for supper on Tuesdays. That’s a day I usually drive into work (a 90-minute commute, one way), but it only takes 10-15 minutes to brown hamburger meat in a skillet or thaw and heat frozen meat. I just need to make a mental note on which fixings we’re running low on (lettuce, cheese, taco sauce, tortillas), and I know that I always need to buy ground beef (unless I’ve stocked up due to a sale). I make my own taco seasoning using this recipe and store it in a plastic container in my spice cabinet. One batch will last us for a month or two. If I get ambitious and if avocados are on sale, I’ll make guacamole with a quick homemade spice mix. If I get really, really ambitious, I make large batches of taco meat in the crockpot and freeze it in 1.5 lb portions for future use (right now, that’s the perfect portion size for our family). Or sometimes I’ll just brown hamburger in the crockpot and store it in the freezer so I can use it for other things as well (burgers, soups, etc.). (Note: all this prep work is usually done on the weekend, if I have time – weeknights are too hectic.)
I use my food processor to cut up onions or grate carrots, and I’ll also use my apple wedger when I want to cut up potatoes in a hurry. (I tend not to peel potatoes unless absolutely necessary – takes too much time.) I cut the potatoes in half and then use the wedger on each half. I end up with some cylinder-shaped potatoes in addition to the wedges, but usually no one notices or cares.
I’m trying to move toward using mostly whole ingredients in my recipes (no condensed soup, no dressing or gravy mixes, etc.) but sometimes that’s not possible, so I try to cut myself slack.
Here’s a sample menu I might have for the week. I have one meal for each day, but one or two will usually get rolled over to the following week. These are all “tried and true” meals – e.g. I’ve made them before, the kids will eat them, and the adults like them too.
Meal #1 – Garlic Chicken, with microwave steamer bag of veggies as a side.
Meal #2 – Tacos
Meal #3 – Crockpot Ranch Pork Chops, served over rice from rice cooker. Microwave steamer bag of veggies as a side.
Meal #4 – Slow Cooker Thai Pork with Peanut Sauce, served over rice from rice cooker. Microwave steamer bag of veggies as a side. (Note: with this one, I’ll try to find boneless pork chops on sale or clearance, or a cheap pork roast on sale or clearance, and cut it up. Sometimes I can find pork stew meat. Pork loin is generally too expensive, although I’ll use that if it’s on sale.)
Meal #5 – Hearty Beef Stew (recipe #6 at the link). Side dish: Basic Beer Bread (it’s quick and easy to throw together, and goes marvelously with this stew. If you want to prep this beforehand, you can throw the dry ingredients in a Ziploc bag, and then when it’s time to bake it you just need to add the beer and mix).
Meal #6 – Easy Crockpot Mongolian Beef, served over rice from rice cooker. Microwave steamer bag of veggies as a side.
Meal #7 – Kielbasa and Pasta Skillet Dinner – one dish meal!
Do you have any tried and true freezer meals, or quick weeknight meals? If so, leave a link to the recipe in comments and I’ll add them to the Catholic Working Mother “Tried and True Freezer Meals” and “Quick Weeknight Meals” boards on Pinterest! (The above recipes are already there.)