Thursday, July 11, 2013

Menu Planning

With my new job starting next Monday, my mind has been all over the place the past two weeks.  Not only have I been unemployed for 8 months, before that I worked part-time for 7 years, and before that I had 4 years of working 6:30-3.  My husband and I started out pretty equal in our cooking and housecleaning duties but once I started getting home earlier than him every day, I slowly started taking over more and more.  It didn't make sense to have all of us cleaning on weekends when I could do that in the afternoons, leaving our family time for more fun activities.  It also didn't seem like a good idea to wait for him to get home and cook dinner when I was getting home 2-3 hours earlier.

Now that is all coming to an end!  We are all a little nervous about how this is going to work.  Bill and Kayleigh both realize that they've had it rather easy over the years but I also realize that I've been able to do everything exactly how I want it.  So we are all preparing to make adjustments.

I am quite organized so that should help with the transition.  One of the most important tools for working parents (but also something that I used even when I wasn't working) is a meal plan.  As soon as Kayleigh was born, I started planning our meals.  I just didn't have the mental capacity to work all day, survive my long commute home, take care of a baby and figure out what we could eat based on what food was in the fridge.

Not only does meal planning save you time during the week, it also saves you money because you can buy only what you need at the grocery store and be sure that you will actually use all of it during the week.

My first meal plans looked like this:

Yep - we had a 4 week rotating menu, one for summer and one for winter.  The meals actual rotated even more often than that because there were some duplicates.  A few things make this menu really nice to use.  First of all, you don't have to write a new menu each week.  Also, I kept several of the days somewhat general such as "pasta" or "breakfast food".  That gave us some room to personalize the menu but still took a lot of the thinking out of it by giving us a category.  Believe it or not, we used these menus for 6 years.

When I first got married, I didn't really know how to cook but by the time Kayleigh was born, I had a few basic meals down.  After several years, I took a stronger interest in cooking and started expanding my recipes so that is when I decided to create a new menu each month like this:

These menus always had at least 2 days a month that were reserved for trying new recipes.  By changing the menus monthly, it allowed me to add in any successful experiments.  It was also nice to be able to work in holidays, birthdays, or any time something unusual came up and give them their own special meal.

After a couple years of that, my cooking really started changing.  I was making more and more new recipes and creating several of my own.  This was also around the time that I started getting home earlier so I had more time to prepare the meals.  I made the choice to plan my meals one week at a time.  Sometimes they are nicely planned out and include side dishes and desserts.  Then other weeks they look like this:

I usually post them on the fridge so everyone knows what to expect.  We are so busy now with our various activities that it makes sense to plan only one week at a time.

Whatever way you decide to plan your meals, there are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Add a "leftovers" day in at least once a week.  Even though I take leftovers to work for lunch we still end up with little odds and ends in the fridge.  If  by some miracle you don't have any leftovers, you can always use this as a "restaurant" day or "eat out of the freezer" day.
  • Check every recipe on your list and make sure you have all the ingredients.  There is nothing more frustrating than getting half way through cooking and realizing you are out of chili powder!
  • Be flexible.  Some days you just don't feel like having what is on the list.  There is nothing wrong with switching two days as long as you eventually get to all the items.  This is especially useful if you have some evening event come up changing your available time or when the weather becomes unseasonably warm and you had planned stew.
  • Don't be too flexible.  The menu becomes useless if you decide to have sandwiches every night instead of what you planned and all that fresh produce you bought goes to waste.
  • This may be too much organization for some but if you have a lot of recipes to choose from, you might want to develop a spreadsheet listing all recipes and where they are located.  My list is divided by type of recipe (main dish, side dish, dessert, etc).  It took awhile to put together and I'm always updating it, but if it all of a sudden disappeared, I think I'd cry!  I couldn't function without it any more.

The few times I've been lazy and not made a menu plan, I have always regretted it.  People (meaning my mom!) often tell me they can't plan a menu because they aren't organized but I always say that having a menu plan keeps you from needing to be as organized during the week.  Spend 10 minutes planning out your meals on the weekend and you don't have to think about what to eat for the rest of the week!