Meal Planning Tips

An idea popped into my head the other night, after we finished dinner. It happened to be one of those INSANELY simple dinners – I’m talking THREE – yes THREE ingredients, and was a hit with the whole gang. I thought to myself 2 things: 1. Why is it that it’s always the crazy easy dinners that I pretty much do nothing towards that the family loves (that and when we have breakfast for dinner?!) And when I slave on a meal for hours, no one can tell?! And 2. I bet there are a lot of busy moms who read Naptime Decorator that would appreciate a crazy easy, yet yummy and healthy meal for their family – maybe I should share this on my blog? But then I thought, nah. Who am I to talk recipes, they probably read because they like decorating. Besides, it’s not like I’m the expert on cooking or anything.

So I dropped the idea. Then not two days later, a friend emails me. Hey Liz, I don’t know if you’re looking for ideas for posts, but I’d love to see you talk about meal planning, menu ideas, shopping lists, etc. You seem to be really organized with all that! I, on the other hand, have a habit of standing in front of my freezer nightly and trying to figure out what to serve the next day! More posts on organization, please!

It’s like she read my flippin’ mind! Now, I’m not changing the premise of this blog or anything, but we all know I like to dabble a bit in other topics, like when I’m feeling particularly sentimental about my big girl starting Kindergarten, or my sweet baby boy turning 2, or the fact that I need to slow down and enjoy this crazy life. So this is still 99% a decorating blog, peeps, but I thought I’d listen to my friend and give her what she wants…and hopefully you can use some of these tips too! Even if you aren’t a parent, you might find something useful here, because the system I use, I began using waaaayyy before the babies arrived. I’d say when I first moved out on my own, and I got tired of 5pm rolling around and not having a clue what to make for dinner, and having to frequent the grocery store about 4 or 5 times a week in order to whip something up.

I can’t seem to figure out how to organize our office, keep my desk free from stuff, and there are more junk drawers in this house that I’d like to admit, but meals…that I’ve got under control. My family has teased me for years about my methods, because if you ask me on Sunday, what’s for dinner on Thursday, I can tell you. They think I’m some freak that has to have everything organized (HA!), believe me, although I long for everything around here to be organized, that’s not the case. The real reason I’m organized in this ONE area of our lives, is simply out of necessity – or sanity – or both. Because I know if I didn’t plan ahead,  1. the Bewitching Hour would be even harder (parents of young ones, you know what I’m referring to, don’t you?) and 2. I’d be throwing bowls of mac and cheese in my kids faces every. single. night. Because by the time 5pm rolls around, this mama is too tired to think of a creative dinner recipe. You see, a little bit of planning ahead on your part, and you don’t have to think at all when that lovely hour sneaks upon you. Let me share these simple tips that will keep you from searching your freezer wondering what to make night after night…

1. Have a day picked out that you do your grocery shopping. For some reason, I always go on Fridays. No idea why or when this habit formed, but it’s just the day I always do it. Makes it easy, and I know that I need everything for that upcoming week, until the following Friday.

2. I check our calendar for any nightly events we might have that week. This will determine whether or not you’ll need something super fast, or if there’s a Girls Night Out for Mommy (rare, but YIPPEE when it happens!), I’ll know to have something made ahead that night, so my husband just has to heat it up for him and the kids.

3. Now that I know what the week ahead looks like, I grab paper, pen, and my trusty Recipe Binder.

I started this bad boy a LOOONG time ago, and every time I see a recipe in a magazine, or online, or on a tv show, I print it out and stick it in here (in one of those page protector thingys).

I have it divided into sections – from appetizers to brunch to slow cooker ones to desserts. There’s every section you can think of. Wow, I’m sounding even more anal that I thought I would, but I SWEAR I’m not! 😉 It just makes it easier when I have to look up a particular recipe, I know just where to find it.

I also have a stash of favorite cookbooks that I’ll grab and browse through as well. Here is one of my ABSOLUTE favorites.

I have made nearly every one of these recipes in here (something I can’t say for any other cookbook I own!), and there is not one thing we haven’t enjoyed. And it’s all relatively easy stuff, that anyone can make.

4. Go through your books, and pick what you’ll make for dinner on S-S-M-T-W. Don’t have to worry about Th and F because:
– Thursday nights are always leftovers. And if we don’t happen to have any that week (which is rare), I’ll fall back on everyone’s fave: Breakfast for dinner! Who doesn’t always have eggs and ingredients for pancakes in their house, right?! I know, leftovers aren’t always that exciting, but get a little creative. If I made spaghetti and meatballs, I’ll pick up hoagie rolls and mozzarella and make meatball subs. Or Parmesan Chicken can be chopped up and made into a salad. We actually love leftover night as much as any night of the week.
– Friday nights are always Pizza. It’s fun – the kids always look forward to it, and love to help make it! I use Bobolis or make a crust ahead of time and they help me roll the dough and top it with fun stuff. Grating fresh mozzarella is their favorite! It’s nice to have 2 nights where I don’t have to think of anything new.

Sunday is usually the day I save for a time-consuming/lots-of-steps/from-scratch kind of meal. I actually do really love to cook, but during the week it feels more like a rush to the finish line with hungry toddlers, so I look forward to this day. The hubs keeps the kids entertained, while I can chop and stir away (with a glass of wine in hand, of course!;)) and
it just feels good, knowing I’m cooking a hearty, home-cooked meal for my family. My parents, and some of my brothers and sisters usually come by, so I make enough to feed a crowd. I grew up with Sunday Dinners being a big thing, and I hope my kids grow up with that sense of family gathering together like we always did. And at least I have one day that’s set aside to enjoy the art of cooking, rather than dread it!

Another tip I have is to look for items that can do double duty and use shortcuts when you can. For example, a rotisserie chicken can be your best friend. Last week I cut up half of it and used it to make BBQ chicken sandwiches with sweet potato fries (sometimes I make my own, but Alexia brand are AMAZING!), and a couple nights later, I used the other half of the chicken, chopped it up, mixed it with some pesto and a box of penne noodles. (That’s the 3-ingredient wonder I was telling you about). Both of those dinners were so simple, and easy on the budget too (*side note on the penne with pesto: a little bit of pasta cooking water thrown in there is good too! Most of the time I forget, but it does keep it from getting dry).

When I’ve figured out the entire week, I write it all down on my Chalkboard Menu (which is just some chalkboard paint on the wall, framed with mitered molding).

I make sure to write the ingredients down that I’ll need on the grocery store list. With 3 little ones, one trip to the grocery store per week is enough! Then I write down everything else we need, and rewrite it – oh yes, I get even more ridiculous: the reason I rewrite it is so I can categorize my food items into sections of the store, as I move along. Start with the produce, and work our way back to frozen. I know our grocery store like the back of my hand by now, so I know where everything is. Again, this isn’t out of sheer obnoxiousness to be organized; it’s because I always shop with at least 2 kids, so I need to MOVE people! The clock is always ticking with little ones, so I get in and out as quickly as possible, and having the list in order keeps me from getting all the way to the end of the store and realizing I forgot something at the front. Try wheeling 2 kids and $200 worth of groceries up and down a store once, and you’ll make a point to be more organized the next time. Promise;)

So this is how I plan our meals. Probably mirrors what a lot of you do already, but if not, I hope you got some tips that will help you keep your sanity when asked, “What’s for dinner?” You can just look up at the menu, and tell them! If I’m feeling REALLY ambitious, I’ll get a head start at naptime (if I’m not decorating, of course!). I’ll do some chopping, or if it’s a casserole I can make ahead, I’ll do it and just have to pop it in the oven. But since I’ve started this blog, I don’t do that nearly as often;)

And just in case you’ve gotten the false impression that I’m some 100% put-together Supermom, I will tell you that you would be 100% wrong. There are days we eat this dinner I’ve planned in jammies from the night before, and haven’t brushed my hair or teeth or put deodorant on for the day. Feel better? 😉 Oh, and that drawer that sits below the chalkboard menu in that picture?

Yep. There she is. Told ya;)

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