Organized Menu Planning Made Easy
Over the last few years, I’ve found that I really enjoy spending time in the kitchen – even with the elusive challenge of making healthy, tasty meals that appeal to the grown-ups, but won’t cause the kids to wrinkle up their noses. This is a departure from the early days when I was first married, working full-time, and somehow continuously found myself surprised every night at 5:00 that dinnertime was upon us once again. And sadly, no, the dinner fairy hadn’t visited. We ate a lot of spaghetti in those days. And pizza. A fancy meal was making a ho-hum recipe I found on the back of a soup can (I’m looking at you, Chicken with Cream of Mushroom Soup).
Once we had kids, things didn’t improve much in the dinner department. Honestly, I was either too tired with a newborn or too busy chasing toddlers to give it much thought. Fast-forward a few years to when we moved to a suburb just outside of Washington, DC. – the house we rented had a gorgeous kitchen that had just been renovated. Beautiful cherry cabinets, impressive granite countertops, all new stainless steel appliances. By far the nicest kitchen I’d ever had. It inspired me to do a little better in the dinner department – I felt like I should try to live up to its potential. The kids were three and six by now – my daughter was in school all day and my son was going to a preschool program a few mornings a week. I suddenly found myself with time to look at recipes. Plan weekly menus. And grocery shop by myself. By Myself! A new world was opening up…
With this magic combination of motivation and a little bit of extra time on my hands, I created a few tools to help me stay organized. First up, my Weekly Dinner Planner. Honestly, I’m lost during the week without it. Putting in the effort over the weekend to plan out main dishes, sides and veggies for the upcoming week saves me from giving my kids a blank stare when they appear in the kitchen asking the dreaded “what’s for dinner?” question. Crazed, stressed-out middle-of-the-week-me is always grateful that slightly-less-stressed-out-weekend-me took the time to plan ahead.
To use the planner, I sit down with my recipe binders, Pinterest boards and any yummy looking recipes I’ve found in magazines, and create our menu while comparing it to the family calendar for the week. A track meet or an orchestra concert equals a great excuse for leftovers so we can get out the door quickly on those evenings – in fact, I usually try to plan big meals on the nights I do cook so that there’s enough leftover for at least one more family meal, and maybe a lunch or two for my husband to take to work. Date nights and special occasions are planned around, too – we just moved (again) to an area with lots of cool restaurants to explore and no matter how organized you are in the kitchen, who doesn’t love a good meal out now and then? Printed copies of all of the recipes I’m going to be using get attached with a magnetic clip behind the dinner planner, and then I hang it on the fridge for easy reference throughout the week.
Once I’ve decided on our menu, it’s time to look over the recipes again and see what I already have in the house versus what ingredients I need to buy. I created a blank, categorized Grocery List template that helps me stay on track at the store and get in and out of the aisles quickly without a lot of time wasted retracing my steps due to forgotten items. The list lives on the fridge during the week so we can all quickly jot down things that we run out of as we think of them, and then I add all of the recipe ingredients we need to the list before I run to the store. If I’m feeling extra-organized, I look through my coupons ahead of time and put a (C) next to any items that I have a coupon for so that I can refer back to them while I’m shopping. Full disclosure time – I have such good intentions, but I’m notoriously bad with coupons. I’m always grabbing the wrong brand of spaghetti sauce or putting only two boxes of Cheerios in the cart when I’m supposed to buy three, only to be denied by the cashier when I eagerly hand over my stack of coupons. Adding a (C) on the list goes a long way towards saving a few dollars at checkout, and every little bit helps.
Because all of our extended family lives a plane ride away, when they come to visit everyone stays for awhile – and since one of our favorite things to do together is eat, the meal planning before they arrive gets a lot of attention. During a typical week, the Dinner Planner works perfectly for our family. I don’t really plan out big breakfasts or lunches since we are all on different schedules trying to get out of the house in the morning, and the kids are old enough to pack their own lunches for school. When company comes, though, I know we will spend a lot of time together around the kitchen table and I like to go into it with well thought out breakfast and lunch ideas. The Company’s Coming Meal Planner keeps me one step ahead, so I can enjoy time with our visitors and not stress about last minute trips to the grocery store.
Just click on any of the pictures above to download your own free printable copies of the planners and grocery list. Do you have any tips or tricks that you use to make meal planning a little easier? Scroll down to comment – I’d love to hear your ideas!