Meal Planning: Hey, Mama, what’s for dinner?

Meal Planning: Hey, Mama, what’s for dinner?

Questions for which there are no correct answers:

  • Who’s the best James Bond?
  • What’s the best book? (Obviously, we’re talking fiction here.  No religious debates!)
  • When do kids develop ‘inside voices’?
  • Where’s the perfect vacation destination?
  • Why do dogs stand up just as you are stepping over them?
  • Which jeans fit best?
  • How many times will I lose my car keys today?
  • Dark or milk chocolate?
  • Mama, what’s for dinner?
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In case you are wondering about the answers at our house:

  • I don’t like the movies much, but Liam prefers Connery.
  • Pride and Prejudice (I let myself reread it once a year.)
  • About the time they move into their own place.
  • Ireland in general. The Cliffs of Moher in specific.
  • I have giant breed dogs. I think they do it just to laugh when I fall over.
  • Levi’s 501’s (I’m tall, so boy jeans are easier.)
  • NONE! I finally got a tile. Prior to that, it was a number only a statistician could contemplate!  (Seriously, this is the coolest thing ever!  My phone can find my keys AND my keys can find my phone [even when the couch eats it]!)
  • Dark is best, but I’ve never met a chocolate that wasn’t my friend.
  • Oh, and dinner tonight: fish cakes, baked potatoes, green beans, and brownies
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There are some questions for which there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. How to plan meals is certainly one of those. There are many ways to plan, and there are some people who seem to do well flying by the seat of their Levi’s. I’ve used many different strategies, depending on what was happening in life. Things that are helpful, when I am working a crazy schedule, seem overly structured when I have time at home. I don’t think a plan needs to be complicated or even written down to be effective.

I’ve seen systems involving note cards, chalkboards, computer programs, and calendars. Personally, I find complex systems frustrating. When I try overly structured systems, I feel like a failure if we don’t have Thursday’s meal on Thursday. There are other families and personalities that are very successful with such systems.

I’m also a little too OCD to be comfortable with my handwriting on a chalkboard in the kitchen. (I would be erasing and ‘fixing’ it constantly.) Also, my life is busy! Our plans have to be fluid enough to accommodate one crazy commute, two jobs, three kids, four special diets, and about a hundred random farm animals.

There are a lot of benefits to meal planning. Obviously, it helps avoid the five o’clock holy-cow-what-am-I-gonna-make’s. However, there are some less obvious benefits as well. Today, I’m going to try to convince you that you should have a meal plan. Then, in the next few weeks, I’ll offer a few options in the hope that one will fit your lifestyle. If I don’t recommend a plan you want to try, a quick conference with Prof. Google will offer options to suit most families.

I understand how different circumstances and personalities work best with different systems. The only system I don’t understand is the total lack of a plan. Unless I lived in New York City or Paris, where I walked everywhere and passed delis and patisseries, I can’t imagine how shopping daily would be functional. I’d spend way too much time and money in the shops if I had to punt for supper every night.I save money, time, and empty calories by going to the store as infrequently as possible.

Let’s consider two ways to feed my family. We’ll assume I’ve been in meetings all day and need to shop on my way home. I’m also going to pretend I have a typical commute, just so it doesn’t seem too slanted. One last bit of make-believe is to assume my family can’t make dinner without me. That should make things more realistic for those of you with littles or empty nests.

The Seat of My Levi’s Version:

I leave work at five o’clock and drive to the nearest store. I end up walking the aisles, trying to think of something quick, that won’t break the bank. I decide I want pork chops. Once at the meat counter, I look to see what’s on sale. Chops are regular price, but chicken is on special. Do I get the pork that sounds good or do I take the chicken that is marked down? Grumbling, I take the stupid chicken and head to the checkout.

Unfortunately, I pass through several aisles on my way. It’s very likely that half a gallon of Blue Bell ice cream will leap into my cart uninvited. I can hear the chocolate chip mint crooning. It says it’s my consolation prize. After all, I deserve it for opting for the chicken and for the zombie-making meetings that I sat through all day. Next, I see a sale on corn chips (crisps). Ooh! Those will be great to take to work for snacks. I might also grab a box of cereal or two, so the kids have an easy breakfast. (Bear in mind, I have two teens and a twenty-year-old.)

Suddenly, I remember that I need sides to go with the chicken. Since it’s getting late, I grab bags of frozen green beans and french fries. I wait in line, hand over my first born at the register, schlep the stuff to the car, drive home, and have the kids schlep the stuff inside. The kids and I put dinner on as soon as the food and I arrive. I don’t sit down until we are FINALLY ready to eat about seven o’clock. We eat, the kids do the dishes, and I have about an hour to sip tea and see my family. Before I know it, it’s time to head to bed. (I’m exhausted, and I didn’t even really do this today.)

The get out of my Levi’s and into my PJ’s sooner version:

For my own sense of self, I need to point our that these are neither my slippers nor my pj’s. I’m not quite so…attention catching!

The night before, I consult my meal calendar, mental plan, spreadsheet, chalkboard or whatever system I’m using. It says we’re supposed to eat chicken. I don’t feel like chicken, so I switch Tuesday’s meal with Friday’s. Abracadabra, we’re having pork chops.

I take five minutes to toss the ingredients of one of our favorite pork dishes into the crock pot insert. (It’s okay if the pork is frozen. A night in the fridge and cooking in the crock pot will take care of that.) I wash, oil, and salt a few new potatoes. Then, I wrap the spuds in a foil packet (hobo style). The packet goes on top of the meat in the crock. Finally, I put the insert in the fridge. When I wake in the morning, between staring blearily at my tea and waiting for my toast to pop, I stick the crock in the pot and turn it on low.

When I leave work at five, I drive straight home. I arrive about five-thirty. The smell of supper greets me at the door. I collapse onto the couch, and a lovely teenage tea-fairy hands me a cup. (She loves me, so she always starts the kettle about five minutes before I arrive.) At a few minutes before six, I hoist myself off the couch and take ten minutes to pan fry some zucchini or boil some green beans from the fridge/freezer. We sit down to dinner around six. After the kids do dishes, we can read, play a game, or visit for a couple of hours before bed. Or…I can help with algebra. (Maybe there’s a downside to meal planning after all!)

In the first scenario, I spent more money, had less time with my family, and served a less healthy meal. Without my impulse buys, we’ll have fruit, cookies, or brownies for desert and I’ll take cheese, boiled eggs, and fruit for snacks. The kids will eat whatever we planned in advance for breakfasts. (It is rarely cold cereal, just because they end up starving in a couple of hours.) I get to keep all the cash I wasn’t disciplined enough to hang onto in plan-less version, and my bum doesn’t do the great ice cream expansion. It’s a win-win!

That was just one example. I love my crockpot, but I know there are those who don’t like them. Although crockpots are helpful, they aren’t necessary for meal planning. I can precook chicken and toss it into quesadillas or in salads. I can pull a pre-made quiche from the freezer to the fridge the night before, and toss it in the oven when I get home. Heck, I can even boil pasta and heat up canned sauce. All these are quicker and less stressful than facing the grocery store after working all day (or facing it anytime I don’t have to). On my days off, I don’t want to deal with crowds over the frozen fish sticks. I want to put my keys (and my tile) on the hook, take off my Levi’s and know my home is my haven for the next 24 hours!

If you have tried meal planning before and didn’t stick with it, please stay with us as we talk about ways to plan. I think meal plans can be a bit like diets. To be successful, they need to be tasty, flexible and not too restricting. I have a few different suggestions.  I hope we can find something to make your life easier!

Do you use a meal plan? Do you like your crockpot? Which do you think is the best Bond, book, or chocolate? Oh, and what’s for dinner? I’m always looking for new recipes to work into my plan! Please, leave a comment if you have the time! I love to chat with y’all!

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About Anne in the Kitchen

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  1. Ha! ~ yes definitely dark chocolate. My kids liked The Beverly Hillbillies so if they asked, my answer was “Opossum innards and collard greens,” or the famous “Mama surprise.” They then learned to ask “Opossum innards or Mama surprise?” 🙂
    I don’t meal plan per se but take something out of the freezer in the morning and either cook it up after work or put it in the crock pot or terracotta roaster w/ appropriate fixin’s. I do love coming home to a cooked meal. If I have to go to the store, I try to go before work. I avoid 5 o:clock shopping like the plague for the exact reasons you mentioned.

    1. When I was off work, I did much the same ‘planning’ as you. I keep a full pantry, so as long as I’m home and remember to thaw stuff I can just decide on the day. My goofy work schedule requires a little more forethought.

      I’m totally going to tell my kids we’re having “Opossum innards and collard greens” for dinner this weekend! They will totally adopt that into our family lexicon! We love funny quotes!

      Have a great week!

    1. Karen,
      Thanks, for stopping by and taking the time to comment! You made my day!

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