Family Meal Planning Is This Modern Mom’s Bete Noire But I Am Determined to Slay It

I knew some things would be challenging about becoming a parent: sleep deprivation, toilet training, teaching a newborn to sleep on a schedule, separation anxiety. But, strangely enough, one of the most consistent sources of low-grade but nigglingly enduring parental stress for me is the matter of “WHAT THE HECK DO WE EAT TONIGHT?”

Before bambino, I was one of those bougie quasi-French-y/California type of food people (that actually lived in NYC): I did some food shopping everyday because it was easy to dart into my corner 24-hour organic deli on the way to or from somewhere. I bought what was fresh, on sale. I bought delicious cheeses, artisan bread, ingeniously inventive sauces! I cooked a lot, and developed the ability to whip up a little something-something from whatever I had lying around the fridge or pantry closet. Occasionally my sweetheart and I would make a meal together — it was leisurely, creative, soul-bonding, all those good things that make cooking this weirdly intense cultural fantasy (judging from all the food porn out there). Or, we went out to eat if we wanted to be out and about in the world. The only ‘law’ we had to obey was the dictates of our capricious appetites.

Now that we have a toddler in the mix, though, meals have become this onerous burden at times. At first, I barely even noticed how annoying it was to constantly come up with breakfast, lunch and dinner for the family. (Well, I handle brekkie and dinner — my sweetheart watches Budgie while I work and he handles lunch.) I was too stressed by other aspects of mamahood — sleep deprivation, crying, tantrums — to notice the low-grade annoyingness of meal planning. It paled in comparison to more urgent cortisol inducers!

I didn’t even have to worry about meals at first — I just nursed Budge as an infant, then pureed fruits, veggies and such when he was all about baby food. But then he grew into more grown-up food, and suddenly I had another appetite and set of preferences to add to the mix. (And my sweetheart works nights, so while he’s generally a champion at splitting the household chores, dinner is definitely my responsibility almost every night.)

Plus, I had this added sense of weight, because it was important for me to feed my toddler nutritious homemade food as often as possible. I didn’t want to be those food people who are all organic/gluten-free/whatever all the time — I mean, I have to work, attend to my creative projects and only have so much money after all. But I want to do my best and teach Budgie that food can be healthy and pleasurable and a way to savor life. So I set about finding recipes that were grownup- and toddler-friendly.

But finding recipes only opened up a whole new set of problems. I first tried to find recipes that weren’t tricky to make — but then I had to learn to make variations that worked with the ingredients I actually had in my kitchen. I came up with a weekly menu — but found myself running out of crucial ingredients and having to run out to get stuff at the last minute when that last minute was supposed to be devoted to something else. (Plus, I hate extra erranding!) Sometimes I made meal plans but then realized that something in the fridge was going to spoil soon — and then had to reconfigure my well-laid well-intentioned menus. And sometimes Budgie just wasn’t feeling cheese one week, or eggs another — and then it was “Sigh…time to bust open the pre-made ravioli.”

I realized meal planning was much more than actual meals. I started to see how it affected grocery shopping, which affected my errand-running, finances, time management and so much more. I couldn’t just improvise or create a huge new meal from scratch every night anymore. I had to…da da da!…plan! But plan smart. I had to master the skill of maintaining a good pantry and creating meals that would give me leftovers I could repurpose into another meal later that week. I had to learn to enjoy a weekly or twice-weekly food prep session.

It sounds really common-sense when I lay it all out like this, but really, this wasn’t a natural set of skills for me to learn. I made a ton of mistakes. It was all kind of stressful, but as a Virgo rising, I found it secretly fascinating. And slowly it came together for me. I realized meal planning is a genuine complex endeavor. It isn’t just about recipes or shopping or menus. I began to see how menu planning, smart shopping and developing an arsenal of ‘template’ recipes all fit together.

Now, I don’t want to come across all domestic goddess-y. In all honestly, meal planning is so not fun a lot of the time — so much can go awry (like how my toddler will decide one week that he only wants to eat grapes, cheese and crackers, like a little French kid.) If I had the money, we’d probably go out to eat or get takeout a lot more — but meal planning is legit more economical, and likely a lot healthier at the end of the day. And there are still going to be some times when you just get takeout or whatever, because life is unpredictable and sometimes you’re just feeling really worn and tired and rundown. (Thank you, busted-up thyroid!)

But when it works, planning meals makes the huge obligation of feeding a family so much simpler and easier — and lets you devote a little more focus and energy to what you really want to do, whether it’s more creative time for you or shared adventure time with your kiddos. More time and energy = always a win in the mama playbook!

The Root of Successful Realistic Family Meal Planning Lies In What You Bought Last Week

I’ll give you the game-changing tip first, even though it was one of the last things I finally figured out on my own:

The best question to ask yourself at the beginning of your food week is “What do you need to use up?”

This means produce or other perishables, but also canvassing your pantry for items that’ll spoil soon as well. Of course, maybe you realized, “Man, buying that okra at the farmer’s market was a massive mistake!” and you DON’T want to eat anymore of it. But sometimes it’s good to know “I gotta use up those tomatoes…maybe we can do a frittata on Monday and then for lunch in a salad on Tuesday.” Boom! Meals!

Then comes my next big question: what are my grains and proteins for the week? Some weeks it’s rice and chicken, others it’s quinoa or pork or whatever, but I generally try to stick to one or two, just so I can make a big batch and use it throughout the week.

Then I design my weekly plan around using up these items, my chosen protein and grain and figuring out what’s on sale at my local grocery stores, especially when it comes to produce. (Yes, I now sit down every week and peruse the weekly circulars!) For example, I will find recipes that I can use up those tomatoes, but I also see that zucchini and bell peppers are on sale: I may find decide to do a primavera-type pasta, a slow-cooker ratatouille of some kind another day (with some quinoa on the side), and then a frittata at the end of the week to use up eggs. Right there, then, are three potential dinners for the week.

Consider The Family Calendar

Of course, life is dynamic and so are schedules, so once I figure out what I need to use up, I then figure out what meals I actually have to cook for. If there’s a day when I see we’ll be out all day for whatever reason, I know basically I don’t need to cook those days — and I’ll adjust my menus and shopping list according. (I know this is a big DUH, but sometimes I am so frazzled or hectic-ish that I need to remind myself!)

Make a Weekly Master Shopping List

Once you have a rough-ish idea of what your weekly meal plan looks like, I start making a shopping list. First I try to figure out what ingredients I’ll need for my recipes that I don’t have, and then I figure out what needs replenishing in my pantry and cupboards. Some people are super advanced and have a running pantry checklist of pre-set long-running ingredients, upon which they just check off what they need that week. I am not that advanced, but it’s a good idea.

Embrace Theme Nights

You know what I mean by these: Taco Tuesday, Pasta Sunday, Pizza Friday, Breakfast as Dinner Night. It’s so nice to have a ‘genre’ already picked out. Budgie and I do pasta on Sundays and homemade flatbread pizza and a movie on Friday, and it’s become something I look forward to every week. To keep going with my example, I may also throw in fajitas one night to use up the bell peppers (and use quinoa instead of rice), and then perhaps an omelet or skillet for breakfast-as-dinner. (Hey, the French do it!) With Pizza Night already on the docket (with the bell peppers, some turkey pepperoni I have in the pantry and onion) and then going out to dinner for one night, I finally have dinners planned for me and the family for the rest of the week.

Also Plan For An Occasional Clean-Out-The-Fridge Night

If all goes well and I use up those ingredients that need to be cooked before they spoil, then this is pretty easy. But sometimes you just want to get rid of random stuff to make some room. Sometimes this means making a stew, but sometimes this just means cutting up all the random cheeses, throwing on the older fruit, tearing up lunch meat and letting the kiddo eat finger foods to his heart’s content. (And believe me, my own personal kiddo loves this meal — he’s all about the finger foods still!)

Embrace Food Prepping

Another way to make getting dinner on the table a bit easier is to try to do your meal prep in advance: chopping up produce, mixing up sauces and meat rubs and the like beforehand, maybe cooking up your grain. Some people advocate doing it one night a week, but personally I find it can take up a big chunk of time I don’t have. So I try to prep for the next three or so nights. I also have a weird rule to “touch only one kind of item once,” which is basically chopping up, say, all the bell peppers at once for the entire week — if I’m chopping one up, I might as well do the rest if I can and have the time and energy. Doesn’t always happen, but doing even one annoying prep task in advance helps enormously.

Always Make More Than You Need

Some may find this controversial because of potential food waste, but I always believe that leftovers are a good thing and not wasteful — I tend to eat them for lunch or repurpose them for another meal. (I even will freeze a few, but sadly, we have the world’s tiniest freezer so I have to be mindful of over-filling it.) For example, making a big pot of ratatouille makes for a great stew, obviously, but you can also use some as an omelet filling, or perhaps even as a base for a pasta sauce if you feel like it. This rule is also doubly true of anything you bake — I always try to make a little more, whether it’s breakfast bars, banana quinoa cookies or frittata mini-muffins.

Master A Few Customizable Template Recipes

It’s great to have some recipes that work with all kinds of ingredients. Things like frittatas, soups or stews, sauces for pasta and the like, skillets, stir-fries, oven omelets, even old-school casseroles…these are nice customizable flexible recipes to ‘use’ up the food in your fridge and pantry, and repurpose ingredients. It’s also good to have a few one-pan type of recipes as well, to make clean-up easier on you. (Advance food prepping also goes a long way to make clean-up easier as well!)

I wish I had an arsenal of specific recipes I use to share with you. If this post were a book, I’d probably include all of them, just to have them all on hand for reference. (For now, I use this New York Times frittata recipe a lot, with a huge amount of variation in the veggies I add.) I also improvise a lot of skillets and stir-fries and soups.

Overall, having a kind of on-hand database of tried-and-true type of recipes is way good — but this is the type of knowledge that builds slowly and over time, so don’t feel bummed if it’s not all there right away. I find having 10-20 recipes is a good solid base, if you’re at all cooking-inclined. And honestly, this is why I’ve come to an appreciation for magazines like Redbook and Family Circle, which I once paged through at the gym with curiosity — but now I see a lot of recipes in there have been developed especially for families with realistic budgets and pantry closets in mind. It’s worth studying recipes and cookbooks for awhile, and develop your own personal repertoire to suit your own tastes and your family’s tastes.

Don’t Feel Bad For Having ‘Convenience’ Meals on Hand — and Using Them

Yep, I have a few boxes of Annie’s Organic Mac and Cheese on hand for those crazy weeks, and I’m really not afraid to use them. I try to follow the 80/20 rule in my life — trying to be ‘good’ 80 percent of the time is a pretty good target. We all need a little wiggle room, especially us parents. I do my best to healthy things up by adding veggies, but sometimes you really do need to do what’s easy. Easy will save your sanity 80 percent of the time.

And If You’re A True Nerd, Make A Worksheet

I like having all of my meal/food/shopping info in one place, so I created a worksheet to pool all my notes and information. Meal planning is mentally complex at times, so my own little nerdsheet helps me think everything through systematically. Yes, this is super super super Virgo-y and analytical — but it helps me deal with a task I find really overwhelming yet crucial at the time. You can see my pretty worksheet 1.0 in the photo above, but I’m in the process of re-doing it to reflect my current method of meal planning. (If anyone wants to see it or download it, please comment or contact me!)

And honestly, sometimes the effort to stay on top of it all can be a drag, and I’d be tempted to slack if I didn’t think the consequences were even more of a drag. But I try to remind myself that homemade food is thrifty, creative, nutritious and even pleasurable — all things that are important to me and my family at this point in life.

And as Budgie gets older, I realize that food is part of those wonderful family memories I’d like for him to have about his childhood — and so I make sure we always have the multigrain flaxseed flatbread in stock for our pizza nights, because it’s just so nice to get to the end of the week, throw a homemade pizza in the oven and watch a Pixar or Miyazaki movie together on the sofa. It’s my favorite night of the week, and worth every effort.

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