Busy Mom Tips Part One: Meal Planning
The thing I get asked about the most when people find out we eat dinner at home about 28 nights (or more) a month and that we cook dinner, rather than buying pre-made is "How on earth do you do it!?"
For me this is normal. I grew up with a working outside-of-the home Mom and a homemade dinner on the table almost every night. Take-out or pizza was a rare treat, meaning either a special occasion or Mom was out of state visiting Grandma and Dad got to "cook". :) So, making dinner at night each night is just what's normal for me. And, yes, I've put certain meals on the table at night and thought "Ack! I'm turning into my mother!" That's okay. Really. My mom is a lovely person and she's an excellent cook. Plus, she taught me all she knows! Well, except how to milk a cow and butcher chickens. And unless I actually need those skills in my daily life at some point, I don't plan on learning!
Anyway.... back to menu planning....
Here are some of the tips I have when people want to know the nitty-gritty details:
Have a menu plan. Seriously. Nothing makes making dinner harder than endless rounds of "What are we gonna have to eat tonight?" "I donno." "What do you want?" "I donno, what do you want?" We've done both picking 7 dinners and just picking which one we want on the fly each night and writing out a detailed plan per day. Right now the detailed plan works better. When the twins were babies, the other way worked better. Find a way that works for you and stick to it!
Make sure you have everything for the menu plan in the house. Ever go to make dinner and find you're out of an ingredient? Yep, me too. And it derails the best laid plans we can have. Make that list, check it twice and make sure you have everything you need on that list before you go to the grocery store.
Keep it simple. For me, simple means a something that requires little chopping, assembly or other preparation. John also can't eat cheese. So most casseroles and skillet dishes are out. We usually have a baked meat, a starch, a veggie and cut up fruit. And most of these meals can be made in half an hour or 45 minutes, including cooking time. My SIL loves to make casseroles, so for her simple means a casserole. Another friend loves freezer cooking. Another raves about once a month cooking. Figure out what 'simple' means to you and stick with it!
Have a backup plan. Keep some quick and easy things on hand if you are running late, out of an ingredient or just plain don't feel like what you have on the menu. We always have salad makings, chicken nuggets, macaroni and cheese, and soup around. Tonight we had crab cakes on the menu and we ended up having salads with chicken nuggets because I was stuck at the office until 6pm (with a 30+ minute commute) and John had to be out the door at for a 7pm meeting.
Decide what's most important. Is a dietary restriction or your overall diet most important? Sitting down at the table together as a family most important? Is sticking to the grocery budget most important? Decide what's most important for you and make that your focus when planning dinner. For us it's a combination of sitting down together and what we eat.
Plan for evening activities. Do you need to get out the door by 7pm three nights a week? Plan dinner for eating at 6pm so you don't have to rush. People eating in shifts? Use your crock pot or make something that can easily be re-heated. Need something on the go? Pack a sack lunch or a hand-held meal.
Plan for picky kids. Our kids put a capital P on "Picky". We're at an age where even foods they used to love are off limits! I plan one food item per meal (in our house it's usually fruit) that they like. We don't force them to eat anything they don't want - when we pass the bowl they are to politely say "No thank you." or they get one bite on their plate that they have to eat. They know the rule and usually remember. Missy did find out she likes spinach one night when she forgot! :) Bonus perk: we find out after a while they usually try something. The only meat that we eat with any regularity that they won't eat is ground beef and they eat just about any fruit and starch. Now if we can just get the veggies!
Grocery shop only once a week. Plan one trip and do it all in one swoop. I spend roughly 1- 1 1/2 hours per week hitting up to four stores for groceries and toiletries. And yes, I use coupons. And yes, John and the kids go with me. It's a fun outing and the list means we can get in and get out in a hurry. We shop at a relatively slow time (930am Saturday), which helps too. This way I don't have to take the time to run to the store multiple times each week and I don't waste time because I forgot things either. For me, this saves a TON of time!
Do you have any meal planning tips for a busy mom? I'd love to hear them!