Meal time can be a pain, trying to please everyone; is there a better example of perfection being the enemy? Too often, you get overwhelmed by the planning, making it very difficult to ever accomplish anything, and so you end up ordering pizza, again. Break the cycle by involving everyone.
I started grocery shopping and cooking for my family at 12. I had two working parents and two working hands, so it was a given. My mom planned meals, made shopping lists and gave me recipes until I could do it myself. Here’s what I learned:
It’s all in the planning.
1. Pick Your Favorites
The hardest part of meal planning is figuring out what to serve. You can never make everyone happy, and you get bored with the same old ideas sometimes.
Share the duty with your family. Grab some 5 X 7 notecards and while you eat dinner ask everyone for their favorite meal idea. Let them write each one on a card.
The only criteria are that it be home-made, fairly easy and reasonably well-balanced. Go around the table until everyone has had at least 3 turns and you have at least 20 dishes. No duplicates.
Treat it like a game. You can “buzz” for junk food and cheer for popular ones, just try to have a little fun. Extra points for inclusion of spinach and broccoli and razz-berries for made up ones like alligator pie. (Always my daughters 2nd suggestion, right after spaghetti.)
2. Find Easy Recipes
Next step is finding recipes for them. Hopefully, most of them you could do in your sleep, but others may be less familiar. Don’t try out too many new recipes at once or you will get discouraged. Odds are as much as your family enjoys them, they have no idea how they are made. So, you’ll have to get recipes. Go with the simplest and fastest one to start; you can always get fancy later, or not.
It doesn’t have to be perfect. A decent meal, made with love, served with a smile is better than a gourmet meal where the cook is cranky. Better yet, a meal made by the family, one setting the table, one making salad and one stirring the post, is the best. A little June Cleaver (Betty Draper?), but true.
Unless you have time, plan to use some prepared ingredients. Tinned soups for example can be wonderful shortcuts for meals. Some grocery stores sell the vegetables already prepared and ready. If you are going to outsource any of your cooking or prep, make sure you print out these recipes; not every housekeeper/kitchen helper is going to be tech savvy.
- Write the basic recipe information on the front of the 5 X 7 card: difficulty, prep time, cook time and ingredients. Put the more detailed instructions on the back. Color coding near the top of the card with highlighters or markers can help when browsing through them later.
2.5. Keep ‘Em Coming
Now you have some ideas. But don’t stop there. Encourage your family to keep them coming. Make adding to the pile an ongoing habit, and keep some extra note-cards around.
Reward them for bringing home new & easy meal suggestions. No to Beef Wellington, but yes to their friend Tyler’s mom’s bean casserole that they love.
And add to the labeling. Think about listing who can make them, so you can take turns cooking. Or maybe a special color for when the best friend who can’t eat eggs is coming over. Or that you can eat it in the car.
- Next month shuffle the cards, deal them out and you have your start, or each family member can pick their top 5.
3. Sync to Your Calendar
Eyeball your calendar. What’s coming up next week? Are you rushing from daycare to karate on Tuesday? To dance on Thursday? Make your peace with the chaos, if you are not going to make it home, what on your list travels well?
Do not get too ambitious with your plans at the start or you may get discouraged. How about Chicken Caesar wraps for karate night, or soup in a thermos for dance? Can you make Monday’s leftovers do for Tuesday when you get home? These are the things that will save you time and energy.
Take the 5 X 7 cards, and see what works. Make sure you get at least 5 days assigned at a time. Match up the card with the amount of time you have.
Log the evening meal plan directly on your family calendar.
- Allow for ordering in and eating out. It is not healthy to do it every night, but one night a week will not hurt. Just plan ahead for the night you need it most. Maybe Friday when you just need a break (sigh). Plan a night off and then enjoy it instead of feeling guilty.
4. Make your grocery list
Lastly is the grocery list. Make sure you have all of the basic supplies you will need to prepare the meal before you start. Be careful buying a lot of fresh ingredients.
- Look for shortcuts: pre-sliced mushrooms, chopped onions, sliced peppers, shredded cheese. They may be slightly more expensive, but they save a lot of time, and are still cheaper than take-out.
- If you can plan meals a month at a time, then plan your shopping accordingly. Try doing a larger shop once a month, and smaller, fresh shopping weekly; it’s a real time-saver.
5. Assign a Cook
All of this planning can enable anyone to manage dinner time. Your partner, your kids, a housekeeper. Consider the possibilities.
Odds are you aren’t the only one in your home who can cook, although you may be the only one who does. Consider letting your children get involved as well. But the family calendar should clearly indicate who is responsible. You don’t want to come home tired and fight with your kids because they forgot it was their night to make sandwiches.
- Most meals take more prep than cooking. If you want to have dinner made in half an hour, you prep everything the night before, or get somebody else to do it for you. More on that later.
- Consider mass cooking some meals and freezing them once a month. It allows you to depend on less skilled family members if it only involves thawing and heating. And a stocked freezer will save you in an emergency every time.
- Outsource your prep by having kitchen help once in a while to do the chopping or cleanup and dishes.
Rinse & Repeat
Nobody can tell you what works for your family. Only you can figure that out. Just remember. Start somewhere. Keep it simple. Forgive yourself. Make it work for you.
So what are your rules for meal planning? What do you do the keep meal times simple and quick? How do you save your sanity?
Check out my meal planning templates.