When I give talks to parents, I love to ask this question:
“How many of you go to the grocery store, load up your cart with all sorts of food, spend a hundred dollars or more, and after you’ve come home and put it all away still have no idea what you’re going to make for dinner?”
Expectedly, looks of embarrassment accompany a lot of raised hands. And someone usually ends up whining that it’s just soooooo hhaaaaard.
Hard? To make a list of what you’re going to eat and buy the ingredients to make it? Often when I press my group, I discover that many have had or are in careers that require extraordinary skills of organization. Which helps me make my point – if you’re a former schoolteacher, an oncology nurse or a marketing executive, making a meal plan should be child’s play, and the accompanying cost and time savings should be motivatingly appealing.
Meal planning is an effective exercise both for people who are hyper-organized like me and those who like to be more spontaneous in their nightly meal creation. By having a framework, you buy only what you need (meaning you spend less time in the store), less food goes to waste (because you use what you buy), and you avoid the panic that sets in when you have no idea what to prepare.
My situation isn’t unique. I run my own practice, have two elementary school-aged kids with enough activities to require regular shuttling to something, I pitch in a lot at their school and have additional commitments to some pretty robust advocacy work. My days are full, not unlike a busy stay-at-home or working parent. It would be easy to throw up my hands and throw a frozen lasagna in the oven or insist we go out, but that puts my and my family’s diet in the hands of food manufacturers and restaurant owners, and I’m not ready to relinquish that.
So here’s how it works for me – feel free to steal my strategy or modify it to suit your particular schedule.
First, I keep a yellow pad on the kitchen counter at all times. When we run out of something, I write it down. There are also always things I buy each week – milk, eggs, trail mix – so those make it on that list as well (because, yes, as organized as I am, I have forgotten to buy milk if it’s not on the list).
Second, at some point before Thursday night, I work out six dinners for the week (my husband takes care of one night) and write them down. If any of us have activities during the week, I note those on that list. For example, if a Cub Scouts meeting starts at 6:30 p.m., then we may have to eat early, which means I need to make something that night that can get put together fast – or serve leftovers. If I’ve got more wiggle room, I have time for something that requires more prep.
Third, using this plan I make my grocery list, adding items to that same yellow pad in the kitchen. On Friday, which is my shopping day, I’m ready to rock.
I can hear some of you now – “Is she serious?” Put on paper, it may seem intimidating, but folks, it’s just a plan and it’s just a list, and it could seriously transform your grocery and mealtime experience. So here are a few more tips.
Don’t try this all at once. If you haven’t been a meal planner until now, trying to embrace this full-on will backfire. Try planning two meals a week for a couple weeks, then three, then four. Pretty soon you’ll wonder how you did it any other way.
Before you make your grocery list, check to see what you already have. There are certain foods I typically have on hand, but I can run out. I always check the pantry and the freezer for supplies so I don’t buy something I already have. I’ll also do a quick recce before I make my meal plan just in case, for example, there are a couple of chicken breasts in the freezer that can be made into a stir fry.
Plan leftovers. There will always be meals that can be reheated another night. Write it on your plan to do that and give yourself a night off. Plan your nights out as well. Now that you have a plan for the other nights, nights out won’t become a default.
If you end up not making meal on a night you planned because something came up, move that meal to the following week. The benefit there is that you’ve already planned it and bought the goods. Make sure it’s on your plan for early the following week so things don’t spoil.
Have a CORN night. I can’t recall where I recently read this, but the author’s family regularly engaged in a CORN, or Clean Out Refrigerator Night. It’s potluck where everyone gets the last portion of something they like before it becomes too old for consumption. Those single portions are great for lunches too.
I also have a number of friends who have taken to cooking all their meals for the week in a couple of hours on a weekend day because they can’t put something from scratch on the table every night. It still takes planning, freeing up your weeknights to enjoy a great meal without the extensive prep.
It’s really not that hard. Have a go.
Mary Porter is a nutrition counselor living in the Fort Hunt area. You can reach her through her website, www.betterplate.com