Thinking... about meal planning

As this past year came to a close, I spent some time in my journal reflecting on what I learned~ specifically, from having two children so young, so close together. My reflections centered not just with the girls, but also in how well our home operated during that time.

As is my nature, instead of coming up with a list of things I did well, I came up with a pretty hefty list of things I *wish* I would have done differently, or prepared better for.

One of those things is meals.

I truly love to make meals for my family, but I struggled to do so well this past year with a one-year old and a baby. So we have sort of settled into this pattern where we pick up pizza once a week, and often head out for some other form of take-out another time during the week. As for the other five days, it has become a COMMON occurrence for me to look up at the clock at 4:00 or 4:30 and wonder what it is we'll have for dinner, and in that moment of course lack any creative inspiration entirely.

Thankfully, I have a wonderfully supportive husband who tells me regularly that he does NOT expect a meal on the table what with all the other things I'm accomplishing during the day. Still. I expect it from myself, and it is important to me to feed my family and feed them well.

Hence, why "meals" made it to my list.

In hindsight, I wish that heading into this past year I would have taken the time to seriously simplify my meal planning/schedule. What I mean by "seriously simplify" is, say- choose ten meals and rotate them, for the entire year. Or maybe have one floating day per week or two where I make something different but basically stick to the same, basic meal schedule so that creativity in the meal department isn't required from me.

I have considered doing this before, but I've never done it because I tend to like variety. And I like to be creative in the kitchen. I love trying new recipes or simply experimenting with old recipes or ingredients. But I didn't have that luxury this past year.

What I used to do (before the eating out and/or What-am-I-going-to-make-for-dinner-now-that-it's-time-to-eat? phase) was this: Every two weeks I looked through my recipe binder/cookbooks, and came up with 14 meals. I then made a grocery list based on whatever recipes I chose. Shopped. And then, in no particular order- made those meals within the next two weeks. I just kept the list of 14 meals on my fridge and then, usually each morning- picked one and went with it. Crossed it off the list and kept at it until I'd made them all.

The spontaneity in that system is important to me for some reason. I couldn't function when I had a particular meal assigned to a particular day of the week... for two weeks running.

I'm still trying to run with that model, but am not doing it particularly well. This year, so far- with Audra one and Adelia two- is proving to be just as challenging for me in the making-meals department, so I'm thinking through my system and wondering if I should change it up.

Do any of you operate with a simplified meal schedule? Rotating through the same simple meals? I'd love to hear about it! :)


  1. So with you on this. I DON'T enjoy cooking that much so when given the chance to ditch it....I can too easily do so.
    Right before I moved I came across a plan that was posted on another blog. It is similar to your 2 week plan except it was for an entire month. So I made up the meals needed for that long, then place them in a four week rotation. Just last week I finally started using it again after moving in January.

    For me I don't do well with too much flexibility because I am always looking for away out of cooking :o) Just being honest here.

    I keep simple things like premade sauce, ww noodles for something simple. I also have gone searching for really easy meals that I keep the ingredients for in my house all the time.

    My husband is like Mark which is a blessing but I too start feeling guilty when I go to long making tomatoe soup for dinner.

    I wonder if having a recipe exchange some how on the blog would be helpful. Something easy where we could all share REALLY easy recipes. I'd be up to sharing a few and gaining some too.

    There are days at my house (you know some of my chaos)that being alive by dinner time is an accomplishment much less a really nice dinner.

    I was planning in the next little while to share about my meal planning changes this gives me some motivation.

    Sorry for the book.

  2. I'm like you in terms of not wanting to be tied down to a certain meal on a certain day. I meal plan and grocery shop once per week now, but I always reorder the meals if I feel like it.

    I do have a 4-week rotation printed out in my home management notebook. A few meals are repeated in those four weeks. I went through a season where I used that sheet of paper often for mindless meal planning, and even though I don't use it regularly anymore, it's nice to know it's there in a pinch.

    I try to always work at least two "no brainer" meals into my weekly menu plan- meals that come together fast and include stuff I always have in the pantry or freezer. Very nice for those days when life happens and I'm pressed for time.

    It's fun to hear about your meal planning! I can relate to your desire to do well with meals, although I have to say that when Maizie was a baby I think we probably did pizza/fast food/frozen chicken nuggets more often than we didn't, and I only had ONE baby! I think you're amazing. :)

  3. I heard a really cool speaker at MOPS once give a talk about "Freedom in Structure" and I loved it becuase I alway resisted structure because I wanted the freedom to choose in the moment, but she made a good case for having set meals for set days. She homeschooled 4 kids and even had a schedule for breakfast i.e. Monday-oatmeal Tuesday-Eggs Wednessday-pancakes...or whatever. And for fun cooking she and her husband would wait to eat until after the kids went to bed, once a week and have a "date night" at home with a dinner small mouths might not appriciate. It's a season. One day you will be able to cook up whatever without anyone to distract you, so give the set meal plan a try and it just might give you some freedom!

  4. "I couldn't function when I had a particular meal assigned to a particular day of the week... for two weeks running." I'm realizing this for myself, especially with our family's schedule, and need to rethink my meal planning. The system you're describing is close to what a friend of mine does. She makes a list with a week's worth of meals and then just picks one for the day. Your system sounds simple to me and would probably be even simpler with bulk cooking. Please post what you end up doing!

  5. Sandi~
    Yes. I should have added that many of those "14 meals" have turned into things like tortellini from Costco! But I prefer having our made-from-scratch meals.

    I LOVE tomato soup. [With grilled cheese sandwiches?] But we usually do that for lunches! :)

    Bless your husband for being so wonderful. It is truly so helpful to know that our men get it, isn't it?

    Hmm... recipe exchange for easy (quick!) recipes. I like it. You start it and I'll join! :)

    I'm with you on the surviving through the day being an accomplishment.

    Love you, friend! I am thankful for you!

    Yep. I love being able to have options, even if the options are limited! :)

    Listen to you: "Home Management Binder". I love it.

    I want to know what your "no-brainer" meals are, Jodi! :)

    I have a breakfast schedule, too- and I LOVE IT. I did it a few years back and reinstituted (what? That's not a word?!) it a few months ago and it has been such a good addition to our morning schedule.

    Christy? You have a blog now?! FUN!!!

    Thanks for commenting, girls.

  6. I've always thought that if Amy and I could plan out meals ahead of time we'd save a lot of money. But for some reason we haven't been able to make that happen. Plus if you shop more than a week in advance all your vegies go bad.

    Also with all our ever-changing funky fad diet stuff our desires are changing a lot.

    I dunno. I figure you gotta cut yourself more slack for this season of life. As long as you minimize usage of the "brown" food group (anything breaded) and, when it must be pizza, try healthy-ish pizza, maximize vegies where possible, and shop w/ those things in mind.

    I think we spend more than we should. And it bugs me when I toss out that barely=eaten bag of mini-cucumbers from Costco.

    But at some level, time is a more scarce resource than money. Obviously you can get carried away here--especially w/ eating out, Papa Murphy's, etc, but frugality can become an idol too and spending an hour preparing a complex meal means you aren't spending time doing something else that is good.

    It's just tough right now. It'll get easier though; particularly as your oldest gets more capable.

    Boy, I sure typed a lot of words but didn't really say much of anything. Oh well. It's early I guess.

  7. Stacy-
    I HAVE to have a plan or we probably wouldn't eat. :)

    I do a 2-week plan because well we get paid every 2 weeks and that way I can buy the fresh stuff and it lasts. (If I see it's going "bad" I switch my days).

    In addition to my 2 weeks of meals (and I include a night for "left-overs" and sometimes "take-out") I also have 3-4 no thinking meals. Meaning it's super easy to make on those days that things just come up, or I just don't feel like cooking what was on the list.

    Every so often when I am trying to think of meals to cook I think, "why don't I just keep my menu plans"...but have yet to do that. I love to look through my cookbooks and choose 1-2 new recipes for each 2 week block. Keeps me on my toes.

    All that said, I only have 2 kiddos so my days are not nearly as busy as yours! Do what works for you.

    And thanks Angela (my favorite sister-in-law) and Stacy...I'm going to try the breakfast thing. What a GREAT idea!

  8. It's helped me to make bigger pots of stuff (chili, soup, 2 lasagnas) and freeze one, so that I can pull stuff out of the freezer (as long as I look at my meal list in the morning!). Or make baked chicken (lots) one day, and then chicken pot pie the next, so a bunch of the prep is already done.
    Maybe I'd have more kids if they didn't have to eat so frequently. =)

  9. Hi Stacy! I love the post and the comments, I had to jump in on this one. I agree with Mike that the fresh veggies go bad.
    I make our menu based on the pay schedule, usually 2 weeks sometimes 3. Then I buy everything I need for the meals and one week of the veggies/fruits.
    I always know that I will want 1 or 2 crock pot meals so those are on a rotating schedule.
    We also like a variety of meat(it has to be under $2 a pound except for fish) We have fish once a month (all I can afford) and I have master lists of the other meats (chicken, beef, pork, etc.)
    Hope that makes sense. I also have a winter list and a summer list, Who really wants to eat Hearty Hamburger Stew on a hot July day? And I don't want Broccoli Tortelini Salad in December. You get the idea. Plus I have fall back meals for whe I really don't want to cook or completely forgot to pull something out of the freezer. Batch Cooking has saved my sanity. I also try to throw in a never before tried recipe once or twice a month for variety. We just tried Chocolate Chipolte Chili that is So good it will be on the regular rotation from now on.
    Now if I could solve the lunch issue.

  10. I have 6 children (five of them were born in 4 1/2 years) so I know how hard it can be with little ones SOOO close together in age!

    I came up with a six week meal rotation. I picked 36 recipes that I know my family likes and divided them out over six weeks. Making sure to include variety each week (so a combo of chicken meals, beef meals, crockpot meals, etc) then I made grocery shopping lists for each week. I didn't assign meals to a day of the week cause I would FAIL if I did that. I just knew that I had 6 meals for the week I could pick from. Having that shopping list was critical - I would then just add in breakfast and lunch items. I liked having 6 weeks worth of a rotation - that way the fam didn't see the same meal twice in the same month.

  11. Great post, Stacy-- I *so* need to work on this, too. I was very faithful about meal planning and all that until about a year ago... then came the move, the pregnancy, foster babies, and Hannah... and now more often than not, I'm panicking at 5:00, trying to figure out what to make for dinner. And I have only one baby, so really, no excuse :-)

    So this week, Lord willing, I'm going to get back into it. I love the idea of coming up with 2 weeks' worth of meals. I buy all of our meat at an Amish market and stock up for 4-6 weeks at a time, and we buy our grains and things like that from a bulk co-op, so when I do my weekly grocery shopping, I'm mainly getting just produce and dairy products. So the 2-week thing should work well here-- I might try it.

    I love hearing about how others handle grocery shopping, meal planning, cooking, and the like!

  12. Stacy, I made an excel program that listed all of the meals that my family likes (or I like to eat). Thier is a master list that is hyperlinked to the ingredients that need to be bought in order to make that meal. So, every week when I want to make my grocery list I just open up my spreadsheet and choose from the long list of meals that our family likes. Then just copy paste into a list for the store. Honestly, making the grocery list for our family takes 5 minutes. Therefore I am never tied to what a list I made 6 months ago. I can be spur of the moment for the week and head off to the store. It sure helps when I am tired and not thinking straight. Easy too. Wish I could attach mine.

  13. I divided our meals into seven categories...for seven days of the week: fish, chicken, pork, veggie, pasta, soup, beef. Then I listed all of our recipes we like (and the list is alwasy growing) under each category. This way, I know we'll have chicken on Thursday, and I don't have to think about. I only need to look at my list to decide which chicken meal to make. Most of the ingredients are always in my pantry.


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