Friday, January 15, 2010

Tips & Gadgets: Meal Planning, Simplified

Meal planning is a great way to save money, waste less food, and make dinner time less stressful. But if you find it tedious to flip through cookbooks and draft a new plan every week or two, you might like this time-saving approach:

I created a two-week menu plan in my Google calendar that repeats forever. It's my fallback, don't-have-to-think-about-it plan, one that works when everything else in life has exploded in chaos.

It works because it's basic, balanced, and brainless:
  • Basic in that it relies on pantry ingredients, seasonal produce, stuff in the freezer -- what we usually have on hand. 
  • Balanced because it follows the rhythm of our week, with thawed dishes for our busiest days and more involved meals, like homemade pizza, when we have time together as a family. 
  • And brainless because these are meals we can prepare without recipes -- and without paying much attention, on those evenings when the kids are overtired and squabbling and it's hard to hear yourself think, much less follow a recipe.
Pen and paper might work fine for you, but Google calendar and iCal work best for me. I include links to online recipes and note cookbooks and page numbers. Automatic reminders ensure I remember to soak dried beans or thaw an entree in time. And the endlessly repeating plan means I don't have to spend another minute thinking about what to prepare unless I want to.

Sound boring? It could be, but with that basic infrastructure in place, I can customize to my heart's content.

If an invitation to dinner falls through at the last minute, I revert to my fallback plan without missing a step. If I want to try a new recipe, I scratch Thursday's stir-fry and substitute the new one, just for that day. And if we love that new recipe, it might knock stir-fry out of the lineup and become an every-other-Thursday meal. There are no scheduled days for dining out. Since the fallback plan relies on staple ingredients, it's easy enough to shelve the night's menu and head out to a restaurant instead.

Here's my current default dinner plan, set up as Week 1/Week 2:
Sunday: roasted chicken/vegetarian chili or soup
Monday: turkey sausage and pasta
Tuesday: leftover chicken with greens/pork tenderloin
Wednesday: chicken cordon bleu/chicken piccata
Thursday: veggie stir-fry/salmon
Friday: pizza
Saturday: Chinese pork and kale/steak with roasted root vegetables
    The fallback plan changes with our mood, our schedule, and the seasons. Next week, for example, I subbed in different meals every day. When cherry season starts around April, Tuesday's pork tenderloin will be roasted with cherries, and come July it may be elbowed aside by zucchini and tomato entrees or something from the grill.

    If you need more help, check out these sites offering free plans, recipes, and subscription-based services.

    What works for your family? If you have your own tips, please share them in the comments below.

    1 comment:

    Cindy Rowland said...

    Wow again! I sort of do the same thing, but all in my head. Therefore, there's quite a bit of last minute panic and thinking on my feet.


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