In the back-to-school rush, most parents I know are focusing on things like supply lists, immunization records, new clothes and shoes, and backpacks. I don’t blame them – I’m the same way. There are all these lists of things the kids need in order to start school on that big, looming date on the calendar, and it’s our job as parents to provide them on schedule. The problem is that for many of us, when big preparations have to take place for an event like back-to-school, we tend to sort of “forget” about the other parts of daily life that we ALSO have to pull off. We get so busy preparing the kids for school that we neglect to prepare OURSELVES for school.
What that often looks like, especially (but not exclusively) for parents who also work outside the home, is this: Mad dash to get kids off to school in the morning. Head off to full day at work. Mad dash to get kids from wherever they are at the end of the day. Possible mad dash to take kids to other activities. Somewhere in there is the cleaning, the homework supervision, the folder-checking, the laundry, the bath and bed supervision. Oh, yeah, and…dinner?
This is why I’m a meal planner. I have been since my loyal husband, J., and I got married, and it’s only become MORE important since we had our two boys for me to find the 20 or 30 minutes once a month to set our dinner aspirations down on paper. If they’re on paper, I have a chance of sticking with them, and history shows me that it works: I can’t remember the last time we had to order take-out or do a mad dash to a grocery store to figure out what we were going to eat. Even on the busiest of nights, we’ve got dinner covered. Here’s how.
- Consider frequency. Lots of people start meal planning efforts with once a week. I started with twice a month and quickly shifted to once a month, and if you can give it a shot, I recommend it highly. Not only does it mean that, for the relatively low labor output of about 20 minutes with pen to paper, you’ve got 30 days’ worth of dinners planned; it also means that you can always be looking ahead a bit, when shopping for food, to really take advantage of sales on items you know you’ll use rather than aimlessly stocking up and then forgetting what’s in the back of the freezer.
- Build a rotation. Our meal plans tend not to have any repeated meals during the course of the month, but that’s just my style. In general, I recommend choosing your family’s five or six favorite meals and writing them in on the monthly meal calendar twice each – planning to eat each dinner every other week. With just that one simple step, your meal plan will be almost halfway complete.
- Schedule nights “off.” We designate Fridays as “fend nights,” which are intended for us to eat up all the leftovers in the refrigerator. It doesn’t always mean that I don’t have to cook – sometimes “fending” means I take the miscellaneous eggs, fruit, and milk and make waffles and fruit salad – but it helps us control our food waste, keep our budget low, and gives me one night a week where, if I really want to, I can opt out of dinner duty.
- Designate a “failproof meal.” Failproof meals must meet the following criteria: 1) Pantry or freezer stable; 2) Quick-cooking; 3) Crowd-pleasing; 4) Reasonably nutritious. Good examples would be whole-wheat pasta with marinara sauce (either homemade and frozen, or a quality jarred sauce), soups and stews (again, either homemade and frozen, or a brand you like), or even just tuna melts with a side of fruit. The failproof meal is your safety net. If you always have the items to make it on hand, then you’ll always know that no matter HOW crazy the evening becomes, you can get something tasty, inexpensive, and healthier than takeout into the family’s bellies.
- Get (or use) a slow cooker. There are lots of easy, delicious slow cooker recipes out there that require no more than a couple of minutes of prep work to have a hot meal ready when you are. If you can’t face doing the meal prep in the morning, then take 10 minutes to put the ingredients into the cooker’s insert the night before, and pop the whole thing in the fridge. In the morning, you’ll only have to take it out, put the insert into the base, and turn it on – and you’ll be rewarded with a fully cooked meal when you walk through the door at night.
- Know your limits. It’d be nice to have lasagna on a Tuesday night, or to open a freezer door to find shelves stocked with lovingly made casseroles that you can just warm up at a moment’s notice. But if you don’t have two hours to make lasagna on Tuesdays, or you’re not the cook-in-advance type, don’t kid yourself. Think of 10 meals you can make in 30 minutes or less, and make those the center of your meal plan – glamorous or not. If you add those to your rotation of family favorites and a few slow cooker meals, a month’s worth of dinners will have practically planned itself.
Bri DeRosa likes to think of herself as a young, cool, urban fringe locavore, but the reality is, she’s just a working mom, neither quite as young nor as cool as she used to pretend to be, who’s trying to figure out how to get everybody fed. See how that’s all working out for her and her family at Red,Round,or Green.