Of the many practical things I learned from my mom, I am most grateful that she taught me to cook, plan meals, and make a decent grocery list. I don’t recall her ever sitting me down and outright teaching me these skills; I just learned by watching and occasionally helping. And it’s an ongoing lesson – I still call her for meal ideas from time to time. I remember very vividly calling her in distress not long after I had my son (and quit my job) needing ideas for cheap meals.
Within this last generation, it feels like cooking was close to becoming a lost art. We have drive-thru windows, take-out, and Bertolli frozen meals – and it is so tempting to let these modern conveniences become a substitute for a home cooked meal. At the end of a long day of mothering and working, I’m the first to admit I don’t always feel like making dinner. But I am so glad to see, at least amongst my circle of friends and a widening group of online acquaintances (hi y’all!) that meal planning, home cooking, and eating REAL food is making a come back. I also love the urban garden movement, and am super envious of those who have enough sun (we live in the woods) to have a big garden.
The best way to keep yourself from falling into the take-out trap, the fish stick trap, or frozen pizza trap, is to have a plan. A meal plan is a MUST for the busy mom. And really aren’t we all?
Disclaimer - I have been known to serve both fish sticks and frozen pizza, and feel no shame for it. Sometimes you need dinner NOW. Ok, moving on...
As a child, I remember my mom always having a small notebook and a pencil on the kitchen counter beneath the phone, and throughout the week if she ran out of an item she would put it on the list. Then once every two weeks, she would sit down and plan meals and fill out the rest of the list. Each category had their own sacred spot on the paper. I do the exact same thing. Dairy is in the top left, then produce next to that, then dry goods, then baking supplies. The next line is meat, frozen items, and miscellaneous. It keeps my thoughts organized to do my list like this. It’s more of a graph or table than a list.
I do my meal plans once a week, since our schedule changes quite a bit. Some folks (like my mom), like to do it every other week, and I’ve seen others make a plan for the month at a time. My husband works part time three nights a week, so I like to wait until Sunday night when I know his schedule so I can plan our meals around that. Because when he gets home from teaching at 4:15 and has to head back out the door at 4:45, I’m not really in the mood to make Beef Bourguignonne.
Each week, on Sunday night, I sit down with my handy notebook and block out a sheet of paper. The top half is for the list, the bottom half gets divided into six blocks, one for each dinner. I write lunch, snack, and breakfast ideas above the dinner blocks. I put the day of the week at the top of each block (I usually skip Friday, since I usually don’t cook that night), and then next to the day of the week I write in if my husband is working, if I have a work function, etc.
Then I get to work! I round up magazines, cookbooks, or find websites where I remembered seeing something I wanted to try. I only do new recipes on nights when we are both free so I actually have time to cook and enjoy it. I don’t always do an actual recipe each night, since my family likes to eat very simply. It’s usually just a protein, one or two veggies, and maybe rice or homemade rolls or bread. We are members of an organic buying club called Annie’s Organic Buying Club, and this also helps me figure out what I’ll make each week. We pick up our box of produce on Tuesdays, and I look online on Sunday to see what will be in our share and plan around that. This helps ensure that I am cooking fresh, seasonal foods and also has gotten us to eat a lot more fruits and vegetables. It has taken some getting used to, because it feels backwards to start with ingredients and then make a meal plan, but if you think about it, it really does make sense. I like following the seasons with our food (although I do miss strawberries in winter!), and it makes me feel more connected to the natural rhythm of the year, and also, even though it may sound hokey, I think it makes me more mindful of the farmers who produced the food. We have considered suspending our buying club share for the summer since all the local farmers markets are now in full swing, but it’s just so darn convenient to pick it all up in a basket once a week.
So now that you know my method, I’m excited to share that starting next Sunday I will be posting my actual meal plans and grocery lists each week here on our blog. It is my hope that it will inspire those of you who are tired of “winging it” to sit down and make a plan, and will inspire those of you who are already seasoned chefs with some new recipes. I also hope that you will join in the conversation and post some of your own meal planning ideas and recipes in our comments and with our Facebook community.
Representative for Ecological Babies