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Family Meals: Planning Ahead

Ok, so I know I said I’d start with
breakfast, but I started to sketch this series of articles out and
quickly realized that you can’t tackle the actual meals until
you’ve done some of the planning stuff.

Oh, you don’t plan ahead with meals?

Don’t roll your eyes at me –
everyone can do this, not just the OCD people like me. Putting a
little planning into your mealtimes saves money, time, energy, and,
um, something else, I’m sure. Just TRY it, ok? I’m
going to tell you what I do, and hopefully it’ll give you
some starting-off points for you to jump in and figure out a system
that works for you.

First and foremost – meal plan. And yes, I mean sit down and
figure out what you’re going to eat every night for the next
week or so. Every Sunday (in an ideal world) I sit down with my
calendar and plan out the week’s dinners. I start with nights
with specific requirements: if I’m teaching one night, I need
to plan something that can be made ahead of time; if we’re
having friends or family over, it’s not the best night for
leftovers. And speaking of leftovers, I always plan at least one
meal a week of leftovers. Rare is the meal that is eaten up
completely, and while I send Brian to work with leftovers so he can
avoid sandwiches for lunch, I often deliberately make too much so I
can cover two meals with one cooking session. I know a roasted
chicken (or store-bought rotisserie) will be a great hot meal; the
next day I can shred the leftovers and make chicken salad, or cube
it and toss it in some chili, or cut it in strips and toss it with
fettucine and broccoli – you get the drift. If I make a
little extra taco meat for Monday, I can make Tex-Mex salad or
quesadillas with the leftovers on Tuesday. See how it works?

And at the risk of sounding like Crazy, OCD Cooking Mommy (if the
shoe fits . . .) I’ve got a dry-erase board on my fridge
where I list leftovers as they go in the refrigerator. If I
don’t know it’s in there, chances are I’ll never
touch it again until it’s green and stinky. And before our
household got bigger and schedules got crazier, I used the same
dry-erase board for my meal-planning, so I could look up and see
what’s available in the fridge for lunch, and what’s on
the menu for dinner later. Now that I’ve got a family
calendar in the kitchen to keep everyone straight, I use that
instead, but figure out what works for you.

Are you thinking you have no idea how to start planning a weekly
menu? Take a page from one of my friend's playbook: she's got a
different "type" of meal assigned to every night so she doesn't go
crazy. Monday is chicken, say; Tuesday is beef; Wednesday is
vegetarian; Thursday is egg; Friday is fish - you get the idea.
Many weeks I'll start with a different type of cooking and plan
from there: Monday's Asian, Tuesday's Italian, Wednesday's
comfort food, and so on. Or walk over to that stack of magazine
recipes you've been tearing out for the past five years and have
never gotten around to, and start using at least one of those new
recipes each week. Use 'em, or toss 'em.

So get out your calendar and sketch things out. I’m not
saying that I always stick to my meal plan; many weeks I’m
too tired to cook up that stir-fry I’d planned, and turn
instead to my Staple Pantry (more on that later) and boil up some
spaghetti. But at least I know I’ve got a week’s worth
of groceries in the fridge and pantry, and there’s no need to
run out at the last minute for meal fixings. The food’s
there, and there’s no excuse.

As I plan out my meals, I try to cook seasonal foods and vary the
menu, and having a calendar full of menu plans makes it easy. When
the weather changes, I can look back at last fall and get some
ideas of recipes I’ve forgotten since the temperature heated
up, and can even lift an entire week straight out of last
year’s pages. If I’m using a recipe from a book or
magazine, I’ll put the page number and book name next to it
so I know where to find it and don’t waste time searching
through all my meatloaf recipes to find the one that uses the
oatmeal and bacon I’d bought special for it.

And speaking of special recipe requirements, try to plan that menu
around what you’ve got in the fridge. Buying a couple of
specialty ingredients is fine, but keep in mind what you’ve
already got to keep refrigerator crowding and cash depleting down
to a minimum. If I know I’ve got pre-shredded cabbage in the
drawer from last week’s cole slaw, I’ll plan a fried
rice or chicken lo mein dish the next week to use it up before it
goes bad.

As for the staples in your house, a little help from the whole
household makes that grocery shopping list come together much more
easily. I’ve got a roll of register tape hung on a wall in my
kitchen, and every adult in my household is trained to put
something on the list if they use the last of it; it may not occur
to me to check and see if we’ve still got Dijon mustard
before planning my mustard chicken with wilted spinach, since the
last time I looked we’d had plenty of it. In my house, if you
use the last egg, you write it down or risk my wrath. In the nicest
possible way, of course.

This may sound hyper-organized, but a friend of mine goes even one
step further: she’s got a pre-printed list of all the
“staples” they like to keep in their house hanging on
their fridge, and if something is used up they simply circle the
item. When grocery day rolls around, they can just grab-and-go.

Once you start planning those meals and using all those recipes you
tore out of a magazine but never got around to before, you’ll
begin seeing patterns. Make notes on recipes as you go, such as
“Freezes well” or “good use of leftover
spaghetti”. If I see “good use of leftover
spaghetti” on a recipe and decide to cook it that week,
I’ve already got another meal planned for earlier in that
week – spaghetti! Once I successfully cook a recipe more than
a couple of times, I’ll write it out in my personal cookbook,
a go-to place for inspiration and recipes I know won’t fail

I know a lot of you are about ready to go to another website,
thinking this is all too hard for you. Several others are just
shaking your head skeptically, wondering if it’s all worth
the work. But believe me, it is. Spending fifteen minutes planning
the week’s meals, and another fifteen minutes writing out a
shopping list based on the menu and the “daily” grocery
list, means you’ll be sure to have food in your house when
you need it.

I’m not saying you’re not going to throw all that
planning out the window and order pizza occasionally, but at least
it’ll be a choice and not a necessity.


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