Plan Your Meals

By Sandi Haustein

When it comes to feeding your family dinner, sometimes it’s easiest to roll through the drive-thru for hamburgers or a $5 pizza. But by taking a little time to plan your meals in advance, you can save your family money, provide healthier meals, and eliminate the 5 o’clock “What’s For Dinner?” dilemma that parents frequently face. You might be surprised to know that there’s no one-size-fits-all menu-planning system. Your best bet is to try different methods until you find one that works well for your family. Here are four to get you started.

The Weekly Plan
Laura Whittman, host of the popular blog carnival, Menu Plan Monday, believes that there are a lot of benefits to planning meals week by week. Before starting menu-planning, Whittman admits that most of her meals came from the freezer section of the grocery store. Now, she’s reduced her weekly grocery budget by taking some time on Sunday to plan out her week’s meals. You can save a lot of money, too, if you plan around the grocery sales. If chicken breasts are on sale, take advantage of the savings by putting chicken fajitas and a chicken casserole on your week’s menu. Planning meals one week at a time also works well for planning around your calendar. Have a busy errand day on the schedule for Tuesday? Plan a crockpot meal so that you can come home to a hot dinner waiting for you. Need something to grab and go on Thursday evening before soccer practice? Plan for sandwiches, chips, and fruit. With a little practice, your weekly meal-planning will take less than an hour out of your week.

The 30 Meal List
If you need a system for being prepared for dinner but don’t want to be nailed down to a day-by-day menu plan, consider making a list of your family’s 30 favorite meals. If you also make a permanent shopping list of the ingredients you need for all 30 meals, you can focus on keeping your pantry stocked so that you’re always ready to prepare any one of the meals your family is sure to eat. Whenever an ingredient starts running low or you notice it on sale at the store, mark it on your master grocery list and pick it up the next time you’re shopping. The beauty of the 30-Meal List is that you’re always prepared for any of your family’s favorites with the flexibility of picking whatever fits your schedule or mood that day.

Once a Month Cooking
When Brenda Holland’s children were young, she didn’t want to spend time cooking every evening. An organized mom of three, she took one day a month to shop, and one day to cook all of her month’s meals. With a freezer full of ready-made meals, the biggest decision Holland had to make each day was whether to pull out Ravioli Soup or Green Chili Enchiladas to defrost. Freezer meals also come in handy when you want to take dinner to a friend who’s sick or just had a baby. For a crash course in cooking for a month, check out the classic book, Once a Month Cooking, by Mimi Wilson and Mary Beth Lagerborg.

Online Menu Planning Service
Many moms enjoy the convenience of an online menu-planning service which, for a low-cost monthly subscription, sends you a weekly menu plan and shopping list. Ashley Lynn, a mom of three and subscriber to Fresh 20 used to be tempted to eat out on weeknights because she couldn’t get out of her same-five-meal cooking rut. Now, with new recipes in her inbox each week, she’s pleasantly surprised at how little time it takes to prepare meals at home. “I shop on Saturday, chop for about 45 minutes on Sunday, and then never spend more than 20 or 30 minutes cooking any evening,” Lynn says. It might sound dramatic, but Whittman says that menu-planning has changed her life. “I no longer have to stand at the fridge at 4:00 every afternoon, while children melt down around me, wondering what in the world I’m going to cook for supper,” she says. With these four methods of menu-planning in your toolbox, you’re well on your way to less stressful mealtimes. And if anyone in your house asks “What’s for dinner?” you’ll have it covered.