Almost six months ago, my husband printed out a blank calendar page and asked me to use it to plan our meals. I’ve been planning our meals by the week, usually in my head, since we married, but I have to admit that writing them down keeps me more organized about it. And, it makes dinner preparation a little easier in a number of ways I’ll discuss below.
Last week, one of the bloggers I follow, Dorothy at Shockingly Delicious, wrote a post about her meal planning and asked her readers to share their ideas. So, I shared my method with her and she invited me to write more so she could add it to her post. You can read her post here. I thought: why not write my own meal planning post?
As you can see, my planning calendars tend to be messy, and since we are a bilingual family, this one has some Spanish. I plan meals by the week, but using a monthly calendar helps me see what I've cooked recently, or even the previous month, since I print two blank months back to back on one page. I can also keep track of how often we eat out.
I usually write out the meal plan over the weekend, before we go to the supermarket, which means I only have to buy what we need for the week. I also plan around the store’s weekly sale; both of these practices save us money. Noting when we eat out on the calendar has also helped us cut back on that expense; we are constantly revamping our food budget during these times of stagnant income and rising prices. Now, we eat out less on the spur of the moment because we don’t want to waste the fresh food we have already bought.
You may remember from my post Natural Mom TV that I cook nearly every day. Just over three years ago, I decided to increase the number of home cooked meals we ate as part of my healthy living plan for our family. The meal plan helps me maintain a daily cooking habit by reminding me to provide healthy meals that include a variety of foods. I’ve tried doing this without a plan, but found that it is much harder to keep to a cooking from scratch commitment that way. When I just go with the flow, it is too easy for me rely on processed foods or take out. We do still occasionally rely on those foods, but not nearly as often. Plus, I don’t have to spend time during the busy weekdays thinking about dinner; I already know what I will need to prepare that day.
While I was thinking about all this, I realized that using a twelve month wall or booklet calendar would be ideal for organizing a longer record of meal plans. This would be really useful if you are making a switch to healthier eating for a specific reason, such as to mitigate a chronic condition or to avoid catching so many colds during the winter. You could see how your meals correlate with symptoms by tracking both together. The only drawback for me would be that I sometimes carry the page with me to the supermarket instead of making a separate list. I probably wouldn't want to carry something bigger.
You may be wondering: how does my system work in reality? Flexibility is a key component. You can see on the sample above that I move the meals around if our schedule changes or I don't have as much cooking time a particular day. This calendar includes some breakfasts and lunches, but most of the time I focus on planning dinner. Lunch is even more flexible: we often eat leftovers or sandwiches. We do have a set breakfast menu that is the same every week, but I note exceptions in the meal plan.
I also try to take advantage of making large batches of certain items that serve as the base for more than one meal. This reduces the amount of time and effort spent on cooking another day. For example, you’ll see above that I make a big pot of beans one day and two days later, we eat tostadas. Our family loves to eat fresh cooked beans: in a bowl with some toppings, on a plate with tortillas, stuffed into a fresh roll, or refried on crispy corn tortillas as tostadas. Leftover whole and refried beans can be mixed with egg or migas (torn pieces of corn tortilla) and sautéed for breakfast. You can use beans to make chili, stews, sloppy joes, or casseroles. Add cold whole beans to a green or pasta salad. Spread hot or cold refried beans on bread or a tortilla as the base for sandwiches, wraps, and burritos. I try to make a pot of beans about every seven to ten days, and we usually get at least three meals from that one cooking effort. Plus, beans are inexpensive and loaded with nutrients, so they are a must do for healthy meals on a budget. I will post about the super nutrition in beans and more detailed recipes in a later post.
Enough from me. I want to hear from you! How do you plan your family’s meals, and what are your tips for making it easier?