Get Organized!

The Value of Planning Your Meals

By Joyce Shulman August 16, 2011

Moms everywhere are rejoicing at the return of routine as the kids head back to school.  Sure, we’ll miss those long, lazy days of summer.  Yup, we dread waking the kids from a sound sleep each morning with the threat of the school bus looming.  And summer dinners?  Let’s just throw something on the grill.

The return to school got us thinking … how do moms plan their family meals?  Are they planning a week in advance?  Shopping from a list?  Or throwing together whatever is in the fridge with hungry kids underfoot?  We asked two dozen moms to share their food planning strategies.  Here’s what we learned.

Many moms do plan their family’s meals a week or even two weeks in advance and those who don’t think maybe they should.  We agree.  Meal planning is economical, encourages families to eat healthier, supports those important family dinners, makes it easier for family members to pitch in and reduces stress on moms, who remain the primary meal planner in most families.

While everyone does it differently, here are some tips to get you started.

When to Plan?

Many moms are planning the week’s menu around the release of store circulars.  “I take stock of what’s on hand on Tuesday night,” explains Julie.  “Store fliers come out on Wednesday, so I check those out and plan the week’s meals based on what's on sale.”

Fridays are also great days to plan for the upcoming week, with weekends providing an ideal opportunity to do some advance preparation and to make your weekly “fallback” (see below).

So when should you plan?  It doesn’t matter, as long as you stick to the same day each week.  Ummm, how ‘bout today?

Start with a List

Take a quick inventory of what you have on hand.  Jamie begins her weekly meal-planning by “going through the pantry and freezer to see what we already have that can be used in meals.”  Next, she checks the grocery store flyers for great deals and then plans the week’s menu.

Keeping an ongoing list of needs throughout the week also helps to minimizes trips to the store and speed shopping.  “I keep 2 grocery lists on the fridge.  One for Costco and one for anywhere else. We add things as we are running out or use something up,” explains Jennifer a mom of four.

Who gets to help with the planning?

Some moms invite the family to have input into the week’s menu.  Jessica does most of the planning “and then asks for suggestions at the dinner table.  That way everyone gets to eat something they like during the week.”  Each child selects a meal, though she retains veto power.

Jill uses the family “Meal Jar” to engage the entire family, even her toddler, in meal planning: “the jar contains all of our regular family favorite meals on slips of paper and theme options (Pizza night, Dinner & Movie night, Eat Out night, Breakfast for Dinner, etc.).  Each family member gets to draw from the jar and we schedule each meal on our weekly meal plan. There is also a New Meal option in the jar to challenge myself to try new recipes and we recently added a Farmers Market meal option to the jar. If this is selected, we buy a new or unusual fruit, veggie or spice that the kids may have not tried yet and incorporate it into a meal.”

But that kind of family input would never work for Julie in Kansas City.  “As far as sharing the plan with the family … NO.  All they need to know is that dinner is on the table every night at 6:00 pm.  With a family as large as mine, giving them any choices would be chaos.”

Write it Down

Do not try to keep the week’s menu in your head!

Whether it is a plain piece of white paper, a PowerPoint or a commercially prepared meal-planning calendar, the key is finding what works for you.  Just a quick online search revealed dozens of free templates.

Gena has taken it one step further and has pained her refrigerator with chalkboard paint: “I write our weekly schedule on it.  Each day I write who is doing what (everyone has their own color) and what is for dinner that night.”

Share the Plan

Most meal planners share the week’s plan with the family by posting the weekly menu someplace for all to see.  Why?  “I get so tired of answering the question ‘what’s for dinner,’” complains Bunny, a mother of two whose husband asked for the dinner plan every morning before leaving for work.  With the menu now posted on the fridge, all she has to do is point.

Plan the Fallback

Virtually every mom who is a meal planner has a fallback plan.  “I make big batches of soup at least once a week and eat it for lunch or for a quick supper” offers Danielle.  And every Sunday, you will find Jennifer cooking up a big batch of spaghetti sauce and a pot of turkey chili. This gives her teens something healthy to take to work or grab before practice: “they use the sauce on various noodles, raviolis, etc.  And the chili? They eat it as is, or wrapped in a tortilla, or over a baked potato. It also gives me two lunches for the little kids during the week.”

If your kids don’t like what’s served? By in large, meal planners seem better able to avoid the short-order cook syndrome. But many also keep one single alternative on hand.  Explains Shannon, “I don't change the menu, but I do have one ‘alternative’ dinner menu they can always have with no qualms from me: they can have a spoonful of peanut butter, a banana, and a glass of milk.”

Should you try it?

Absolutely, says Estella. “Planning meals has reduced my stress level quite a bit and I do find that we eat healthier and spend less money eating out.”

Join The Macaroni Kid Challenge

Join the Macaroni Kid community for a four week meal-planning challenge.  Start the week your kids go back to school and give yourself one month to see what happens when you mindfully plan family’s meals.  Yup, it will require you to get organized.  Yup, it will feel like work at first.  But after a few weeks, let us know what you’ve observed.  Are you saving money?  Eating better?  Feeling less food stress?

We’d love to hear!  Leave a comment below.