Meal Planning, Part I: Why Bother?
“She is like merchant ships; she brings her food from afar. She rises while it is still night and gives food to her household and portions to her maidens.” (Pro. 31: 14,15)
Faith prepares sesame chicken
Rather than write a really long piece on meal planning, I decided to post in these installments:
I. Meal Planning: Why bother?
II. Developing your own custom master plan
III. Using your master plan
IV. Breakfast and lunch ideas
So here goes with the first part...
For years I fought against the idea of using a meal plan. I thought if I gave in and started following one, we’d become an “If it’s Friday, it must be pizza” family, and as a gal with a low tolerance for repetition, that sounded dreary and depressing. I liked the spontaneity of making the decision daily about what we would eat! The truth was that I was spending needless time each day in rethinking work that had to be repeated regularly. Added to that, not infrequently we would not have an ingredient I needed, requiring a change of plans or an additional shopping trip. As life became busier, I decided even if it meant sacrificing novelty, we needed some help. When a more organized mom introduced me to her meal planning system, I was convinced.
The funny thing is, it didn’t even turn out to be boring. I now consider following a rotating menu plan, with seasonal and weekly adjustments, the single most important thing in improving efficiency in the kitchen, helping me put tasty, economical, and healthy meals on the table with a minimum of fuss. It even holds my hands to the task when I don’t “feel” like cooking. In case you aren’t quite convinced of the merits of making your own menu plan, here are some of the chief benefits:
First off, meal planning did turn out to be a real boon in saving time, and the time saved is at that critical time of day, 5PM. In most homes with small children this tends to not be the best time to be perusing the internet or your cookbooks, wondering, “Now what am I going to cook for dinner?” Tired, hungry toddlers just want to be fed. Knowing what you are going to make, and knowing that you have the ingredients on hand because you shopped accordingly, takes away half of the struggle.
Working from a weekly menu plan also results in cost savings. When discussing how to save money at the grocery store, Jonni McCoy in Miserly Moms writes, “The worst mistake shoppers make is to show up at the grocery store and just buy what they think they’ll need that week” (27). Making a detailed grocery list based on your menu plan, then sticking with your list, can really help you whittle down your grocery budget. Tweaking your menu plan each week to take advantage of sale and seasonal items will help even more. And when you create your master plan you can build into it meals that meet your family’s budget goals. For example, you can designate one night a week as vegetarian, another as a soup dinner, and so on. You can analyze each meal before placing it on your master plan and discard (or save on a separate “Special Occasions” list) dinners that are more extravagant.
While menu planning has turned out to be a real time and money saver, it’s been an even more important benefit by freeing up my mind from this routine daily task. Maybe it is my middle-aged brain, but it seems to get overloaded pretty easily juggling my various responsibilities. I’d rather use what little creative thought I still have in figuring out the best way to teach my child algebra or how to help another one develop more self-control than in re-thinking what to make for dinner each night. I’ve come to live by the principle that it is worth spending time up-front in developing systems for ALL regularly repeated activities such as menus and chores. When a system is in place I don’t have to give a lot of thought to the implementation, releasing my brain to think about more difficult problems.
It’s turned out that meal plans don’t even need to be restrictive and dull. In fact, before I used one we would often fall into a rut, repeating the same old entrees that came most easily to mind. With a long-range plan the variety in our dinners is greater. I’ll talk in a little bit about how you can build flexibility and variety into your menu plan, allowing for special events, seasonal produce, and hospitality.
Menu planning is not just something that brings order to a family with lots of children. It works in the same way for any household, whether it is a group of college girls sharing an apartment, some single young men in a house, or a childless couple. My oldest son and daughters have all used a variation of this system in their college apartments, making a rotation with their roommates. Menu planning can be a real help to just about anyone who needs to put meals on the table on a regular basis. Next time I'll get into the nitty-gritty of creating a plan that works for your family.