I don't know about you, but the words "meal planning" can feel overwhelming to me sometimes. When I first got married, I remember sitting for hours looking at cookbooks and Pinterest to find new recipes to try every day. I have loved cooking and baking for a long time, so it was fun to have my own home to cook in. However, when kids came on the scene a few years later, it became much harder to have time to do that. My meal planning has been much more sporadic in recent days and I think it has cost me time, money, and health in the process. I completely believe that God gives grace for that and it's ok to have some crazy years that things are not as well planned, but I have been working at getting back into the meal planning game, especially for our health and budget. So if you're feeling like meal planning is something you can never get a handle on, I totally get that and hope this will help.
So on day one back to meal planning, I first wrote down a bunch of things we had in the cabinets and then I got out some paper and a pen to begin writing a menu. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks...I wrote all those words down for a week or two week period and then just stared at the paper. For some reason, it was so hard to even know where to start! I finally scribbled down a few things that are staples for us, and somehow I still needed like ten more meals. I felt like I couldn't think of ten more meals for my family these next couple of weeks. Then my kids started fighting and my baby began to cry, so the menu planning was put on hold. A day later, I realized it was time for me to run to the grocery store, so I quickly wrote a list based on my half finished menu and grabbed what I remembered at the store. This scenario is one that has happened many times for me! I have good intentions of being on top of things, but then end up behind and feeling like I can't be creative enough to plan my meals well. I know meal planning isn't for everyone, but for me, when I plan my meals for the week, it just makes things go so much more smoothly. So I was determined to figure out how to do it in a better way.
Recently, I started having some lightbulb moments with my menu. First off, I realized that we don't have to eat a different thing every meal. I was trying to have so much variety that I was trying to come up with 30 different breakfasts, lunches, and dinner every month. That's a bit much! (at least for me in this stage). I decided to write down a list of several breakfasts and lunches that we really enjoy, and have those ingredients on hand so we can have those repeatedly throughout the month. Here are some of the things I wrote:
Eggs & Toast
Waffles (we started Waffle Wednesday!)
Muffins, Pancakes, Pastries and breakfast meat
Cheese & Crackers
These are just a few things that are all easy and quick. I have started doing very simple breakfasts on weekdays, since we are busy with work, and then on weekends do something like the breakfast sandwiches or pastries. It has made life so much less stressful to not try to make a hot breakfast every morning. Some people do and it works great, and maybe I will again someday, but for now it's working well for us and has taken the pressure off. For lunches, I try to do as much prep work ahead of time as possible. During the mornings, I'm trying to spend time with my kiddos and work around the house, so it's nice to just take ten minutes getting lunch out and not having to spend an hour a day getting it ready. I have done things like make all the chicken for salads and wraps on Sunday night for the week, make pulled pork in the crockpot for the week, cut up cheese and meat, and put salads in mason jars to just grab out of the fridge for the meal. Leftovers are always great for this meal too!
So with breakfasts and lunches made easier, this just left dinners (which for some reason are always hardest for me to plan). Just last week, I finally came up with a plan that I think will work great for us. In the past, I have fallen into either having the same meals over and over til we were sick of them, or trying too many new things and making it too complicated for reality with three small children. This plan below is nice because it balances both of those things. I picked a different "theme" for every night, and then within that theme I can do something different every week. You could pick any themes or types of meal that you love! Our family loves making traditions together, so it's also fun to have them know what to look forward to. Here is what I came up with so far. It's made things soooo much easier already, because I don't just have to stare at a blank paper. I have something to start with and just add on the details.
Sunday: Snack Night (we usually do "special popcorn" and other light things)
Monday: Crockpot Night
Tuesday: Pasta Night
Wednesday: Grilling Night
Thursday: Box/Bag Meal Night
Friday: Pizza Night
Saturday: Mexican or Asian Food Night
This list might be different for everybody, but these ones work perfect for the little kid stage we are in right now. When making my menu, I can see Monday and instead of having 1000 dinners online to choose from, I just look at my crockpot favorites and pick one out. For Tuesday, I can look at my pasta recipes. For Wednesday, I just pick what we want to grill that week. I am loving this so far because it helps my brain not be so overwhelmed. Someday, I will go back to more spontaneous meals, but right now, I'm excited to have a plan that takes off some of the pressure. I've also found I spend way less money when I go into the week with a plan instead of just randomly shopping and then realizing later everything I forgot:P
A couple other quick things that helped me with meal planning is to make a list of basic sides like veggies, salads, potato dishes, etc and then when I pick out my main dish, I can just look at the side dish list and add one to the menu. Then, just like that, I have a meal planned for the week! I also did that with snacks and desserts. One last thing I did was decided to try to just do one new recipe a week. I love that because I can still learn and try new things, but also do a lot of staples that I can make quickly. My daughter was given a kids cookbook that we like to make new recipes together as well, so we like to try one of those together weekly too. I hope this post can help someone who is overwhelmed and stuck in a rut like I was! Like I said before, I JUST started doing most of these things, so we will see how they go in the future. I'd love to hear about any fun ideas you have in the comments below. Happy meal planning!