Friday, February 10, 2012

Meal Planning for the Challenged of Schedule

If you're reading this, you're probably like me: busy mom, hungry family, more items on the to-do list than hours in a day. I think I can help. A little, anyway. Before she joined us at the dinner table, we used to wait for the little lump to go to bed, make something quick, sit down in the living room with our plates on the coffee table (at what we fondly called "the dining table") and eat side-by-side watching reruns of "Trading Spaces" (oh yes we did). When Buggy first started eating table food (read: REAL meals), I had to change my dinner-time strategy. It had always been my husband and I, and then all of the sudden, we had a family to feed. Weird. Fast forward three years, when we added Big K, a kid who eats anything that doesn't eat him first, and talk about a real game changer. Ok, so I have a husband and two kids to feed. No biggie, right? Wrong. Add in all of our activities and just a pinch of my husband's TOTALLY RANDOM schedule, and simmer for a couple years...take the lid off, and oh crap. I have to plan meals around THIS? Yep.

After I got my iPad, I began a fruitless search for the perfect meal-planning app. Let me save you some time - it doesn't exist. (I'm working on that with a wicked smart friend of mine, though). Our family, which is not unlike your family, is very very busy all the time. My husband's shifts vary day by day (did I mention that it's totally random?), I have one kid in preschool, one home with me, I run a small business, volunteer with ECFE, and schelp my kids to Spanish lessons, swimming lessons, gymnastics, playdates, and ECFE. Whew! It was a slow creep, but all of the sudden, my free time completely diminished.

Enter the need to plan ahead. I never even heard of meal planning before I actually needed to do it. Now, I think I've got it down to a science. Here are all of my secret weapons:
  1. Google Calendar
  2. Cookbooks like America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook, The Gourmet Slow Cooker, The Joy of Cooking
  3. Magazines with good recipes such as Better Homes and Gardens and Real Simple
  4. Recipe websites: Epicurious,, and Food TV
  5. Binder with sheet protectors and pocketed dividers. This is how I divide them:
    1. Dinners (regular)
    2. Dinners - Quick and Easy
    3. Dinners - Slow Cooker
    4. Sides
    5. Desserts
    6. Breakfast
    7. Entertaining
  6. Twice-a-week trips to the grocery store
Because of my husband's totally random schedule, plus everything else we've got going on, we rely heavily on Google Calendar . He has a calendar where I can see everything he's got going on. I have a calendar where he can see everything I've got going on. And then I have a meal planning calendar. (He doesn't have access to it because, quite frankly, he doesn't care what I'm making for dinner, as long as it's tasty and delicious, and doesn't contain the word "casserole".)

The binder is something I started long before Epicurious let you log in and save recipes. Remember way back before iPads when we used to print out recipes? I am that old. I still like to print out winning recipes because there is always something that I change, or I make notes like "Big hit! Everybody loved it!!" Ok, that doesn't happen too often with a 4 1/2 year old in the house, but you get the idea. I also use the binder for recipes I tear out of magazines or the newspaper. The pockets in the dividers are great for tucking away lists of ideas for recipes you want to find, or recipes you haven't tried yet. I love having my recipes in the sheet protectors so I can take them out of the binder and keep my counter clear as I cook. I suppose Evernote and Epicurious have all but resolved the issue of needing to keep anything on your counter, but this is about how I do it, not about becoming a paper-free techno-chef super-mom.

Every two weeks, I sit down with my calendar, cookbooks, binder, and a list of general meal ideas (standards, things I want to try, proteins in my freezer I need to use, etc). The first thing I look at is my husband's totally random schedule, to figure out when I have to make real meals. I make real meals when it's just me and the kids, too, but it's not nearly as rewarding. And hey, if they're happy eating breakfast for dinner, then why not?! For every night that my husband is home during the dinner hour, I plan to make an honest-to-goodness, prepared-from-a-recipe meal. Because that's how I roll. Monday's are our "slow cooker" day because we have preschool, ECFE, and swimming. I love that I can traipse in and out of the house while dinner cooks, and come home from swimming with two starving kids, plunk them down at the table (that I set during naptime) and feed them immediately. I always serve leftovers on Tuesdays. I do this plan every week regardless of my husband's totally random schedule. I like to figure out how I can rework leftovers into something new. Chicken is really easy for that sort of leftover. Just a couple weeks ago I served roasted chicken and veggies the first night, and chicken potpie the second night. Same ingredients - totally new meal. There are books on the market that help you find meals where this works, but I haven't read any to recommend them. At any rate, here's how I plan the meals:
  1. Brainstorm a list of proteins or general meal ideas, include standards and new ideas
  2. Get inspiration! Flip through magazines (Better Homes and Gardens or Real Simple are great) or check out the quick and easy section at for quick meal ideas.  
  3. Remember my mantra? Cook once, eat twice? Yeah. Here's where I practice it. Look at your calendar and figure out when you need to make meals and plan for leftovers
  4. Plug in your meals as all-day events. Don't forget to indicate where your recipe originates! For instance, if it's a recipe I tore out of a magazine, and keep in my binder, I simply put "Binder" in parentheses next to the name of the meal.
  5. Make a grocery list for the recipes. Note all ingredients you need for the meals, and include quantities. Figure out when you need to get ingredients - plan to buy perishable ingredients for the first half of the week, and again for the second half of the week. **If you have an Android phone, one of my favorite apps is ListMaster Pro (I paid $2 to go ad-free). It's a great time saver, and even includes a voice function so you can speak your list right into your phone. The free version of the app works great, too.
  6. Cook and eat! Don't forget when you make spaghetti sauce, soups or stews, or really freezable fare, double what you make, and freeze it for the future!
This is how I make meal planning work for my family. I would love to hear what you do! Comment below to share tips and tricks. Or let me know about any iPad apps you know, use, and love!

Also, here are some food blogs I really enjoy - I don't always use them as recipe resources, but they sure are fun to read! Dining with Alice, This Week for Dinner, and Under the High Chair. What are your favorites? Comment below!


  1. Imagine if you had to do all of that and work 40+ hours outside of the house!

  2. C'mon Anonymous, Don't be hatin' just cause she is fortunate enough to stay home. What SAHM's do with their time and energy is no less important that that of someone who works 50 hours a week. I have no pity for someone who works too much, and I have no resentment for someone who is able to stay at home, regardless of the reason. We all have situations, some by choice, some by necessity.
    For me, it's all about good ideas worth sharing. I happen to like the idea of sharing your meal planner ideas, whether they be through an app, or on paper. I have a magnetic notepad on my fridge, it has 7 columns (labeled for each day of the week) that was initially for events, but it has turned into my dinner planner, so far so good. I am looking forward to you getting that meal planning app up and running!
    And Bon Bon Lady, I cannot have breakfast for dinner, it just aint right! But I won't begrudge you the idea, I am sure it works for millions of Americans on a daily basis.

    Too lazy to get a profile
    a.k.a. Happy to work lots of hours in this economy
    a.k.a. Happy to be able to put food on the table for me and my family
    a.k.a. Matthew Raysok
    a.k.a. Maybe I should have a blog...

    1. Dear Too Lazy,

      1. Breakfast for dinner is marvelous. It's one of the few things my children eat without complaint. And a dinner with no complaints is almost like being at the spa. Pancakes=massage. B. You should have a blog. I would read it faithfully.

  3. I am horrible at meal planning. Here is how meal planning happens in my house:
    Javier: So, what do you want to do about dinner?
    Mellissa: I'm still full from breakfast, can we talk about that later?

    I've never been a meal planner. Now that I am married/insta-stepmom to three, I need to. I TOTALLY appreciate hearing how to make this task manageable.
    - Love the idea of page protectors. My cut out recipes are in bits between the pages of larger cookbooks.
    - Going to strive for leftover makeovers.
    - Must stop grocery shopping more than twice a week.
    - I can't picture myself writing it all in advanced,...One day. Baby steps.
    - I love and always reference my Joy of Cooking (Thank YOU).

    Thanks for sharing!!

  4. Thanks for your comments, Mellissa. One of the fastest ways to get up and running with meal planning, is to make a list of all the dinners you typically make. Don't feel like you have to write it all at once, but keep a running tally. When you start your meal planning in earnest, rely on that list to fill in dinners. It's not unusual for my family to eat spaghetti twice a month. One, the kids like it, and two, it's easy to make. Two days in a month down, with an easy, liked meal. Keep me posted with what you're doing! Xox

  5. Hmmm... to the first Anonymous, being a SAHM is a full-time job. Some people spend their work week at a job at home, others spend it at a job outside the home. Fact is, if you work outside the home, you wouldn't be doing all those things SAHMs get to do. It's one or the other - not both, unless you want to lose your mind and your family in the process. I work almost 50 hours a week and I surely see the value in what Valerie has offered up. The wonderful advice she has given is applicable whether you work at home or work outside the home. It creates organization which opens up more time for family enjoyment. Thank you Valerie - keep it up!

  6. I have been a SAHM, a WAHM, a and now a completely discombobulated part-time SAHM part-time Work Outside the Home Mom (WOHM?)No matter what the situation there is more to do than there is time. Period. Without a plan for meals I'm quite certain I would end up serving the family a handful of almonds and a steaming cup of hot coffee (decaf, of course)for dinner most nights. Bon Apetit! I am a weekly meal planner (wish I could get it together to do a monthly plan, but week by week seems to work too. For me its all about the inspiration. I have a few favorite cookbooks and websites I go to regularly. My current favorite cookbook is Melissa Clark's "Cook This Now". I love it because it is organized by month, and eating according to the seasons just makes good sense to me. I also regularly tune in to the Dinner a Love Story Blog, its the family-freindly food blog I would write if someone was not already doing it so much better than I ever could. I also subscribe to the weekly e-newsletter from "Splendid Table" I am a big fan of Lynne Rosetto Caspar (A local gal!)on MPR and in print. I love getting weekly inspiration for quick weeknight suppers in my gmail box each week. It also creates a handy archive of meal ideas just a quick in-box search away.