Monday, August 4, 2014

Meal Planning Made Simple

In case you haven't noticed, I am big fan of simple. If there's a stream-lined, efficient, pure, minimalist, or just plain easy way to do something, I'm game.

I'll be honest, though, "simple" still has to fit my priorities. If a recipe is easier and uses fewer ingredients but doesn't taste as good, I'm going to pitch it. If an organization technique saves time but it leaves my house in a condition that doesn't speak comfort to me, I'll pass.

After I was married, one of the first things I aimed to simplify was meals.

I love to cook. I can spend hours leafing through cookbooks and cooking magazines. I read over the lists of ingredients and the methods used, and I can envision the look, taste, smell, and mouth-feel of a given dish. (A friend of mine who is a highly accomplished musician once compared it to the way she can hear a song in her head as she reads sheet music.)

The thing is, now that I'm a mama, meals can be hard. I am solely responsible for making sure six human beings have breakfast, lunch, dinner, plus snacks, occasional desserts, and vitamin supplements--every. single. day. I need to make sure all these people with widely varying tastes and preferences actually enjoys this food (so that they will eat it and not secret it in their cheeks like little squirrels to spit out in the bathroom later). Not only do I have to make this food appear (and try to serve it on a welcoming table with a smile), I have to decide what to make, shop for it, and balance a budget at the same time.

Don't get me wrong, I still love leafing through the glossy pictures in my favorite food magazine, but the day-to-day grind of hand-to-mouth means I need to be more streamlined. Gone are the days of dreaming up elegant courses and trying new recipes on a Wednesday night! Gone the days when I would eagerly make two trips in a week to the same grocery store just so I could try out a new spice!

I need good, wholesome, delicious food on my table 3+ times a day, and most days, I don't want to have to think too much about how it's going to get there.

Enter meal planning.

In my family growing up, menu planning was something that was done exclusively for holidays or fancy dinner parties. It was done with great care and abundant imagination. On those special days, money, time, and effort were no object. The fancier and more inventive, the better! Most nights, though, we just winged it.

My mom was a teacher. After school, I'd take the bus from my school to hers, and on the drive home, we'd discuss what we felt like eating that night. This usually meant a trip to the grocery store, although every once in a while, we'd realize we already had everything we wanted at home. This was a great way to learn various cooking techniques, the use of diverse spices and herbs, and an appreciation for the way certain dishes can feed the soul, but to be honest, it wasn't very practical. In a family of three, and with my mother's personality, it was very workable. But these days, for me, it just doesn't fly.

I need practical. I need inexpensive. I need easy, fast, make-ahead, no-brainer FOOD!

It took me years of tinkering to finally settle on the method of meal planning that works for me. It's not going to be everyone's cup of tea, and that's great. On the off chance you look it over and find out it's perfect and exactly what you've been searching for, then yay! Apparently we are kindred spirits, and we should definitely grab coffee together sometime if you're ever in Seattle. (We have really good coffee.) But more likely, you'll see some things that work for you and some that don't, and you'll decide to tinker with it until you settle on a method that's right for you and your family, and that's great, too. (Don't worry, we can still grab coffee if you're ever in town.)

1. The first thing I did was to design a template that broke down into the days of the week and the three meals for those days. I then plugged into each block a basic "meal category," if you will. At a glance, I can know, for example, that Thursdays we have soup for dinner and on Mondays we have oatmeal for breakfast.




 Oatmeal and fruit

Spanish Rice with Beans and Guacamole

Soup & Bread


Eggs, Toast, OJ

Peanut Butter and Jelly, carrots



Pancakes/Waffles with OJ or fruit


Sabbath Meal


Big Brunch

Hot lunch

Crockpot Meal


Oatmeal and fruit

Cold cut Sandwiches or Chicken Nuggets, carrots

Pasta, Sandwich, or Make-Ahead


Eggs, Toast, OJ

 Hummus, Rice crackers, veggies, fruit

Crockpot Meal


Pumpkin/Banana Bread or Muffins



2. Next, I went through all of my favorite recipes. For the record, I tend to try many different variants of a recipe (sometimes creating my own) until I've got it just right, then I type it up, print it out, and file it in my recipe binder. Some recipes I use as-is straight from a cookbook, but it's rare. This may sound like a lot of work, but I actually find it really fun (like a mad scientist in a sugar-coated lab!)--and in the long-run, it really does make things simpler. I'm able to turn to a relatively small selection of my family's favorite recipes, and unless I'm experimenting with something new, I know that what I'm serving is healthful and well-loved by everyone at the table.

3. I divided the recipes by seasonality. I'm a big fan of seasonal cooking. There's something soul-soothing about chicken and dumplings in the middle of a wet January that just doesn't cut it in July when it's 80-degrees and sunny. In addition, buying seasonal ingredients is one of the kindest things you can do for your budget, especially if you try to buy local or organic. guessed it: It's simpler! If you're buying seasonal, it's almost guaranteed that your grocery is going to have what you're looking for. Big box stores like COSTCO have seasonal stock (ie they won't have canned pumpkin in August, so don't bother looking!), and if you want to avoid making multiple trips to multiple stores looking for that one ingredient, buying seasonal is the way to go.

4. Finally, I started plugging actual meals into the blocks on my chart.

I tried to coordinate quick, easy, or make-ahead meals (and ones that my husband or an older child could help with) for the days and times when I needed that. For example, Sunday evening is always a fast meal because my husband and I volunteer with our church youth group on Sunday evenings. Tuesdays, I needed a peanut-free lunch that was easy to travel with because that's the day we have our homeschool co-op. You get the idea.

I also gave priority to dishes that could be made ahead and frozen or made in the slow-cooker (sometimes this meant adjusting a conventional stovetop or oven recipe for the slow-cooker).

Some foods didn't make the cut. Maybe it was too fussy or time-consuming, maybe I already had something else that was too similar that month or the ingredients were too expensive to use on a regular basis. That's okay. If the meal is still a favorite, I file it away for holidays or liturgical feast days or for company. That way, we can still enjoy it, but I don't have to stress myself out trying to make it regularly.

These days, I have a weekly menu that I rotate every two months. So, for example, I have one menu for June-July, another for August-September, and so on. I also have a weekly menu for Advent and one for Lent, as well as menus that I can reference for liturgical feast days, holidays, and some favorite go-to company dinners.

Mary Ostyn first gave me the idea of keeping the fixings for 5 "cabinet meals" on hand. These are dinners that I can throw together quickly that are composed entirely from ingredients I have in my cupboards or freezer. They're great for a day gone haywire, the night you come home from a trip, or an unexpected windfall of guests. And they're lifesavers during first trimester, trust me!

It may seem like eating the same thing every single week for two months would get old. My husband was skeptical when I first pitched the idea. He's a man who does not appreciate a good leftover. (Yes, there is such a thing as good leftovers. Don't be hating.) However, we've found that we like it. Since all the meals are favorites, and since they often get broken up with a holiday, birthday, or company dinner, there isn't that sense of monotony you might fear.

This way of planning meals has literally changed my life!

Grocery shopping is stream-lined. I can go to my big box store once a month and to the local grocery store or farmer's market for additional produce or seafood only every week or two. I can make a good deal of our meals for the month ahead of time and freeze them--and then use up the extras through the next month, since there's a two-month cycle! I save money by buying in season, and when I notice a sale on something, I can feel safe stocking up because I know if and when I'm going to use it.

Best of all, without having to spend one ounce of precious brain power on it, I can cook up healthy, wholesome, delicious food for my family--three meals a day, seven days a week.

I don't know about you, but for me, that peace of mind is priceless.


  1. I just bought a little helper...a delay timer for plugging in my crock pot. I plug the timer into the socket, then plug the crock pot into the timer. I can set the timer to delay completing the circuit until I want it to... hence I can set up oatmeal the night before and it will be done (and not scorched) when it's time to eat... with a hubby who works 2nd shift, we don't get up super early... (usually not before 7:30) and since I cook breakfast most days, having a way to set things up ahead of time would help, since then we could simply go downstairs and it's ready! viola!

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  3. Thank you so much for this Bethany--I really needed this, and your format suits me very well! We are expecting our fourth (with a 7 year age gap from our youngest!) so after having been a while since having a baby I am a bit nervous and trying to simplify in preparation. I also find I am encouraged by your blog as another Mama of four--thank you so much, this was so well timed for me! Blessings, Holly

  4. You are amazing. I know you are my daughter but you are so much more organized than I ever thought of being. It's great, you are an amazing cook, but I generally decide that day what I feel like. LOL


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