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Stress-Free Meal Planning: Feeding the masses without losing your mind.

During this weird time in history, Facebook has been riddled with memes about having to feed all the people, ALL.THE.TIME. If you feel like the short-order cook at your house, it’s probably not your imagination. But pandemic or no pandemic, our families do need to be fed and all eyes are usually on us for that. The good news is that there is a way to do some stress-free meal planning without losing your mind!

Food Network meme about sandwich

I started meal planning strategically way before kids because it helped me maintain my sanity while working full-time as a Social Worker. When the kids arrived, making the dinner time routine as stress-free as possible became even more important. Truthfully, frozen meals or take-out would be easier, but the problem is that I LOVE to cook! Cooking for me is art and therapy all mixed into one. I can do simple when needed, but ultimately I want to create something with my own two hands as often as possible.

Organizing the meal planning experience itself…….

Everyone’s schedule looks different, so not all of this will jive for you. My husband works full-time Monday-Friday and I work part-time Monday-Wednesday from 9-2 pm as well as a few hours Monday night from 5-8 pm. Below is what has worked well for us given that schedule: 

*Sometime Saturday or Sunday I sit down and plan 7 full days of meals from Monday to the following Sunday. The plan goes on a dry erase calendar board that hangs on the fridge. I make sure that some of the evening meals produce leftovers for workdays to keep us from spending unnecessary money on lunch out. Once I have the meals written out, I then add the needed ingredients for those meals to my Amazon Alexa app shopping list (more on that below). I hit the store sometime Saturday or Sunday for a very quick trip–just what we need to get through Wednesday. The HyVee in our area usually has pretty good weekend sales! 

*Midway through the week I do my BIG grocery shopping trip and especially focus on what recipe ingredients we need for Thursday-Sunday meals. I typically go Wednesday since that is when our Aldi launches their new ad. For our family, I need to go to the store twice a week because we use lots of fresh produce in our meals and also consume a lot of milk. Since the mid-week trip is the big one, I also stock up on household items during this trip. 

artichockes at the store

What is on my meal plan in a typical week: 

Monday: Dad’s meal! Because I have clients Monday nights starting at 5 pm, my husband is handling dinner these nights. Frozen pizza, frozen waffles, box mac & cheese, frozen lasagna, or leftovers from weekend cooking are often on the rotation to make things easy! Even if you don’t work at night, picking one meal a week that other family members are responsible for helps to share the load and gets everyone invested in what happens in the home. It also dispels the myth of the magical cooking fairy. 

Tuesday: Taco Tuesday! Having something that is a given each week like Taco Tuesday or Pizza Friday helps to eliminate the stress of feeling like you have to come up with something new and exciting each night of the week. We rotate between ground beef tacos, Instant Pot shredded chicken tacos, pork carnitas, chimichangas, fajitas, etc.

Wednesday: A “Dump and Go” Crock-Pot or Instant Pot meal! Something that won’t require much from me because I worked-and likely also grocery shopped on the way home. So things like chicken tikka masala, swiss steak, Filipino pork adobo, etc. Remember that my last shopping trip was Sunday, so by Wednesday night, the main part of the meal as well as the sides need to be things that are frozen or shelf-stable in case I can’t get to the store until Thursday. So for example, last week our Wednesday night meal was freezer meal Chicken Cacciatore (crock-pot), frozen broccoli, and frozen breadsticks.

Thursday & Friday: The “Foodie” meals! These are my more elaborate meals in terms of prep because I just did a grocery shopping trip, so I have fun produce and ingredients. I also have more time because it isn’t a workday for me. Even if we grill those nights, the sides are a little more involved. Things like: parmesan-crusted steak, oven-roasted brussel sprouts & sweet potatoes, and grilled bread. Or: barbeque pork chops, sunflower crunch salad kit, mashed potatoes, and fresh-cut fruit. 

Saturday morning: Big family breakfast! Saturday morning we have a big, hot breakfast just like my parents did when I was a kid. Eggs, bacon, fruit, cinnamon rolls, coffee, etc. Because breakfast is big, we usually slide right past lunch and then have a slightly earlier dinner. I do tend to make more eggs and meat than needed though so that I can put together breakfast burritos or egg bites to freeze and use for weekday meals.

Saturday evening: Large roast night! Saturday early evening dinner is typically a large cut of meat that can be re-used in meals or leftovers Sunday through Tuesday. A large beef pot roast, a whole roasted chicken, a honey ham or a couple racks of ribs in the smoker. Even if we go somewhere in the afternoon, we can set it and forget it. Sides on Saturday are usually things that don’t include fresh produce in case my last shopping trip was Wednesday–stuff like frozen peas, canned green beans, french fries, wild rice, etc. If we eat dinner on the earlier end, that is a great night for a swing by Whitey’s, roasting smores in the backyard or settling in for a movie night while Mom whips Twizzlers at everyone during the movie! (Mom’s sacred duty).

Sunday lunch: Tourist in the QC meal! Because we go to church Sunday mornings, breakfast is quick and we concentrate instead on lunch and dinner. Lunch after church is a restaurant-quality meal (at the establishment or take-out) while discussing what we learned at church. We try to support a local family-owned business each week and the blessing for us is relaxing and enjoying the meal with your people work-free. Bonus–if you buy the black “dine around town” coupon book each year from your favorite charity, most of the coupons in there are for BOGO meals Sunday through Thursday! Or, find a place where kids eat free to save a little cash.

Sunday dinner: The Moveable Meal! Sunday dinner is always in flex depending on appetites, but I plan for it just in case, knowing it may be pushed back a few days. I like doing pasta dishes or soups for Sunday night meals because most of the ingredients are shelf-stable or freezable. You can also usually incorporate items from previous meals into Sunday night dinner such as leftover shredded meat, leftover cooked veggies, etc. For instance, Instant Pot Tuscan Chicken Pasta or Crock-Pot Cheesy Ham Chowder Soup. Or use Sunday night to go meatless.

Other helpful ideas for making meal planning easier: 
  1. Be your own family’s lunch lady! You know how in grade school, the meat got smaller as the week went on? You can work that magic too! Grilling chicken breasts and have a recipe later that week which will require shredded chicken? Make extra and shred/store! Saturday spiral ham? Prep some of those leftovers for Chicken Cordon Blue on Tuesday and Denver Omelettes for Brinner on Thursday! 
  2. When you come home from the store, wash and prep what you can! Wash and prep the produce that you will use for snacks or recipe ingredients over the coming days to save you lots of time later. Stores do sell some pre-cut produce, but it is usually a lot more expensive than doing it yourself. 
  3. Realize how much can be frozen. This is something I didn’t really grab on to until a few years ago, but, you can freeze a lot of stuff! Produce with a high water content doesn’t freeze well, but most everything else is ok. For instance, when we make spaghetti, I cook extra and then mix the extra portion of noodles and sauce together and put it in a labeled freezer bag to freeze flat. If we have a night later that will be nuts, I can defrost that bag of frozen spaghetti and heat it up on the stovetop with a bit more sauce. BAM–homemade spaghetti dinner! Leftover taco meat can be frozen and later turned into burritos, enchiladas, or my famous Taco Pasta Bake.
  4. Keep a running inventory! If you know what you have in the freezer and pantry, including what ready-to-go freezer meals you have stored away, that cuts down on duplicate buying (saves money!) and can help give you inspiration when you are meal planning. We have a freezer upstairs and downstairs and a pantry, so when I sit down to meal plan, I have in front of me a few of my fave cookbooks, my meal planning whiteboard and my inventory list. The plan for the week usually comes together in 30 minutes or less and I’m not getting up every two seconds to see what we have.
  5. Don’t like grocery shopping in person? Use the grocery delivery option! Many stores offer online ordering and delivery these days so you don’t have to go anywhere! The only exception is adult beverages, which…#bummer. 
  6. Do you have a hard time coming up with meal plans in the first place? Websites like Six Sisters Stuff have meal plans you can purchase! You purchase from them at a relatively low cost a week or a month’s worth of meal plan schedules that include the recipes and grocery shopping list. You just execute it.
  7. Don’t even want to shop for the ingredients? There are meal kit options galore these days such as Home Chef or Hello Fresh. You pay for how many meals a week you want and a box arrives at your door each week with the portioned ingredients for those meals. Even easier to execute!
  8. Stock up on Freezer Meals! Local HyVees used to host these events and we’ll see if it comes back, but you can even do this yourself or with girlfriends on your own! Pick a day once a month to put together a haul of freezer meals. This usually works best for meals that will go in your Instant Pot, Crock-Pot, or the oven, but what you will do is prep them, label the freezer bag with cooking day instructions, get each recipe in their labeled bag and freeze flat in your freezer! Just defrost and cook on the day of-a workday rescue! A great option if you want to be frugal (recipes share ingredients) and it also means you have quick options to bless someone with a meal in the name of hospitality.
  9. Let Alexa help you make your list! If you have an Alexa Dot, that little piece of spy technology is really helpful when it comes to grocery shopping/meal planning. As I go about my week and I realize we are low on something, I can voice command for Alexa to add that thing to my shopping list. I can also voice command things to be added to my list as I am sitting and meal planning. Then when I get to the store and open my Alexa app, my list is organized for me by item type (produce, meat, dairy, frozen, household, etc.) I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had my hands dirty from cooking and was able to quickly add something to my shopping list while I was still thinking about it. If I had had to wash and dry my hands and then write it down on a physical list, I would have forgotten half of it. 

This may feel like a lot of information and actually seem more stressful. If you are not used to doing this much in the kitchen, then you are probably right. Know that it gets easier and it’s worth it to put tasty, affordable, and homemade meals on the table! I know many fellow Mamas who plan tomorrow’s dinner at 9 pm the night before, which means there are constant trips to the grocery store, over-spending, and that anxious feeling of always being behind. A little planning on Saturday or Sunday can make the task of meal planning more enjoyable. Cooking might even be fun again! If you listen closely, you may hear the spirit of Julia Child cheering you on! 

Julia Child

What are your meal planning shortcuts or tips? Please share in the comments! 

 

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