Weekend Highlights

Published August 25, 2011
At Home & Living

Tips for Family Menu Planning

by Rebekah Denn
seattle child article photo
Image courtesy of allrecipes.com

I’ve known for years that I could save a lot of money and time by planning my family's meals farther in advance. Oddly, my career as a food writer worked against developing that important skill. Years as a restaurant critic, when I ate out almost nightly, made home cooking more of an enjoyable hobby than a daily task. My job isn’t so dependent on restaurants now, but I still need to dine out occasionally on deadline, or cook dishes based on an assignment rather than a penciled-out plan. And too often, even when my work calendar is free, I’d been waiting for last-minute inspirations from recipes in new cookbooks or random trips through the farmers’ markets. 

When our third child arrived last year, I hit my limit. My schedule – and the kids’ schedules – didn't allow the luxury of waiting until late afternoon each day to decide on dinner. So I spent two months with the goal of planning out our family meals every week.

I was hardly the first person to realize that this was a good idea. Looking at the lists on my friends’ refrigerators, I’m more like the last. But I’m clearly not the only one who struggles with planning ahead: Online recipe sites offer free weekly meal plans, apps abound, and writers and nutritionists provide columns and books with suggested meals and shopping lists.

It eased the stress to realize that planning seven nights of meals didn’t always have to mean cooking seven nights of meals. If I saw a night meeting or a big deadline coming up, I felt OK penciling in the occasional Taco del Mar or pizza delivery. I also gave myself a few backup staples to have on hand when my grander plans fell through. (Who could have predicted that I wouldn’t have the energy to make a savory tart crust one night? OK, I could have predicted it.) For those nights, we have veggie burgers and turkey burgers in the freezer for emergency backup, and udon noodles, which are fast and cheap and long lasting, and can be dressed up with almost any vegetable or protein. I also found it helpful to keep a roasted chicken on hand.

My biggest problem? Slipping into my old habits. If I didn’t make the list and do a single large supermarket trip to acquire the main ingredients, I was cooked.

Sometimes that happened. But I counted a lot of successes, too, and I learned one big lesson: It isn’t a luxury at all to avoid thinking about dinner until after the after-school snack. It's a stress, and my life (and wallet) is better without it.

Here are some of the most helpful lessons that I learned:

1. Any plan is better than no plan
I always pictured meal plans as being as specific and unbreakable as the monthly school lunch menu. In reality, my stress eased considerably when I left some days with a loose idea of what to make, or a few potential options. I tried to write out a weekly plan and do a big food shop each Sunday. But it was fine when we switched from a planned stew to quick, boxed mac and cheese one night because I’d forgotten about the time crunch of the school concert. It was OK to leave it open that we were having either turkey burgers or pasta with veggies one Wednesday, and gauge at 5 p.m. which option sounded best. The most important thing is to have some plan, and to have fixings for all those possibilities in the house. That leads me to the most important tip:

2. Stock your pantry
Nothing makes meal plans easier than large quantities of staple ingredients. This counts not just for traditional staples like eggs and yogurts, pasta and beans, but for whatever foods count as staples for your family. My 9-year-old, for instance, loves the Indian dish saag paneer. At the beginning of our experiment, I laid in supplies of garam masala spice and boxes of frozen spinach and packages of firm paneer cheese, which keeps well. That let me throw together the dish regularly with little thought or fuss, instead of running to the grocery store for fresh supplies whenever we planned to make it. I still enjoyed the farmers’ markets, but took care to stock up there on vegetables and fruits that could help out my menus a few days down the line, not just that night. Cutting out those endless grocery-store runs, and shopping for more than a few days’ meals at a time, saved me more time and stress than a new minivan.

3. Know your quantities
Too often in the past, I'd find myself making one of those unplanned, energy-sucking grocery-store trips because I realized too late that we were out of milk, or eggs, or turkey. It finally hit me that our grocery needs have grown along with our family. I started buying milk by the gallon instead of the quart, and two pounds of turkey instead of one, among other adjustments to my years-old habits. Knowing that we eat oatmeal for breakfast almost every day, we bought enough bulk oatmeal from the Fred Meyer bins to fill our 2-quart container for a few weeks at a time, rather than going through a steady stream of prepackaged bags.

4. Easy is OK
Cooking is entertaining and a constant challenge to me. But I was setting myself up by trying to make something interesting or challenging almost every night. Planning out meals let me stagger the complex recipes with super-easy ones, or with old favorites that could be done with a toddler wrapped around my leg. The kids, I found, were just as happy (maybe happier) when I kept it simple. One of the nicest and cheapest meals we had was plain old scrambled eggs with a few veggies, made “special” by a batch of homemade popovers (they sound impressive, but couldn’t be easier) and a dessert of cherries picked from our tree.

5. Name a day
We try to make Fridays an official "pizza night" at our house. That cuts out one-seventh of the planning work. The kids like the ritual, and they like homemade pizza. It also helps family harmony to have one night per week when everyone gets to tailor a meal to their own tastes. The vegetarian kid makes a Margherita, the carnivore kid tops his with pepperoni, and the adults get to geek out on combos like blue cheese and pear.

6. One dish, two dinners
Dinners are easier when you aren’t reinventing the entire meal every night. The leftovers from one night’s roast chicken can easily go into the next night’s quesadilla or enchiladas or soup. The best book I’ve found on making one recipe stretch into a few meals, by the way, is Time for Dinner, by the former editors of Cookie magazine, which we reviewed in the October 2010 issue of Seattle’s Child. (Read the story here.)

7. Befriend your freezer
When making a stew or casserole, I try to double the recipes and freeze some of the leftovers. It’s a relief to be able to pencil in “defrosted pea soup” into a week’s menu, and know that all I have to plan for is bread and salad (and remember to move the soup from the freezer to the fridge the night before).

8.  Be flexible and be forgiving
I became more resigned to using some canned or frozen ingredients instead of fresh. One of my favorite recipes uses orzo and corn. Now, instead of husking and slicing the kernels fresh from the cob, I’m more inclined to use frozen corn, which means I can plan ahead instead of relying on getting super-fresh seasonal corn and using it fast. There are times when a little compromise is worth a lot of sanity.

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  1. Many websites and services are available to help plan meals. Check out http://allrecipes.com and www.epicurious.com for free weekly meal plans that come complete with shopping lists, or fee services like thescramble.com, aimed at busy parents on a budget ($3 to $7/month, but you can get a free two-week trial).
  2. Susan Nicholson, who has written a syndicated meal-planning column for years, recently authored a book called 7-Day Menu Planner for Dummies.
  3. Once you’ve distilled your meal plan into a single big shopping list, it’s surprisingly easy to shop through a grocery delivery service like Amazon Fresh (http://fresh.amazon.com). Pluses: It saves time. No hauling the kids to the store. Amazon Fresh keeps a record of past purchases, so you don’t have to keep searching for the brand you want after the first order, and it’s simple to set up regular recurring purchases like milk and eggs. Minuses: It can be pricier, depending on where you shop otherwise. You don’t get to personally pick your produce. Plus or minus, depending on your view: No serendipitous finds.