"What's for dinner?" How many times a day do you get asked that question? While it can certainly feel like you spend 23 hours a day planning and cooking meals for your family, chances are you have not yet developed an effective meal-planning routine.
No matter the size of the group you are planning for, you will want to develop a process for meal planning that does not require too much of your free time. Below, I have included my simple five-step plan to get you started.
Step#1 — Master your meals
Are there meals that you know so well you can make in your sleep? Do your family members make specific requests throughout the week? Create a list of meals that you are familiar with and that your family enjoys. It is best to start small and begin by planning only one type of meal each week, such as dinners, to avoid becoming overwhelmed when you are just beginning. As you develop an effective planning system, add other meals to your plan. Your meal plan does not need to be fancy — in fact, if you have small children, they probably should not be — but always strive to include meals that are quick, easy and nutritious.
Step #2 — Plan the plan
The most important part of meal planning is well … the planning. In order to experience any of the benefits listed above, you must devote the necessary time each week to properly plan and prepare your family's meals. With a little practice, most families will find that they actually spend much less time each week on meal planning and preparation than they did trying to figure out what to eat and making last-minute trips to the grocery store. Plan out the week's meals either on paper, by using a printed weekly planner, or electronically by using one of many meal planning apps such as Food Planner or MealBoard. When mapping out your plan consider things like, what is currently on sale? Which food items are in season? What is our weekly budget? Which evenings call for a quick dinner? Which evenings can you spend more time cooking? Figure out what works best for your family's schedule and make a plan.
Step #3 — List it
Now that you have a plan, the next step is to create a grocery shopping list. In fact, if you are using a meal planning app, it is even easier to do this since most of them have the ability to automatically create shopping lists based off your plan. However, if you are creating your grocery list by hand, be sure to double-check the recipes for any necessary ingredients. In addition to listing each ingredient, you will also want to list the quantities that you will need for each item. The more accurate you are with this part of the process, the more time and money you will save on wasted trips to the grocery store for one or two forgotten items.
Step #4 – Shop
With your list in hand (and your budget in mind), purchase the items on your list. If you are planning all your family's meals, you will want to stick to the list as much as possible while keeping your food budget in mind. This part of the process requires the most willpower, but you will more than likely see the benefit of a shrinking food budget. Challenge your family to think of ways to save money on your grocery budget, and put those savings into a vacation or "rainy day" account for everyone to enjoy!
Step #5 – Be prepared
Pick one day per week, preferably the day you shop, and prep your food items for the week. Chop vegetables, tenderize/season meats, and cook any make-ahead items. Complete any task that can be completed ahead of time. Some weeks will require more prep time than others, depending on the meal plan. Expecting a busy month? Prepare a double batch of the meal you make each night and freeze it. There are only a few items that do not freeze well, and you will save yourself the added stress of meal planning during a busy time.
Meal planning and preparation can be a tedious task, especially for larger families, but once you have a process in place, your family will begin to see tremendous benefits. Among the benefits are promoting quality time through regular family meals, reducing the family food budget, reducing food waste attributed to purchasing additional items which are not needed (or expire before they are), reducing daily meal prep/cook time, reducing family dependence on processed and prepackaged foods, and reducing the stress associated with the infamous question "What's for dinner?"
Danielle Moser is a Reisterstown resident and can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.