Have you ever seen a small child at a restaurant, completely overwhelmed at the 4 choices on the children’s menu in front of her? She just can’t make up her mind, and then her mom leans over and says, “You can choose the macaroni and cheese or the French toast.” The child picks French toast. The decision stress is gone.
Sometimes deciding what to do is the hardest part of a job.
That’s what I realized about meal planning. It’s not that cooking is hard. It’s just that if I don’t intentionally make a plan, I will often stare inside the fridge at 5:45 every night, wondering what in the world we are going to eat. I’ve got frozen meat in the freezer, some cans of stuff in the pantry, some spectacular cookbooks on the shelf that I actually read just for fun. So…what’s for dinner?
I usually have no idea.
One of these days I’m going to tell you all about how lovely a bullet journal is. I’m only a few months into the system, and I’m just figuring out what works well before I write about it. It’s really fantastic. I have a page on my bullet journal laying out my new system for meal planning, at least for the evening meal. I’ve been using this meal system for a few weeks, and while it wasn’t instantly working, as I slowly grew into it, it’s become my best friend and an enormous sanity saver.
I reference my meal planning pages often, and I have them tabbed and marked. I attempt to do this planning every weekend, so I can get my shopping lists ready for the week. On the top of my page, I have our weekly evening schedule. When planning meals I’ll also grab my calendar to see if there will be any other disruptions to supper or variances to that week that I should accommodate. I basically put anything on here that will interfere with making supper. Either it’s an activity that makes supper late, or just an activity that happens right when I should be preparing supper, I have that right in front of me to keep in mind.
On the bottom of the page, I have listed some sort of category for each day of the week.
Monday is crock pot day. I’ll tell you a little secret. Meat is the most expensive item on my grocery list. Want to know another secret? Deli meat is usually the most expensive meat you buy per pound, and it’s full of all sorts of additives. I buy deli meat less than once a year. It’s usually on vacation in a pinch or something. Except summer sausage. For some reason my family loves summer sausage, so I’ll buy that for something quick for lunch.
Monday is a set up day for the week. My focus has to be getting my kids back into routine. I don’t have time to do anything fancy. I want my full attention on setting up the routine of the week. So the Monday category is meat in the crock pot. I will cook a beef roast, or a whole chicken, or some pork for shredding. I can mix it up from week to week.
Monday nights, we will eat some meat, probably some easy baked potatoes in the oven, and a steamed vegetable. Every Monday. The only decision I have to make is what kind of meat do we want Monday night, and that same meat is what we going to have on sandwiches for some lunches during that week.
Tuesdays are our crazy activity day. There’s no way I can cook anything during the day this day, or even set something up and do some chopping. The theme for Tuesdays is: tacos. Taco Tuesday. Tacos are a crazy fast meal for when we get home on Tuesdays. The only thing I have to do in the morning is set out some meat to thaw.
Sometimes, if I’m really on top of it, I will cook up and season a bunch of meat at once, and freeze it like that, so I just have to warm up the meat mix. I’ve also learned I can stretch that expensive beef by mixing it with rice and/or refried beans and/or black beans. I usually line up in a 9×13 pan a bunch of tacos, fill them with the meat mixture and some cheese, and stick them in the oven to let the cheese melt for about 3-5 minutes. Then the kids each grab a taco that has meat and cheese in it. Then they put lettuce, more cheese, salsa, sour cream, tomatoes, or whatever else we have on hand to taste.
We haven’t found any taco shells that my son with food allergies can have, but we have found corn chips he can have, so he will often just make a nachos-version of what we are having on tacos, with most of the same ingredients out.
Sometimes I just make everyone nachos on Taco Tuesday. We could do fish tacos one day with fish sticks, or change up the salsas. Sometimes we’ll add beans and other times we’ll add rice. I can be creative when I know that the category is tacos or basically anything Mexican.
This is the lovely day when we can be home. This is a great day to make a meal from scratch. This is the day that I try out new Pinterest recipes, or search through my cookbooks the weekend before for something I meant to try. Salmon is a great meal on this day, just to get some healthy fish in. But once or twice a month I try to plan to make a nice casserole from scratch, or a nice soup or stew. Those are all 3 things that freeze nicely, and I’ll make 3 of whatever it is instead of 1. That way I get a couple of ready-made home-cooked goodness in the freezer, ready to go. My kids can’t seem to handle me doing all day freezer meal cooking anymore. But I can manage to make a handful of 1 thing from time to time, and it saves a ton of time. So Wednesdays’ category is fish, (which is not a freezer meal, but yummy when I’m there to cook it and watch it) or some kind of meal that is made in bulk for eating 1 portion, and freezing the rest.
Unless the kids are awful on Wednesday, or I’m feeling sick, or I get pulled away from cooking that day for some reason and I get nothing done. Then it’s “baked potato bar supper.”
This is another day for us when supper will be late because of activities. This is my freezer meal day. I will pull out a freezer meal (casserole, soup, runzas, calzones, etc.) that I have made on a previous week, and have it waiting for us in the oven for when we get home. If I haven’t been on top of freezer cooking the from scratch meals, then I will have a bought freezer meal in the oven like a frozen lasagna or pot pies.
The category for Friday meals is rice-based. Fried rice is a favorite of my kids. Basically, I cook up rice, and then in a electric frypan I stick some oil and fry up the rice, some leftover meat (if I have no leftover meat, a pound of ground beef browned) and leftover vegetables, or just some frozen ones. This is really great fried up with soy sauce too, but then my food allergy son couldn’t eat it, so we just put the soy sauce on the table for those to add who what it. Or I could do a stir fry. Or I could do my kids MOST favorite meal, and that’s chili and rice. (I linked our chili recipe, although I use canned tomato sauce instead of tomato soup, and gluten free flour so our whole family can eat it without cooking any separate.) I make up a big pot of chili, and a big pot of rice. (Chili freezes well too.) This is how my husband grew up eating chili. I still like my chili in a bowl with cheese, but my kids like to put a pile of rice on their plate and heap a bunch of chili on top of it. The rice stretches the meal budget-wise so that’s fine by me too. So Friday is our rice-meal days.
I just have to pick some sort of pasta meal for Saturdays. Most of us eat wheat noodles, and David eats rice noodles. Whether it’s spaghetti, ravioli, or baked ziti, I write down a pasta meal that sounds yummy that week. Depending on the vegetable content of the sauce chosen, I’ll sometimes make vegetables on the side too.
I give myself as much of a break on Sundays as possible. We bring home pizza after church and eat on paper plates. For supper that night, I make a big batch of popcorn and we watch a family movie. Done. It’s not a lot, but it’s a tradition I grew up with and don’t mind passing down.
There’s something about not having to look into the abyss of all the possibilities of what to cook, and narrow it down to categories to make choosing easier. Having a plan saves hours of time, and tons of money as I don’t pick up expensive food on the way home because I know that otherwise we will eat at 10pm.
Most of all, I like how giving each day a category eliminates or at least reduces my decision stress. Decision stress is totally a thing. Believe me.