Three Easy Ways to Simplify Menu Planning
I heart planning.
Like for real.
Last year, I used
some most of my Christmas money to buy myself an awesome Erin Condren planner.
It has surpassed my every expectation and has truly been worth every dollar. Every time I see it sitting on my desk with its bright happy cover, I immediately feel happier. *Sigh*
(Side note: If you’re interested in ordering an Erin Condren planner, you can use my code and we will both get $10. Score!! https://www.erincondren.com/referral/invite/haleeanthony0329 )
But I digress.
Despite my love for planning, there is one aspect of life that benefits tremendously from planning that I still struggle with – menu planning.
Don’t get me wrong.
I can do it.
I can do it big.
I used to sit down at the beginning of every month and plan out all 90 meals, make a grocery list for it all, and make a huge grocery trip to at least two stores.
And I’d lie to myself (and my husband who had to go with me because I was buying an entire month of groceries at one time) and say that it was worth it because we wouldn’t need to go back to the store for a MONTH!!
Of course, this never worked.
We like fresh fruits and vegetables, so there would be weekly runs to get those plus milk, bread, and other key ingredients I’d forgotten.
Additionally, I got totally burned out.
Sure, it’s easy to write down that I’m going to make a different home cooked dinner every night, but logistically it was exhausting.
And like all good intentions, it counted for little in the end. We were still going to the grocery store every week, we were still eating out more than I liked, and we were still having scrambled eggs for dinner at least one night a week.
So what’s the solution?
Realistic, sustainable, simple menu planning.
I’m still a huge advocate of menu planning.
It can truly ease the burden of the 90 meals a month conundrum. To achieve this purpose, I’ve changed my menu planning in three key ways that you might benefit from as well.
1. Give Yourself Some Grace.
Plan at least one night a week that is easy (and when I say “easy,” I mean easy like your kids could do most of the work, not easy like a quick 30-minute stir fry).
Plan to have club sandwiches one night a week.
Plan to eat leftovers one night.
Plan to eat breakfast for dinner one night (and if you’re like me, then you’re husband does most of the work because he’s the better egg cooker).
Because here’s the thing – I make a fantastic lasagna.
It is the perfect combo of cheesy goodness and hearty tomato sauce. I even sneak some spinach in there to up the nutritional value. It takes about an hour to prepare (not including the additional hour of baking time) and my children, those precious angels, complain about it every single time we eat it.
But if we have pancakes or waffles or oatmeal for dinner, it’s a party in my kitchen!
They are dancing around and trying to help while profusely thanking me and telling me I’m “the best mommy ever!!”
There is no shame in planning for easy.
No one will ever give you an award for slaving away in the kitchen night after night for a meal that your kids are probably going to complain about.
Figure out some meals that are easy to prepare and meet your standard for nutrition.
Easy for you doesn’t automatically mean bad for them.
Whereas a stressed-out mom is almost universally bad for everyone.
2. Do a Little Bit of Freezer Cooking.
In the past, I’ve done a big shopping trip and all day cooking with a friend to prepare 1,387 meals for the freezer.
It was fun, and it did put quite a few meals in the freezer for later.
BUT it was a huge time commitment, and some of the food was lost in the icy tundra of our deep freeze.
Now, I just try to do a little freezer cooking as I go. That way, we end up with a reasonable stockpile of food in the freezer.
If I’m cooking something that I know will freeze well, I’ll just double or triple the recipe and freeze part of it.
It doesn’t double or triple the time it takes to prepare the meal, but it does make for a ridiculously easy dinner on another night (or two!).
So anytime I feel like making lasagna, I make three.
I do the same thing when I make enchiladas, meatloaf, meatballs, tortilla soup, or oatmeal cookie dough.
This may take a little experimenting to find out what foods you are already making that will freeze well.
Once you figure that part out, the rest is easy. Just plan to double the recipe the next time you make it, and then put half in the freezer.
We use Pyrex pans with lids like these but in the past, we’ve used disposable pans too.
An added bonus of having meals like this in your freezer is that you always have something ready to share.
Anytime someone in our church has a baby, surgery, rough day, etc. I know that I can pull a meal out of the freezer for them.
Then I just have to write the cooking instructions on top and run it by their house.
I’m not always able to drop everything to go to the store to buy all the ingredients to make them a meal, coordinate when they eat dinner, cook it, and deliver it. Delivering a frozen meal allows them to cook it then or throw it in their freezer for later. Since it’s already frozen, they don’t have to feel guilty if they don’t want to eat it right then.
Being able to serve others in this easy way, is a great example for my kids without adding a lot of stress to our day.
3. Have “Go To” Meals and Go to Them Often.
We eat tacos, grilled chicken, and hamburgers almost every single week.
They are meals that are nutritious, are easy to prepare, and everyone likes them.
We do the same thing with lunch.
Every day there are three choices: PBJ, pepperonis and cheese, or a turkey sandwich. We have fruit, chips, carrot sticks, yogurt, etc. as well, but there still isn’t a ton of variety.
These are the options during the summer when we’re home all day and during the school year when the kids are packing their lunches.
The first benefit of a purposeful lack of variety is that it makes grocery shopping easier.
Every week we get pretty much the same things at the grocery store.
The lack of variety speeds up the actual shopping trip as well as the planning beforehand. Our groceries look about the same every week which makes budgeting for groceries easier as well.
The second benefit is that most kids thrive in routine.
Kids take comfort in knowing that dad is off work on Saturday, we go to church every Sunday, and we eat tacos every Tuesday.
The world can be a pretty scary place for kids.
Giving them some terra firma in their weekly diet gives them another thing to be certain about.
Lastly, repeating meals can allow kids to be helpful in the kitchen.
People need repetition to master tasks.
Our seven year old knows that if I’m making tacos or hamburgers for dinner, then she can help by cutting up tomatoes. She has done it many times under close supervision.
Our five year old can make four PBJs at lunchtime.
Even our two-year-old can carry the tortillas to the table or wash strawberries in the sink.
Side note: I am a huge fan of kids doing things for themselves even if it makes more mess and takes more time. My priority as a mother is to raise people that are independent – not to prepare food quickly and with as little mess as possible.
When planning your menu, the main thing to remember is your reason for cooking.
You are cooking because you want your child to grow and be healthy.
To raise a child like that requires that you nourish them and nurture them.
Of course, we want to prepare healthy and great tasting meals for our family, but our families need more than that from us.
A maid can nourish them, they need parents to nurture them.
Nurturing them is a lot easier when you aren’t worn out.
Nurturing them includes preparing them for life without you.
Nurturing them can happen over Tacos as easily as it can over Grilled Chicken Shawarma with Fennel Spinach and Tzatziki Sauce.
What ways have you found to simplify menu planning?