Making a monthly meal plan is such a valuable way to gain control of what for many people is the most stressful part of their day, the pre-dinner chaos that leads to fast food (and tears!). Many people have heard of the Flylady who discusses getting your homes in order and keeping them that way. I like what she has to say about meal planning:
"You can't eat what you don't have in the house. Just the simple act of sitting down and thinking about what to fix for the next week then going to the grocery store and purchasing the food will give you more freedom than almost anything. This will save you time and money and put good food in your pantry. When you have nutritious food in your home you will feel better about what you and your family are eating." Flylady
I happen to like cooking and experimenting with new recipes so we have a new plan for every month but that doesn't mean you have to. If you are the opposite of me or if your family is less adventurous you could make one 30 day plan and just repeat it over and over again. After all, that means you would only be repeating things a dozen times a year (providing of course that there were no repeats already scheduled). The beauty of a set monthly plan is that once it and the accompanying grocery list are written, you will spend a lot of time each month not thinking about dinner. When making your plan you can keep any number of days either "set" or "changeable". You can keep one day a week or a month free for changes, or maybe you will keep only one meal the same each month. It is completely up to you!
Your meal plan does not have to be gourmet or complicated or expensive. It is not supposed to make your life more complicated. For some people, making out a plan might make them over ambitious and I'd just like to remind you to be realistic. If giving up takeout and restaurants will be tough, schedule some nights that allow for it. If you don't like being in the kitchen, plan for quick and simple foods like hot dogs or macaroni and cheese. Or perhaps you will only plan on cooking only three or four nights a week, either because you know you don't want to do more than that ever or just to start as you are easing into a new concept. If a month seems daunting, plan for a week or two. You can always use those meal ideas again if they work and scrap the ideas that don't. I included the following steps in my handout at the meeting but for those of you who weren't there or didn't get one here is a good way to create your first monthly meal plan.
1. Get a calendar, paper for list making, a pen and some recipe sources (magazines, internet, cookbooks- by the way, most public libraries have a surprisingly large cooking section). I use a computer spreadsheet, but you can use an actual paper calendar if you’d rather.
2. Compile your family’s complete schedule for the upcoming menu period (week, weeks, month). Include information such as the nights people won’t be home, known crazy busy days, holidays, special events, entertaining, etc.
3. Write a list of your family’s favorite meals or even just foods they eat often and willingly. Perhaps even ask for input to see if there specific things they’d like to eat in the near future.
4. Check your pantry, fridge and freezer to see what ingredients you have that should be incorporated into the upcoming plan and add those meals to your list.
5. Start plugging the meals into appropriate days. By appropriate I mean days where you will be able (physically or mentally) to prepare that meal. If you aren’t going to be home all day you will want to plan a crock pot type of meal or maybe that will be your pizza night for the week instead of having a hands on intensive dinner.
6. See what you have left. Are most of the unfilled days busy days? Flip through your recipes to find some crock pot meals or make ahead dinners. At the meeting, one mom suggested getting a menu to a favorite restaurant or two and looking for inspiration there. You can often find copycat recipes for popular restaurant dishes online.
7. While you are filling in your weeks keep in mind that you probably don’t want to schedule too much of the same thing in a row, like three Mexican dinners, or three nights where the main ingredient is lentils. Look for recipes you’d like to try and maybe add one new thing for each week (more than that and you might start overwhelming yourself.)
8. Leave room for changes and have a plan for leftovers. Planning a new meal for each night often times means too much food. For us it means that we have lunch for the next day. If there is enough of certain types of meals leftover I will freeze it and have a ready meal waiting in the freezer for a busy night.
9. Going through each meal and the corresponding recipe, make sure you right down all the ingredients you will need, including those for any side dishes or desserts you plan on serving with them. I like to put my ingredients into five columns: dairy/cold, freezer, meat, dry goods, produce. This makes it easier later when you are shopping. Make sure you cross check this with your pantry.
10. Finally, post the menu in a prominent place where you and the rest of the house can refer easily to it. This makes it harder to forget to take out the roast to thaw for tomorrow’s dinner, and eliminates a lot of questions of, “What’s for dinner?” once your family gets used to the idea of the meal plan.
If you missed them earlier, read parts one and two. Please feel free to ask in the comments if there is anything in particular you would like to know. Also, I have in mind to address some pitfalls. In your experience, what have been some you've encountered?