The (meal) plan

We started homeschooling again on Monday, this week.  I know that many people who start in September wait until after Labor Day, starting on a Tuesday, but I couldn’t handle that.  I start things on Mondays, not Tuesdays.  Today was our first day of homeschooling co-op.  It went well, but I am wiped out and a little freaked out over just how much school work these five school aged kids of mine have to do, and the fact that it’s up to me to make sure it all gets done.  I have to pour most of my mental energy into this task, so there’s not much left for anything else, like planning meals.

Meal planning for me is not an easy task.  Nor am I a natural cook, one who looks in her pantry at what’s available and throws something together that is both creative and delicious.  A plan is necessary.  I had to come up with something easy-ish to fall back on, something to take the stress out of making my weekly meal plan and executing it.  It’s not fancy.  (Sorry, no Pinterest worthy images here!) In the past I have planned roughly one week of meals at whatever point we run out of them, and then gone grocery shopping for the week’s provisions.  I have a master grocery shopping list with most things that I purchase regularly, so I can just circle what I need.  I have also relied on a master list of favorite meals in the past.  For some reason that list has stopped working for me.  I need even more structure.  I came up with themed weekdays, with an idea list for each Monday through Friday.  Monday is for chicken, Tuesday is black beans, Wednesday is ground beef, Thursday is pinto beans, and Friday is just meatless and a place where I throw some of our vegetarian staple meals.  The recipes might vary, but the spine of the meal doesn’t.  Weekends are more flexible and open to being filled with meals that might end up being shifted from a weekday, for trying new recipes, or for special meals. I plan to make and laminate a fancy spreadsheet including all the different ideas for each day so I can keep it hanging on the fridge, but I haven’t yet.  For this post, the best I have is photographs of my messy Mama’s Notebook page where I scratched out the bones of my plan, still a work in progress and being added to as I think of other meals.  Following that photo is one of a real week’s plan all filled in.  Each week I look to the master list and make my plan before going shopping.

I am planning breakfast and lunch as well.  I find that having a breakfast plan in place works well for us.  It keeps me from having kids upset because we’re having oatmeal for the fourth day in a row.  They know it’s only twice a week, and even if they hate it they can look forward to other days and just try to choke it down in the meantime.  If I am struck with some sort of fancy breakfast inspiration, of course I will deviate from the plan, but I really like not having to think, especially on school days.  I also prefer not to leave breakfast open to nine people making whatever they are in the mood for that day.  That type of breakfast scene tends to drag out for too long.  On weekdays we can’t spend ages on breakfast. As far as planning lunch goes, I need to always do it because if I don’t, I end up forgetting to feed my people.

Lastly, I have moved from shopping when we run out of food and I absolutely have to go, to having a regular shopping day each week.  Keats has orchestra on the same day each week and it happens to be near the stores where I shop and is also on a convenient day and time.  So after I drop him off, I shop with my little ones in tow.  I used to always avoid shopping with them by going during the evening or on the weekend, but I find that having a regular shopping day and time alleviates more stress than bringing four kids along causes.

Being married to Jonny, the “free spirit,” for almost seventeen years has forced me to bury any type A tendencies I might have, but sometimes they make an appearance and I find myself feeling very soothed by a little structure and order.  The routine helps me to function more efficiently and effectively which is just going to be necessary for me to keep up this crazy gig we’ve got going here.

Comments

  1. I am a type A who lives with a free spirit also, so I totally get it! I am not so great at hiding it though!

  2. I used to love to cook off the cuff for just two people, but kids, homeschooling, sports etc that doesn’t work anymore.
    I started a meal plan, by listing categories- rice, potatoes, pasta, corn/polenta, bread/biscuits, quinoa,
    usually potatoes or rice comes around twice
    I listed everything we ate in each category
    then I made up meal plans for 8 weeks, rotating things.
    this involved 8 pieces of paper spread over the bed one night and some determination
    some things we eat every week, some once a month, some once every two months
    I typed and saved and printed each weeks list
    as I used the weeks list I made notes on any changes, such as what didn’t work timewise or substitutions
    once a month I typed in all the corrections
    now I have about twelve weeks of menus in the computer ready to print out
    So I can pull out week 1 and use it and then week 2 etc
    sometimes though, I just put everything from the fridge on the table and its a mixed up menu of whatever/ single serve leftovers. On those days I ALWAYS plan a nice dessert and garlic bread.

    I agree about lunches, sometimes I totally forget them

    am going to try your breakfast polenta – sounds yummy

  3. have you ever tried these oatmeals: http://www.greenkitchenstories.com/3-x-breakfast-oatmeals-copenhagen/
    I make them in the evening for all my family. Even special wishes are easy to add. So everybody feels that he has his very own oatmeal. Good luck!

  4. Hi Ginny, I think you are onto a winner with the spine of a meal plan. When my children were young I set up category nights and I had them help me cook each night. It was lots of fun and by the time they were about 12 they could all cook. We had built up a big repertoire of dishes in our categories of pasta, pulses, pies, Chinese, fish, ethnic and pizzas. As they turned 12 they were each given a night of the week that was theirs. They could choose a meal from that night’s category, cook it and clear away afterwards. They could ask me to get any special ingredients but basically they used what was in the pantry and the fridge. It worked really well because they were scaffolded into it, after years of helping my husband and I with the cooking, and because they saw it as a fun experience.
    May I suggest that you get your children helping and recast it as enjoyable family time? From age 3 children are able to help and that is the age to engender a love of it. My 3 are now adults and parents themselves and we all still love to put on some music and prepare a special meal together.

  5. I actually found it easier to cook for a house full than I do for just the two of us. Often times hubby is out in the garage in his bathrobe late at night getting out what needs to thaw for the next day. We try to remember to do this after supper each night but often forget until we are in bed. It is far too easy for two to just go out and with all the great restaurant coupons and deals it is reasonable too but I just want us to eat better than that!

  6. Grocery shopping and unloading the dishwasher. My two most loathed chores. I admire the people who can grocery shop at the end of the day. Where do they find the energy?!

    I am feeding 7 eaters and tandem nursing two little ones. We cannot keep food in our house. And grocery shopping just seems futile, like making your bed. 😉 I feel like some days all I think about is food instead of schooling or crafting or cleaning or whatever else should be occupying my mind. It’s not as relaxing as thinking about knitting. 🙂

    The way you are meal planning is simple enough and should work. Maybe we can jump on that bandwagon with you.

    Good luck!

  7. Sounds like a great system! Dinner planning, and keeping weekday dinners simple, saves my sanity once the academic year is on. (I teach college, the kids are in public school. It gets crazy busy.) We only have one “theme night” each week though–Wednesday is pasta night (anyone out there remember the Prince Spaghetti commercials in New England some decades ago???). Otherwise, I tend to avoid them because we ate fish chowder *every Friday* in the house I grew up in, and to this day I really have no desire to eat fish chowder. Ever. Again.

  8. jennyann1126 says:

    I love the master list idea and use that too bc having to think at the end of the day to plan a weekly menu is just not feasible. I swear by the delicious, hearty and stupid easy Dutch Baby pancake for breakfast or dinner. We do GF here and sometimes a paleo version with coconut flour (you have to use a lot less though). If it’s for breakfast I set out everything on the counter overnight even the milk (raw) so in the am all I (or one of my boy’s) has to do is blindly mix and put it in the oven. Preheat to 400 degrees. beat 12 eggs, 2C milk, dash vanilla, 1t salt, 1.5 C GF flour blend (I love betterbatter). While that’s being mixed put a 9×13 pan in the oven with 3 T butter to melt. Put the batter in the pan and bake 20 minutes. We serve it with more butter, maple syrup or powdered sugar and lemon juice for breakfast and for dinner you can do sausage or cheese. I’ve even added apple slices and cinnamon to the batter and that is awesome too. Thanks for the ideas!

  9. Thank you so much for this! I have such a love/hate relation so with menu planning. Hate sitting down to do it because all my creativity evaporates, but I can’t really live without a plan. There’s something so peaceful about knowing the plan for the week and taking the guesswork and last minute panic out of it. And I only have three kids and not school aged yet. I keep looking for methods though that will help with the planning process and I’m curious how you manage to feed such a large fam as well as keeping it within the budget. With a daughter recently diagnoses with Celiacs, everything has been thrown up in the air lately win our usual food groove. Anyway.. are you planning out the whole month in one sitting, or just a week or so at a time? If you do a whole month at a time, do you account for building your menu around sales or just not worry about it? Also, do you have a source for a master list for grocery/ pantry stock? Sorry, I hope not to bother you with all my questions!

    • Gasp, sorry for all the typos! Blasted auto spell ck.

    • have you seen this website
      http://www.nourishingmeals.com/
      GF and wholefoods meals
      if you have time to poke around there are good simple things on here
      her cookbooks are worth ordering through inter library loan if you can do that where you live
      there are some easy, and delicious pumpkin cornbread muffins on there that will provide you a dinner time “bread” option if you need that
      I just posted what I do for categories
      If you want to email me about GF menu planning I could tell you what I do to give you a few ideas
      not everyone is my house is GF, so it’s a balancing act, but 95%of our dinners are GF

      • thank you so much! i haven’t seen the website you recommended but am checking it out now and putting her book on hold at the library! thank you! i would love to hear any tips you have for GF menu planning!

  10. Also, I don’t know if azure standard delivers to your area but you can buy certain supplies on a monthly basis at a fairly reasonable price.

  11. kim schildbach says:

    I have just given up on meal planning. Now the kids can eat yogurt/raw nut granola (GF) or (if I’m feeling spicy) and piece of dutch baby for breakfast. That is all that is offered.

    Lunch is whatever (sometimes this really fails but mostly it works)

    And supper is just a mix up of meals almost everyone likes.

    I have just given up on planning.

    1. because I hate it

    2. because I make them and forget them or they stress me out

    3. I just don’t want to find the time

    I hope your planning and implementing goes better!! I’m curious to see – will you update us?

    Blessings!

    Kim

    • You know, I have to plan our meals, and have needed to for years. I have to make such large quantities of food, nothing else works for me and my brain refuses for the most part to come up with meals on the fly. So this isn’t necessarily something new for me, just a new version of planning. An effort to make my planning easier!

      • kim schildbach says:

        I totally get that (we are a family of 7) but I just can’t achieve it and I’m giving myself a break (a new thing for me). Even with all the planning (and hours spent) I find that I don’t have the ingredients on hand when needed or I forget to thaw something. Or I can’t find the meal plan. I’m a mess!

        I really do hope it is easier for you. I’m horrible at it and I’ve given up. 🙂 Please let us know how it goes! I’ll be praying for you!

        xxooo

        • I don’t think that planning is necessary for everyone! So if it doesn’t work for you, there’s no reason to bother! As long as you guys are eating, you’re doing fine! (And forgetting to thaw things is one of my major issues too!)

  12. When I browse through the cooking and baking blogs, one common thread is that the cooks always had basic staples in their pantries. So, even though I don’t technically meal plan, when I grocery shop I always make sure I’m refilling my stash so I can come up with decent meals. I make sure we have fillers like potatoes, rice, beans, tortillas and pasta/noodles in the pantry and chicken, pork, ground beef, chuck roast, sausage and bacon in the freezer. I check for adequate tomato sauce or canned tomatoes, bullion or stock, spices, soy sauce, olive oil, garlic and onions. I make sure we also have adequate cheddar cheese, parmesan, mozarrella, butter, sour cream and salsa in the refrigerator. If broccoli is on sale (or the rare occasion that our garden produces broccoli), I know I have some beef in the freezer and rice noodles and soy sauce in the pantry so I can throw together an easy Chinese beef and broccoli. If oranges are a decent price, I can grab the chicken thighs from the freezer and make orange chicken served over rice. If I’m really brain dead, I know the ground beef in the freezer, the tomato sauce and pasta in the pantry will make meatballs and spaghetti (boring, but the kids really like it). And if there is still some ground beef left the next day, I can make ground beef stroganoff with the bullion and sour cream and serve it over rice or potatoes.

    One of the keys to successful homeschooling is having a well chosen and large home library. I think the success to feeding a family is a pantry and freezer stocked with meal staples. We have all these modern conveniences and available variety our grandmothers didn’t have. Feeding a family might be time consuming, but it shouldn’t be rocket science!

    • Rocket Science! Ha! For some of us it does feel that way! 🙂 I wasn’t raised in a cooking home. My mom hates food and I didn’t learn to cook until I was in my twenties. So even keeping the staples in stock (via my master list–necessary for me!) I still have to have a plan for how I am going to use the staples. My creativity is channeled to other places I guess!

  13. Grit black bean chili!! ♥️ I miss Athens! Thanks for the post :).

  14. You are a “free-spirit type A” couple. Love it.

  15. sounds like you have a plan!! This week we ate left overs nearly every day because I cooked too much when we had company on the weekend. I must say roasted potatoes four days in a row does grow old…

  16. Don’t forget the crockpot! When we were both working the crockpot was a lifesaver. Also, when I plan my menus I like to look over cookbooks to find new and different recipes to try. I make my grocery list while looking at the recipe. Since I don’t like to serve the same thing over and over, I have a small book in my kitchen where I note the meals that are in the freezer. Just cross them off when they are used.

    I came from a large family with grandparents living with us too so 12 ate dinner each night. My mother hated to cook so I saw what a struggle it was for her each day to just keep food in the house for all of us. My cooking and planning came early like about age 10 when she started to offer for me to plan and cook dinner. I loved it!

    • I didn’t discover the beauty of a crockpot until I was almost 40 and having my sixth child. For some reason, I thought of crockpots as those tiny little things used for warming potpourri and didn’t think there were any large ones suitable for my family. When I found out different, I bought the biggest made and having been using it regularly. I also bought the “Fix-It and Forget It” cookbook. If I know we are going to have a busy day with a lot of errands, I put something in the crockpot in the morning. I know I’m going to come back tired, so it’s such a relief to know dinner is ready at home. My staple crockpot dishes (which are the kids’ favorites) are pulled pork, pinto beans, and jambalaya (or my version of it).

      • Kate, I have never fully embraced slow cooking and my crock pot needs replacing. Do you have a model you recommend? I’d also love your jambalaya recipe if you ever have time to share!

        • I’ve never managed to become a crock-pot chef either. I think the main problem is that the types of meals that are prepared in a crock-pot aren’t usually the kinds of meals I like to eat. For instance, I like food sauteed in a hot pan or cooked over a hot grill, or roasted in a hot oven, and the long, low, slow crock-pot meals have mostly just left me feeling….meh.

          I do make BBQ beef and pulled pork in a crock pot but that’s about it.

        • I have a crockpot with 4,6,8,10 hour options, and a warm option. The machine automatically switches to warm after the hours are finished to prevent burning or drying out. (looks like this: http://tinyurl.com/ngarpue) I have two crockpot cookbooks which are helpful. I often make chicken or turkey broth from bones also. It doesn’t heat up the house in the summer as much as the oven.

          I find I have to meal plan on a weekly basis as well. It really helps the days flow by, and lately, Sunday afternoons have become a bit of a meal-prep day since my husband and I both work. It helps to have some things prepped in advance for the evening dinner.

        • I can’t remember the brand of my last crockpot. It worked great, but someone in the family put it in cold water while it was still warm and it got a hairline crack in the ceramic pot, so I had to throw it out. I then found a large Rival Crockpot at the thrift store which works just as well. It’s not fancy – it only has a low and high setting.

          My jambalya: I saute a chopped onion, garlic and celery first and then toss it in the pot with sliced carrots, bell peppers and seasonings like pepper, basil, oregano, thyme or cayenne pepper (sometimes, I just use the Mrs. Dash original salt-free seasoning mix, adding salt to taste). I add about 1 pound of mild Italian sausage, some people use cut up chicken (or both). You could use a very spicy sausage if that’s the what your family likes. Add a 28 oz can of chopped or crushed tomatoes (or cut fresh tomatoes) and 1 – 2 cups beef or chicken broth, depending how many people you are feeding and how much veggies and meat you use. It should be a thickish stew. Also, taste before adding salt since some broths are already salty. Cover and set to high. After an hour, set it to low and cook for about 2 hours more (if you are going to be gone from home a long time, the low setting the whole time is fine). Near the end, add about a pound of shelled raw shrimp. Some people add cooked rice at the end, but I prefer serving the stew over cooked rice. This is one of my kids’ favorite meals, even the ones who don’t like seafood. I usually only cook this when I get a good deal on shrimp.

          By the way, Pioneer Woman’s pot roast recipe is delicious. It’s a slow cooked oven meal using chuck roast, carrots, onions, rosemary, broth and red wine. The roast is browned and the onions and carrots glazed before putting in the oven, so it is very flavorful. And, of course, everything is better cooked with wine. Serve it over mashed potatoes. It’s so easy and it’s my favorite Sunday dinner.

          • I tend not to cook recipes that have red wine in them, I just don’t like it
            A friend told me to substitute balsamic vinegar for the red wine and now I can eat those things

  17. I love the plan for the spine of the meal. I am going to try that! I am the worlds worst meal planner. Making a meal plan means 100% of the time I will deviate from it. Thanks for going in depth with this!

  18. I semi-plan a month’s meals at a time. Posted on the refrigerator is a 2 column list of meals I can cook from ingredients in the deep freezer. One column is meat meals and the second is fish and vegetarian., ending with a list of soups. I have kept these plans for over 30 years now and flip through them to remember forgotten meals. this does avoid cooking the same handful over and over.

    My husband and I do a big shopping trip at the beginning of each month–ending with lunch out as a treat. then there are small trips to local stores for the day to day items.

    Our children are grown and gone now so that we only have 2 tastes to cater for! We seldom have more than one course although our monthly soup with then fruit crumble is coming up in a day or two. I do roughly plan to have a meat day, then a fish day and then a vegetarian day.

    We eat out once a week or so for lunch with groups of friends or just the two of us.

  19. Have you ever tried any of the one pot meals? Such as spaghetti noodles, peas, mushrooms? Or noodles, tomatoes etc. So quick and easy. I think I found the recipes on Pinterest.

  20. You’re smart. You know yourself. I think all moms struggle with the constant meal prep and shopping for it all. I saw a funny Pinterest pin that said, “Why do they need dinner every single night?”
    I remember a very old book called Musings of a Mother. She had lots of kids and she writes about breakfasts and I found it inspiring when our kids were babes.
    I like reading about your type A leans. It makes you YOU.

    • and WHY do they have to eat the day before Thanksgiving when you are busy planning and cooking for the next day LOL,
      or have to have been born the day after Thanksgiving and need a cake, not leftover pie……. 🙂

  21. sounds like a good plan for this stage in your life! 🙂 Lots of love! and a prayer for you all today!

  22. I did a month’s worth of menus for September after having been winging it all summer. It’s nice to know I have dinner planned and shopped for now, even if it does mean I have to shop. I really dislike grocery shopping. Like you, this year Faith has dance very close to my grocery store and I can do that while I wait for her. I found some inspiration for cooking in the library. I checked out a half dozen cookbooks on quick meals. Several were from Southern Living and so far, they’ve all been good, quick meals. I like to cook, but my family has become (or maybe they always were and I never noticed before) so picky and, frankly, thankless, it’s not worth putting a bunch of time into. I’d rather knit! 😉

  23. I find knowing what is going on the table makes my day run so much smoother!

  24. When all my babies were home having a meal plan was a must if we ever wanted to be feed a proper meal, but now with just the three of us I kind of wing it, sometimes that is not a good thing.

    Do you ever use a crock pot? I had two that I would use and found they really helped . I also would double what I was making for one meal and freeze the other half for the following week, a great time saver.

  25. don’t forget about ground turkey…very economical and a good substitute for ground beef!

  26. I start things on Mondays too! lol And my husband worked Labor Day anyway, so we just started school then.

    I’m NOT a natural cook either. I have to have recipes and a plan, or else I just stare at the food in my fridge and think, “Oh no! I can’t cook anything! I only know how to make grilled cheese sandwiches! Waaaahhh!!”

    So yup…I’m a menu planner all the way here.

  27. Delightful post. Oh Ginny, I love the last paragraph. Love of your free spirited man takes the edges off your A-type personality tendencies. Ha! I love it. I have a beautiful free-spirited son and I pray that he meets a type A personality partner so that he can power forward. Love your natural tendencies; they are valid and worthy.

  28. Christi {Jealous Hands} says:

    I love menu planning – and everything else I can plan planning – for exactly the reason you said: I don’t have to think! If it is on paper, I don’t have to use mental space to store it! And, I don’t have to continuously be thinking about things.

    Hope your school year is off to a great start (from a fellow Monday starter).

  29. One strategy that has worked well for us is that whenever we have any leftovers from meals during the week (I don’t have teenagers yet, so this is still a possibility with our family of seven), I stash them in the freezer instead of using them the next day. That way I can pull them out for a quick lunch, busy weeknight supper, or an easy meal to increase Sunday’s “restfulness”. Sometimes I’m on my game and make extra rice, beans, or bread to squirrel away in the freezer for later, but not usually. Meal planning is not my forte but I’m working on it. That notebook of yours looks really handy. I may just have to order one myself!

    As a general rule, I think that “free spirits” and “Type A’s” should end up together. It’s sanctifying for all involved. 😉

  30. Breakfast polenta? Do you just cook it like grits or do you do something different? I look polenta when other people cook it but can never seem to get the consistency right when I do it.

    Shepherds pie is one of my mum’s specialties, with cheese melted on top of the potatoes. We joke about it being prison slop though because she always puts so much gravy in it that it ends up almost stew consistency. Delicious but very runny.

    • It is cooked like grits, but with milk instead of water. Sweetened with maple syrup, and then flavored with cinnamon, ginger powder, a little clove and nutmeg. Frozen or fresh cranberries are stirred in and it’s topped with walnuts or pecans that we toast in the oven with maple syrup. It’s really good!

  31. If your budget runs to fish I cannot recommend this recipe from Jamie Oliver enough!! We have it once a fortnight in our household and it’s so, so easy and just delicious. You don’t need a large portion of fish each because it’s very rich with the anchovies (although olives and anchovies and small people’s palates might be a stretch). We have it with corn on the cob to fill up on. I love anything that is a one dish wonder baked in the oven.

    http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/jamie-oliver/tray-baked-salmon-with-olives-green-beans-anchovies-and-tomatoes.html

  32. I’m trying to make myself keep up with the meal planning. Managed to get a second month (Sept) planned finally, so that was good. Now to make myself look at it in time to go shopping for needed things, and to remember to pull out frozen meat, etc. This was our first week back to homeschooling, so I’m trying to be kind to myself as I try to adapt to new schedules and daily rhythms. I’ve fallen in love with my slow cooker all over again–can’t wait for the weather to cool off so I don’t mind running it more!

  33. I just started doing something like this a couple of weeks ago and I am loving it! I always say I’m going to plan breakfasts and lunches and I always flake out 🙁 I do one big shopping (Costco) once a month and then a small shopping (produce) on Fridays for the following week. I fought doing this for a long time since I love to try new recipes and don’t want to get stuck in a rut, but so far it’s helping my sanity and my budget so it’s a win!

  34. I Know you’re terribly busy but I would love to know how you prepare your pinto beans and your cheesy beans?
    I’m always looking for alternatives to meat because yes, it is expensive.
    Have you tried using a slow cooker to alleviate some stress?

    • I’m with Christy here… what is your cheesy beans recipe??? I have a rotation that I stick to also for weekdays – (M) Pasta, (T) Beans and rice, (W) Roasted fish, potatoes and broc, (Th) Omelets and fruit, (F) Pizza. I am always looking for new and interesting bean recipes 🙂 I love your blog, thanks for inviting us all into your life, it is an inspiration.

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