What I Have Learned: Meal Planning and Putting it to Paper

I have struggled with this whole meal planning business off and on. I have come to realize that meal planning just doesn’t happen. It is something I have to work hard at doing. It has to be purposeful, intentional.

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The classic method of pen and paper is usually what works best. I can jot down an idea, scribble it out, move it to another day with an arrow. It’s just easier to “think” when writing, opposed to using a calendar on the computer or some meal planning service. Now, I have used Plan to Eat and liked it but it hasn’t been a consistent tool for me. If you are more of a computer organizer I’d highly recommend checking them out (I am not an affiliate, just a mom who is speaking from her own experience). Plan to Eat is pretty user friendly and especially after you build your recipes. I think the best part was that it automatically created a grocery list based off your meal plan. And you can delete items you know you already have so that you only get a list of what you need.

Anyway, like I said, pen and paper has proven to be a true friend when it comes to meal planning. I really enjoy using this two week schedule printable. It has spaces to include breakfast, lunch and dinner ideas. I typically shop on Tuesdays and occasionally I’ll go on Monday or Wednesday depending on the food situation or my schedule that week. So having the two week layout helps me to start my plan for the week on Tuesday and wrap around to the following Tuesday. I try to plan for 8 days because there is always a day I plan a meal and then when it’s time to make it I am not in the mood for cooking that meal. This way allows me a little wiggle room.

How do I know what meals to plan? Great question! I have found it helpful to come up with categories. My categories are Pasta/Grain, Asian, Traditional, Vegetarian, Mediterranean/ Middle East. You might think up Italian, Chicken, Pork, Soup/Stew/Crock pot/ Casserole, Skillet, Salad, Breakfast for Dinner, Pizza night, or even Cajun. My family likes to eat very different cuisines and they can be pretty particular about their food. I think that’s a big reason it has been such a challenge for me to plan. I also don’t want to feel obligated, nor do I have the time, to cook 7 days a week. That’s why you only see five categories.

Here are my categories and what they mean to me in more detail. Pasta/ Grain means cooking spaghetti, or pierogi, or gnocchi, or quinoa, or orzo and whatever sauce and veggies to go with it. Asian means a lot of different choices like Indian curry or Thai curry (and there are a bunch of curry ideas for both) or peanut satay chicken, or stir fry, or fried rice, or homemade Chinese food. My traditional category is cooking up a meat, veggie, and starch. So I might make a meatloaf with mashed potatoes and peas. Or I’ll make herbed chicken thighs with roasted potatoes and green beans. Maybe I’ll make Jamaican jerk chicken breasts with sweet potatoes and broccoli. Fajitas, burgers, and Shepard’s Pie also fall into this category because they are a meat with a veggie and starch.

The vegetarian category is the most difficult because we are not fans of substitution type meals. No tofurkey burgers or lentil “meat”loaf for us. We like our veggies and want to eat more of them, definitely. But I haven’t found any “go-to” vegetarian recipes that aren’t curries. But nonetheless, here are some meal ideas I have listed: grilled cheese (actually – you have to try this Blueberry Balsamic grilled cheese from Amanda K. by the Bay) with butternut squash soup, mushroom and kale and wild rice casserole, red beans and rice. Not too inspiring but I guess we can work on that. And for the last of my categories I have Mediterranean or Middle Eastern food. I like to make a Greek salad with chicken, or tabbouleh and felafel, or spiced chicken kebabs.

I plan to cook five days a week and I plan a day of leftovers. Okay, so that is only six days, what about the last day? What do you do for a meal that day? Well, it all depends on my mood or what’s on the calendar. Usually, almost always, there is an event on the weekend – that serves food, or we go to my in-laws – and they prepare a meal, or we have enough leftovers to come up with something to eat, or I’ll make something “easy”, or we’ll get takeout. This is where you know you and your family’s style. For us, I try not to cook anything big on the weekends. This is the time I want to spend with my family, not spend time in the kitchen cooking (or cleaning). I know for some families it works best to make the big meals on the weekends and save the easy or quick stuff for during the week.

Now that we know our categories and we know how many days to plan to cook something you just plug it all in. Here was last week’s plan. I know that my hubby loves homemade pizza so that works for Tuesday. A family member has been staying with us for a while and agreed to cook Wednesday. Thursday’s plan is to cook Jambalaya (maybe the “Mediterranean” category will have to change to the “Other” category). Friday we’ll cook burgers and dogs since we have a bunch leftover from July 4th weekend. Saturday I can make a salad with grilled chicken. And Sunday will be soup and grilled cheese.

I had actually, for the first time, made a plan for two weeks out. My goal is to not go shopping again until the 21st. So for next week’s plan I have written down Leftovers on Monday, Chicken with sweet potatoes and a veggie on Tuesday, Tikka Masala on Wednesday, Teriaki stir fry on Thursday, homemade pizza on Friday, Leftovers on Saturday, Make a sauce and do spaghetti on Sunday and Monday we will try rice and beans.

So far writing it down on paper has been super helpful. Over the last few months I’ve been able to keep dinner on the table and there have been maybe 2 complaints. And when I say complaints it means that we ordered takeout when we really shouldn’t have and that the meal really was a dud. My hubby knows he can be a difficult customer and he has loved my cooking and loved that he can count on coming home to a yummy meal. My confidence has really grown since I decided to refuse to fail.

And now with a few months of weekly meal planning under my belt it’s time to try shopping every two weeks. Eventually I would like to go monthly. It’s a lofty goal, but I find that the more trips I make the more money I spend. It will also leave a little extra time in my week to go other places with the kiddos for nature walks or field trips or play dates.

Another trick I’ve learned about planning my meals is to write down on my master list (the list with the categories and meal ideas) any meals I’ve made that my family loves. Lately we are enjoying homemade pizza (with a copycat Uno’s Chicago pizza dough crust), Thai red curry, Chicken Tikka Masala, and I recently found this Jambalaya recipe that now will go into regular rotation – it’s super YUM and easy to make. And yes, my children eat all this spicy food, usually. 🙂

Writing down dinner plans have been priority to lunch and breakfast. As long as we have eggs, steel cut oats, cereal, and leftovers then everyone can eat breakfast. I’ll also go to our local bagel shop for “yesterday’s bagels,” a bag of seven for $2. Can’t beat that.

And for lunch, well, that’s the next part of meal planning that I need to learn to plan. I’ll get deli meat every so often for sandwiches or my hubby will eat leftovers or eat out. The kids and I will eat PB&J or chicken fingers or leftovers. Yeah, these meals need a little more love and care, but I’m happy that I have found what works for me. Good old pen and paper – and the discipline to use them.

What is your meal planning trick? How do you get it done?

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What I Have Learned: Meal Planning and Expectations

Before beginning any task or job you have to know what is expected of you. How is this task supposed to be done? What should be the end result?

Once, I took a job as an assistant to a real estate agent. I wanted to learn the ins and outs of what it meant to be a real estate agent and eventually be all on my own. I loved the idea of working with people to help them find their home. But, after I started working with this agent I realized that I really didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing. I felt like I was doing an awful job. And this was difficult for me to understand, at first, because I have always been a good employee. Finally, I recognized that this working relationship was lacking expectations. He didn’t tell me what or how he wanted things done and I didn’t ask (which was naivety on my part).

Earlier I talked about how I refuse to fail at my job as mom and wife, particularly when it comes to meal planning. As of late, planning and preparing meals has been super stressful for me. We go through phases of eating healthy and purposefully to eating whatever makes it to the table. I lose my oomph and fail to come up with something creative. When I try something new and it doesn’t come out so great then I become discouraged. Then, I am so hard on myself (as a lot of moms are) that I tend to not do anything at all, I don’t even know where to begin.

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So, the first step is to know what is expected of me. What is the goal of meal planning and how should this be done? For our family, in this household, the goal of planning meals is to ensure that there are healthy foods available and that a nutritious dinner is ready in the evening. (And of course to maximize our budget.) Easy enough? Sure. But, what is “healthy?” And when exactly is dinner?

The dinner time question usually irons itself out depending on the season of life we are in. Early in our relationship it was when we got hungry. After our daughter was born my husband worked during the day and I worked at night. Dinner was whenever he made it or heated up leftovers and I ate whenever I got a break at work. When I stopped working after our son was born, dinner was twice a night. Once with me feeding my daughter and myself (baby boy was nursing) and once when my husband was due home from work at eight o’clock at night.

Now that I am a SAHM and my husband is working for himself, dinner is between 4:30 and 5 o’clock, a reasonable and consistent time (yay). And of course your reasonable dinner time can be different from ours. Maybe the time you eat isn’t that important in your family. But that is what spelling out your expectations is all about.

Now to address the “healthy” question: we all have our answer to this and all of our answers can be quite different. Even my definition of healthy and my husband’s are slightly different. We are committed to educating ourselves and sharing with each other our thoughts so that we can be better aligned when it comes to labeling a meal healthy or not so healthy.

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We know when we want dinner prepared and we are working towards a unified definition of healthy. It’s time to figure out what we expect to be eating for each meal. I have created a list of foods that work for us. I will be using this list as a guide when planning out the week. For breakfast I have listed things like steel cut oatmeal, eggs, raw juice, and guacamole. Lunch: I have salad and leftovers. For snacks, we need to get away from the prepackaged things like granola bars and such (too much sugar). I want to offer more whole fruits with nuts or nut butters, veggies and hummus, guacamole or salsa with chips, and homemade trail mix. The dinner meals I have listed are Thai and Indian curries, soup, and chicken with veggies.

We also have agreed that what we eat should follow this food pyramid guide by Dr. Joel Fuhrman. Veggies are at the bottom consisting of half our intake, then fruits, beans/legumes, and seeds nuts and avocados: leaving whole grains, potatoes, eggs, fish, and dairy towards the top. The very top, the ones to eat sparingly, is beef, sweets, cheese, and of course processed foods. We want to strive for a plant based diet as our staple: as a guide to healthy eating.

Now that expectations have been laid out, it is easier to know what I should be buying at the stores and what I am serving at the dinner table. Understanding what is expected keeps the stress level down and I don’t have to wonder if I am doing a good job.

I Refuse to Fail. And Why Failing is Not an Option.

Ever come to a situation where you are looking for a particular end result and just keep hitting a roadblock? I know I have.

refuse to failAll the way back in high school, I remember all of the preparations needed to go to college. Junior and Senior year was filled with trips to local universities and not so local ones. Applications and decisions about college was all that was on my mind. And as soon as I set foot on campus at The Ohio State University, all I could think about was how to make sure that I ended up a Buckeye.

I lived just under 400 miles away out of state and tuition to a state university is not all that affordable. Okay, it wasn’t affordable at all. I wasn’t a stellar student with any free rides or scholarships. But, I was a student who refused to fail. I asked my parents for help, cosigning loans was the best they could offer. No big deal. I decided that I would move to Columbus to gain in-state residency. Yes, all by myself. I researched what it would take to truly be on my own. I needed a place to live before classes began in the fall when I would move into the dorms for the year. I needed a job. I needed a reliable car. With the amazing and wonderful support of my mom I made that move happen, just four short weeks after graduation.

My friends came to me with mixed thoughts: How can you move to a big city all by yourself? Aren’t you scared? Why not wait until classes start? That’s awesome! I could never do that. You are brave.

I just refused to fail. I was stubborn and steadfast to my decision to attend Ohio State. I was so sure of myself.

Today, I have come to a situation where the end result is not, well, happening. I have put up my own roadblocks or excuses.

Here it goes… it’s a big part of my job as a mom and wife… it’s an integral piece to everyday life… it’s… meals. How can I not be any good at this? How is it that planning and creating healthy meals for my family have become such a stressful endeavor?

I can cook pretty well. In fact, I made a turkey this year for Thanksgiving, my first, and everyone loved it. I even had the stereotypical mom in law (who isn’t generally the stereotype, she is absolutely wonderful) who was quietly apprehensive but pleasantly impressed with my efforts. I know what meal planning is and when implemented I don’t do too badly at getting food on the table. I know generally what a good price is at the grocery store and I know generally the foods that are in season.

I won’t bother confessing all of my excuses to this miserable failure, there are too many. And I won’t bore you with what it really looks like around here come dinner time. But, I will say that I am seeking that young, strong-willed person in me who was once determined to venture out on her own. I feel her in there somewhere saying “I refuse to fail.”

I refuse to fail to bring a healthy meal to the table. I refuse to fail at accepting this responsibility.

Failing is not an option here. My family is depending on me to provide nutritious meals (just as we are depending on my husband to provide the money). This is part of my job. I have to be the example to my children: what it means to cook for my family. I need to teach them everything from how and where we get our food, how it is prepared, to why we choose nutrition over convenience. I have to be creative – for budget purposes and so we don’t get “bored” with our meals. This doesn’t come easy for me (even after ten years plus “experience” in my own kitchen), but I won’t be able to accomplish these goals if I am not willing to learn or put forth the effort.

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Join me as I learn to find a way to make meal planning work for me and my family and as I transform meal planning from stress and anxiety to a delightful and a deeply gratifying adventure.

Let me know in the comments where you refuse to fail. What did you do to accomplish your goals?

Watch for my What I Have Learned: Meal Planning series.