You may find this hard to believe, but whether you love to cook or prefer to keep a nice stash of take-out menus, meal planning for your family can truly simplify your life in ways you never imagined.
You know that question “what’s for dinner?” that you must answer every night for your family? Imagine only having to do that once a week — do you know how much time you can save?
When I meal-plan — and sometimes meal-prep — before the beginning of the work and school week, I find that everything else seems to fall into place.
When we have a plan for dinner, my family of perpetual dawdlers and procrastinators magically finds a way to stay on schedule for the rest of that evening’s activities.
If planning meals or even meal prepping in advance feels daunting, try a few of these suggestions to make the process less daunting, you may find that you will never go back to spontaneous dinners again!
• Family Meal Planning: I often sit my crew down once a month and ask them to write down five meals they are craving — after all, my finicky crew is more likely to eat the meals I dutifully prepare for them if they had some say in what is on the menu.
Whether you have a party of two or a large family to feed, bringing everyone together for some brainstorming can be a fun activity,
You may even discover there is a menu item you forgot about that was someone’s favorite!
Compile everyone’s meal wish list, your favorite meal planning template, and a calendar for the week or month ahead.
Try not to get too bogged down in the variety trap — I used to avoid serving chicken more than once a week until I realized that my chicken-loving kids really couldn’t care less that I was feeding them chicken three times in one week.
Try setting themes and then slotting a meal that (at least loosely )meets that theme each week.
For example, “Meatloaf Monday” can evolve from meatloaf, meatball subs, spaghetti and meat sauce to shepherd’s pie.
Here are some other examples: “Taco Tuesday” is anything with a Hispanic flair, “Whaddaya Want Wednesday” is always something from the kids’ meal wish list, “Turkey Day Thursday” is always a reminder to eat white meat while “Fun Fridays” give us an excuse to enjoy some of our favorite fun foods.
Other possible theme nights could be “Italian Night,” “Sandwich Saturdays,” “Brinner” (aka breakfast for dinner).
If meal planning is a chore, this is a great way to add some pizzazz.
Think of the themes and then have fun brainstorming ways to build your menu. You will have a month’s worth of ideas in no time!
• Be a Bit Extra: While I am a self-proclaimed frugalista, one of the best choices I have made is always to cook more than my family will eat.
What this does is assure that I have one less lunch to pack and potentially a night off cooking when Friday nights become the night we eat what leftovers remain in the fridge from the previous days.
• Point. Click. Cook: Since most of us are slightly addicted to our phones and electronic devices, I will advocate using them for our meal-planning prowess.
While many recipes and meal-planning apps exist, not all are created equal.
One of my favorites is Prepear, which lets you develop a meal planning calendar with linked-up recipes and even links to a shopping list for some serious streamlining,
If you need recipes or inspiration, another great option is Paprika — which lets you pin recipes from anywhere on the web, scale them for your family size and create shopping lists.
If you are like me and need some creative inspiration for meals, i.e, you aren’t sure what you feel like cooking, there’s a great app called “Food on the Table.”
Food on the Table doesn’t make you select recipes, but it delivers recipes each week based on the preferences you provide when you set up your account.
It provides a grocery list, recipe instructions, coupons, and deals based on your location.
• Write it Down: As much as I love using online tools, I am still sentimental about my trusty pen and paper — and meal planning is a perfect candidate for some good old-fashioned grocery lists.
Anyone who understands my frugal side knows that my first tenet of meal planning is always based on what is on sale at the grocery store that week and whether you are planning for a week’s worth or a month’s worth of meals, there are lots of essential but potentially time-saving tools to use!
While scanning some local grocery store sales flyers before making your meal plans and subsequent grocery list is highly recommended, you can simply base your plans on your family’s tastes.
Print off one of many online meal-planning templates — just do a simple Google search for printable meal planners — and get started from there.
If chicken happens to be on sale at your favorite grocery store and you need ideas for eating it all week, visit the Allrecipes.com recipe spinner for ideas on 17 ways to prepare boneless chicken breast that will keep even the most finicky eaters in your house on their toes.
(Editor’s Note: Kristine George is a freelance journalist who resides in Easton.)