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:
- Google Calendar
- Cookbooks like America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook, The Gourmet Slow Cooker, The Joy of Cooking
- Magazines with good recipes such as Better Homes and Gardens and Real Simple
- Recipe websites: Epicurious, myrecipes.com, and Food TV
- Binder with sheet protectors and pocketed dividers. This is how I divide them:
- Dinners (regular)
- Dinners - Quick and Easy
- Dinners - Slow Cooker
- Twice-a-week trips to the grocery store
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:
- Brainstorm a list of proteins or general meal ideas, include standards and new ideas
- Get inspiration! Flip through magazines (Better Homes and Gardens or Real Simple are great) or check out the quick and easy section at Epicurious.com for quick meal ideas.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
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!