My wee idea for this week is one that I have been trying to work on for myself, in the hopes of adding a bit of predictability to my days. I don't know about you, but sometimes the days get away from me. It's all I can do sometimes to come up with something for all of us to eat dinner together. I'm talking meal planning tips this week on the blog. I hope you get a few tricks to help you along your food journey, friend.
With the fall season here and as most of my family is involved in school things, at our house September really is the beginning of the year. It's also the time where you take on new tasks, or rev up the schedule. Littles start their new activities. Parents have to figure out schedules of who will drive whom where on what days, all in the name of sanity and getting it done. Having to prepare dinner after a busy day? And it's supposed to tick all of those boxes like healthy, from scratch, homemade, and something each one at the table will like?
I don't know about you, but with two working parents in our house with time constraints and lots of driving, it can be overwhelming to come up with an idea for dinner every day. I remember reading about meal planning a few years ago; I scoffed at the idea of yet another thing to add to my to-do list. Don't I do enough already? Having worked at this skill diligently for the better part of this calendar year, I must admit that it really is a time saver, ensuring I save my sanity in the same beat. I'm also convinced it has saved us quite a bit of money in the long run. If you haven't tried it yet, I urge you to reconsider.
I took a break during the summer season from planning our meals over at our house. My gang were away for a long stretch of time, lazing about on a beach. I could cook in the moment, and only had myself to think of when it came to combining ingredients and making something taste delicious. When the time came to get back into the swing of things this fall, I thought to myself 'I got it going on. I know quick meals, I can whip something up easily no problem!”.
That first week back? We went out for dinner twice. Twice. And it was only a four day work week. Whoops.
Don't get me wrong: I love going out. In fact, it's one of my favourite things. I love supporting new restaurants, finding new flavours and experiencing our fabulous local culinary scene. But in the interest of paying off the mortgage in good time and eating up what's in the fridge in order to not waste the goods found within, this just wasn't a pace we would be able to keep.
Enter: the white board in the kitchen.
I use this white board so I can erase week to week. It works for me; I am quite utilitarian and frugal. If you would like something more fancy or celebratory, might I suggest you download a meal planning template for free from this site? There are myriad to choose from online, dig until you find the one you like.
Why might meal planning work for you?
I find it takes the guesswork out of every week night. The meal has been pre-determined; this means I don't have to hum and haw at the fridge and/or pantry for 30 minutes trying to dream up something to make. I especially love this because come on, who's with me: those times when you're staring at your food supply and convincing yourself you have nothing on hand? You're hangry and irritable, aren't you. (I sure am.) But having the dinner written out and pre-decided takes the guesswork out of the equation, takes the pressure off, and saves you that scrounging-in-the-pantry time. You've already won the battle and you've hardly started. GOOD WORK.
I love this idea of meal planning too, as it has seriously cut down on the amount of times I have to run to the grocery store during the week; this affords me extra time every day! Not to mention we save on gas, and the environment wins a piece of the pie here too. Planning the week's dinners on Sunday morning means I plan to do a grocery shop that day, and maybe a mid-week stop at the grocery store next to the clinic for some mid-week purchases. And that should be it. (Au contraire, when I don't plan meals; darting out to the grocery store for ingredients every night or two really adds to the stress of making dinner.)
When I'm sitting down to draw up the week's dinners, I usually stick to a list of things we either have in the fridge or garden and need to use up, or I try to utilize a special ingredient over the course of a week. If I'm roasting a butternut squash for a side at dinner one night, you can bet your bottom dollar there'll be a roasted acorn squash soup later that week: roasting the two squashes in the oven together at the same time means I have cut my prep time for dinner that second night in half. That will be handy on a particularly busy night.
I really do love food, so fridge space is at a premium in my house. I need to plan to use things up in a timely fashion; meal planning allows me to mindfully figure out how to move those ingredients into meals and into bellies in order to clear up space for my next batch of ferments or condiments that will need a spot in the fridge. (It's all about the condiments at my house.)
Meal Planning Tips:
- Set aside a 20 minute window of time every week where you will sit down to hammer out the list of dinners for the week ahead.
- Keep. It. Simple. (Read up on the idea of J.E.R.F.)
- Use what you have on hand.
- Think of adding in your family's activities to the meal plan write up: this will help you figure out if it's the kind of night where you need something on the table in 20 minutes, or if you have time to throw a roast chicken in oven in the afternoon before 3 o'clock pick up.
- Make your grocery list once your meals are decided, and get only what you'll need.
- When starting out, spend thirty minutes as a family brainstorming on everyone's favourite meals, and write these down on a sheet of paper. Refer back to this list often when planning. Add your new favourites along the way.
- If you don't know where to start, then may I recommend you assign a different theme to every night? For example, Mondays might be good soup and sandwich days. Tuesdays might be International Foods night, where you make different flavours from around the world. Wednesdays might be ye olde Egg Night (because that's when you have to be in four places at once, driving to and fro.) Fridays might be the forever-pizza-and-movie-night. You'll figure out what your family likes once you draw up that list of meals that are surefire hits. Other themes: protein and simple veg; salad night; soup and salad; mexican food; fish night; BBQ night; vegetarian night; full on roast dinner family style; pasta night; assemble-your-own night; bowls; etc.
- Rotate the schedule! You don't have to re-invent the wheel every week. Find meals that work with your schedule and with your family's tastebuds, and rotate every two, three or four weeks. Whatever works. Repetition is a-ok, especially for those who have littles. Repetition brings them a sense of safety and comfort.
My favourite jumping off points to inspire the week's meals:
- ingredients that need to be used up (feta cheese about to expire? Make greek salad. Cabbage starting to get wilty? Unrolled cabbage rolls are on your horizon. A bag of apple slices uneaten from the kids' lunches is starting to rip at the seams in the freezer? Apple cottage cheese pancakes might be a hit. A glut of eggs from your farmshare? Make quiche. And so on, and so forth.)
- new ingredient in your CSA box: look up some recipes online for interesting ways to use them up.
- Make a big batch of something basic on a day where time is on your side; think along the lines of a big batch of fairly-plain navy beans. Make at least double what you'll need; plan to use this ingredient in another recipe later on in the week. Navy bean hummus? Yes please! Cassoulet? Mais oui oui j'aimerais bien!
- Take a cookbook out of the library to get inspired, and make all or just a few of the week's meals from this new inspiration. Favourites I go back to: anything by Jamie Oliver; anything Paleo; anything with the words 'Traditional' or 'Real Food'.
- You could also take a cookbook out on a certain style of cuisine, like 'Easy Vietnamese' or something along this vein. You will be adding some new flavours, and keeping it interesting for yourself when it comes to meal prep.
- Your freezer starting to talk back when you go diving to see what is found within? Start using the ingredients or meals you have in there. Found a big bag of shredded zucchini and a bag from last year's Halloween pumpkin you decided to freeze in freezer bags? They make a great base for a fabulous chili.
- Anything in your pantry that has been around too long? Figure out a way to work it into a meal this week. Onions are sprouting? French onion soup might be tasty. A box of felafel mix been there for more than 6 months? You should use it. A jar of pickled hot peppers your Mother in Law brought back for you on her last trip to the States? Make some nachos this week. (We did. They were delicious.)
- Your garden's current crop or that of your neighbour's might also inspire meals for the week ahead. Tomato harvest time with frost in the forecast? Sweet Basil Roasted Tomato Sauce from Rebar is a great way to extend the harvest flavours; if you cook all of the tomatoes up, you might have enough for a second dinner a few weeks later down the road. Freeze the extras. Carrots coming out your ears? Ginger carrot soup is one of my favourite fall flavours.
- Find something on super sale when you were out getting groceries? Make that a focal point for a meal during the week. Lots of basil on sale? Make a triple batch of pesto, use up for one meal and freeze the remainder in an ice cube tray to then drop in freezer bags. This will make for easy flavour enhancers to be used in meals down the road.
- Don't be afraid to use your slow cooker!
- Double up on recipes, and store extras in the freezer. Your future self will be thanking your forward-thinking younger self.
- Alternately, you can double up on recipes at dinner and freeze into single-portion sizes. This will make for easy homemade lunches you can take to work or send with your kiddos to school. (Soup is my fave this way!)