How Meal Planning Saved My Life

I didn’t used to be in desperate need of structure. I bought food, I made sure that house had enough toilet paper, paper towels and tissues that there’d never be a TRUE emergency, and I figured that I could always go out to get whatever I needed if I was out of something.

And then I had kids.

Suddenly, I was blowing my lid if there was even so much as ONE DISH in the sink. It offended me. It was something that needed to be controlled, so I had to wash that sucker and get it out of my sight.

Since both DH and I work full-time, it’s always difficult trying to manage the dinner schedule. It was actually easier when our DD was a baby – she didn’t eat the same thing we did, so we could prepare whatever we wanted. Once she started eating table food, then it became a race against time: could we manage to get food to the table before she melted down? Not enough parents warn you that melt downs have a domino effect; once the kid melts down – and refuses to calm back down for you – melt downs are catching. Someone snaps at someone else. Snapping is returned. Maybe someone cusses. Dinner goes to hell in a handbasket *quickly* and you can’t even remember how it got that way.

And this is where meal planning came into play. Along with my BFF, the crock pot, planning the week’s meals has made it possible to add back sanity and get things under some semblance of control. By the time we finish grocery shopping on Sunday, our meal plan for the week is DONE. We know what meals will be when, and there’s always some flexibility, so if we need to swap something in/out, we can manage it.

Three simple rules govern our meal planning. In no particular order:

Pick meals that are appropriate for the time available. We often seek out crock pot meals that are 8+hrs in duration, because we can set them up before we leave for work and turn off the crock pot when we get home without expecting (or having) the entrée be a dried out mess.

Set up at least one meal to generate leftovers. Again, this is where the crock pot comes in so handy, since it’s easy to make meals that will last more than one night.

Have a stable of reliable sides and “one-offs”. Sides are those perfect yet somewhat generic accompaniments for entrées (couscous, rice mixes, instant rices, egg noodles, for the starches; frozen veggies in various forms to satisfy vegetable requirements). “One-offs” are meals that we know are really only designed to last for a single night and won’t typically generate leftovers; this covers things like quesadillas, tacos, pastas, etc. When I say having, part of that means knowing what works for you, and the other part is keeping at least a minimal amount in stock at all times, so you can easily substitute a side or a whole meal if your plans are disrupted during the week.

When we write down our grocery list, the upper right-hand corner is devoted to the short list of meals, and we plan things out so that we don’t repeat the same meal two nights in a row. The menu below is fairly typical of our summer meal planning:

Sunday – Grilled fish with fresh corn on the cob

Monday – Crock Pot

Tuesday – One-off, like pasta and garlic bread or another Crock Pot

Wednesday – One-off, like tacos or quesadillas

Thursday – Repeat of Monday

Friday – Grilled hot dogs/burgers/chicken with veggies or repeat of Tuesday (if a crock pot meal)

Saturday – open day; we’ll decide when we get there

The key is to push the uncertainty off to the weekend, when there’s a minimal impact from not knowing what we’re making. When DD was very young, neither of us would get home to start dinner until 6pm, with dinner expected at 6:30pm. The crock pot became a key component in our strategy to get dinner to the table on time; meal planning helped the rest of the way, removing some of the random from the work-week and moving it to the weekend, where it’s less impactful.

I know that meal planning may not work for everybody, but it certainly has helped us get our lives under control and keep the dinner-time meltdowns to a more reasonable level.

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