How’s that for a long and convoluted title?
I’m not going to hold myself up as any sort of a one to emulate on meal planning. I’m trying hard to get back into; I once was truly awesome at it, when we lived 45 miles from town. Living in town for the last 13 years has been my kryptonite. But, I’m determined, and stubborn goes a long, long way.
A request from a long-time friend spurred this particular post about menu plans. Thanks, AB! It’s a good reminder to myself about The Stubborn, and I need those. And I’m gearing up to grocery shopping next week, so getting a jump on it is goooood.
There are so, so, so many resources on-line and in “analog” (real, physical books!) that it actually gets a little overwhelming. It’s said that Eleanor Roosevelt had two six-month meal plans (one for each half of the year) that she swapped in and out the entire time the Roosevelts were in the White House. The appetites of our household are a little too variant for that to feel comfortable, but the sensible nature of having some regular items that just rotate through really does work. If I plan 21 different dinners, I can rotate a basic stock of ideas every three to four weeks, and everyone stays happy. It allows me to anticipate some seasonal sales and harvest, and maximize our food budget.
I like to get a running start by making a blanket plan with some wiggle room. Freezable and pantry-stable items make it all go faster. I don’t have to shop very often. I like that.
For the very easiest run at things, eliminate stuff. It is totally okay to have two or three basic breakfasts that rotate through the week. Ours tend to be:
- “Runny” (over easy or steamed—set whites, liquid hot yolks) home eggs, courtesy of our henfolk, paired with buttered toast and sometimes fruit.
- Egg scramble with cheese, either by itself, with toast, stuffed between two pieces of toast (with grape jelly! YUM! Quit looking at me like that!), rolled up in a tortilla, or tucked into a biscuit or English (Scottish) muffin.
- Warm Cookie Cereal (otherwise known as old-fashioned rolled oats cooked with a bit of vanilla, salt, brown sugar, and cinnamon. On decadent days, served with half-and-half drizzled over. Leftovers are guaranteed to be eaten cold later by my Tall, Dark, and Slightly Neanderthal fellow.)
- Leftover Dinner, particularly if we had pizza the night before. Or lasagna.
So, I know we can rotate breakfast on an eggs, hot cereal, eggs, hot cereal pattern all year, with vanilla Greek yogurt–fruit–homemade granola in the fruit-bearing months as well. Summer breakfasts might also be a fruit-yogurt smoothie; winter breakfasts often involve homemade hot cocoa (which I need to blog. Sorry. Recipe later.)
Lunch is usually really haphazard here, but I try to keep these options available:
- PB & J sandwich supplies
- Grilled cheese sandwich supplies
- Raw veggies
- Apples, oranges, or bananas
- Soup (homemade frozen, or canned)
- Frozen mac-n-cheese pucks to nuke
Just having a rotation for breakfast and basics on hand for lunch eliminates two-thirds of my meal planning. Even with dinner, I can eliminate some of the thought by thinking in terms of balance. If I know, for instance, that I want to offer 2-3 types of veggies (raw, cooked, salad), a starch, and a protein, it’s a whole lot easier to fill in the blanks than to start from a blank sheet of paper. I do have a list for my main categories of nutrition, one type per page. Things get fun when I use variations on a category. Veggies might be a carrot-raisin salad, coleslaw, crudites plate, raw carrot coins (sliced on the bias), honey-glazed carrots, roasted root veggies, ratatouille, different salads… it doesn’t have to be boring.
Recently, we’ve been in flux due to changed working hours for the Tall, Dark, and Slightly Neanderthal one, so again, I’m not any sort of paragon here. I’m a work in progress. Narrowing down options works for dinner, too, by providing a simple framework. It’s a lot easier to come up with creative variations within a framework! Lately, I go back and forth between two styles of thinking.
1: Tight Time Evenings and Easy Time Evenings. A few nights a week, we have evening commitments, so having some simple, easy suppers planned for those nights works best. No-commitment evenings I can do something a little more involved if I want to.
Hey, sometimes I might want to. It could happen.
2: Theme nights. Theme nights give a really nice framework. For instance: Monday is Something Pasta. Tuesday, Salad And (and something else… usually rice, more veggies, and a bit of meat). Wednesdays, Grill Night. Thursday, Soup And. Friday, Smorgasbord (leftovers!) or Fish Night. Saturday, Party Food. Sunday, Roasted Animals And.
Sometimes we swap out for a few months, and do other themes, like Mexican night, Asian night, Indian night, Classic American night, Italian night, Party Food night (that’s kind of a constant here!), and Mom’s Tired Forage As Desired night.
In the summer months, we’ll have Salad And almost every night of the week. Or Grill-And-Salad-And.
Within the framework, it’s easier to think of a few variations, and I do like to brainstorm on paper by theme, or by main ingredient. I can then keep my lists in a notebook, and use it in the future, when my brain is melted and my family still insists they want food. They are sooooo picky.
The Pasta category includes things like:
- Spaghetti with red sauce and meatballs, salad, green beans, raw veggies. I do the meatballs ahead, bake and freeze them. I’ve been doing the sauce each time, but I’m going to learn to can my own this summer.
- Spaghetti with actual Slacker Alfredo sauce, with chicken or meatballs, salad, veggies, etc.
- Pasta Cordon Bleu (white garlic sauce with Swiss cheese, ham, chicken, rosemary) with the veggies… I tend to like offering a variety of raw veggies with most dinners, but don’t get to het up about everyone taking some of everything. They graze as they like, and tend to consume more veg than they otherwise would. I’ll also bring out the raw veggies and salad as the main dish is wrapping up, and everyone “snacks”.
- Three-Cheese Florentine (Spinach) Lasagna, which I do up two or three pans at a time and freeze. This takes forever to bake after being frozen, so it’s not last minute like the top three pasta options are. The three-cheese-spinach filling is the same one I use in another of the pasta options:
- Three-Cheese Ravioli. I don’t make these terribly often, but when I do, it’s ten dozen at a time, and into the freezer they go.
- Freezer Mac-n-Cheese, paired with veggies and fruit.
Salad And is an easy night, and popular with my whole tribe. It’s a fully customize-it-yourself option. Everyone serves themselves. We start with a nice big bowl of romaine and spinach, and have set out:
- Shredded cheese
- Chopped, cooked meat (often leftover or purposely baked or grilled pork or chicken)
- Slivered celery and carrots
- Thawed (but not cooked) frozen peas, fresh peas in summer
- Black olives
- Variety of dressings and dips
Everyone just goes to town and designs their own plate. It’s totally okay for people to make little piles of single ingredients, and nibble around the plate, too. Grill And looks much the same, with the addition of steamed Jasmine rice or baked potato, grilled beefsteak, grilled pork shoulder steak, or grilled chicken thigh.
American Classics night is popular. That might rotate through:
- Burgers On The Grill! This is a huge favorite at our house, and we plan one burger night a week, year-round. I like the burger ideas at Once a Month Mom (like this Turkey Burger, or Tomato Basil Burgers or Bacon Bleu Burgers); portioning and freezing the patties on a baking sheet, then bagging them for future use, is fantastic. Being able to blend in our own flavoring (like cooked chopped bacon, or sun-dried tomatoes and feta) gives the more developed palates a treat, and our basic burger mix (dehydrated onion, Worchestershire, Lawry’s seasoning salt, and black pepper) suits the simpler taste buds really well, too. And, we can grill more than one type of patty, so everyone is customized and happy and I don’t go smack out of my tiny mind. I use the sandwich bun recipe here (it really does take about 30 minutes! Awesome! And Tasty!), and we top the burgers with cheese and all manner of tasty bits, with home-roasted potato wedges on the side. And raw carrot coins. And homemade coleslaw that I’m getting the hang of.
- Those same patties can be the base for Chicken Fried Steak with country cream gravy (over mashed potatoes, of course!) by thawing them a bit, dredging, browning in oil, and finishing in the oven while I make gravy and potatoes and the kids set out veggies.
- Or, I can bake the patties with a beef-broth gravy for Salisbury Steak.
- I do like using a good meatloaf recipe (the linked recipe is the one my “tastebugs” adored at church suppers in childhood), and freezing it (unbaked) in muffin tins. The frozen pucks store in a gallon ziplock, and I can bake from frozen as needed. That’s another meal that rounds out with a starch (mashed potatoes or garlic bread) and free-grazing veggies, though canned green beans or home-frozen corn are awesome sides as well.
- Pizza! I’ve not settled on a favorite crust recipe, so that varies, but being able to do good pizza at home, or occasionally get take-n-bake (our favorite chain is Papa Murphy’s) is awesome.
- Because we are big, big nerds, homemade pocket sandwiches have to be on the list (Xena tapes and Hot Pockets! Name that Nerd Movie!)
- We also include comfort foods, like Baked Potato Soup, or Reverse Dumplings, or grilled cheese sandwiches and soup, in this category.
One dinner we plan twice a month (for Saturdays, to be eaten while watching a movie) is Party Food! We all love party food. It’s mix-and-match based on what we feel like eating, but can include:
- Any two meats (cayenne wings, balsamic wings, garlic butter wings, kosher beef franks in chunks simmered in BBQ sauce, summer sausage). It’s easy to do multiple kinds of wings; I roast them all with the same process as for the balsamic wings, then divvy them up into the various sauces at the end.
- Sliced cheese and crackers (usually Rosemary and Olive Oil Triscuits. Holy wow, those are good. Multi-grain Toppers are an excellent)
- Spinach Artichoke Dip (which, in the last few months, I’ve taken to freezing in single-portion dollops on a sheet, and bagging. Very fast to bake or nuke as needed.)
- A wide variety of raw veggies and a homemade, sour cream-base dilly ranch dip
- Black olives, dill pickles, and pickled peppers. It’s just not a party without the Fingertip Olives, something sour, and something to use as a Manhood Challenge. Even for the little girls.
It’s another Grazing sort of supper, and it’s hugely popular.
We also have fall-back dinners for nights when nothing sounds good. Bagel sandwiches, breakfast for dinner, egg-drop soup or hot-sour soup and toast, bacon sandwiches… we won’t starve, and we’ll be eating faster than we could manage takeout.
If I know what framework I’m using, then I can sit down with family members and ask for opinions on who’s in the mood for what on the different nights. I can guide the choices, too; if I know we’re eating lowest-budget this month, pizza pockets, hamburger pockets, bean-and-meat soft tacos, and other items will be among my suggestions, because those are the most flavor-packed and cost-effective with expensive animal proteins, for instance. If we have chicken thigh in the freezer, I suggest “Grilled chicken thighs–what marinade?” rather than opening up the options to beefsteak that isn’t already in the house.
Solicitation also extend to meal prep. As much as possible, my kids are involved. These days, with Elder Minions, there are quite a few nights I can turn them loose on the kitchen with the meal options. The Eldest is great with the hamburger bun recipe, for instance, and The Boy even retained most of his eyebrows the last time he grilled the burgers. The Little Girls shred cheese, cut veggies and olives, stir things, and run detritus to the henfolk or garbage can as needed. Many hands make lighter work, even in our small cottage kitchen, and it’s part of their education, too.
Okay, I’m fired up about shopping next week… getting out the notebook for meal ideas with the kids this weekend!
Hit the Food Nifty/Meal Planning category, and you’ll see that feeding my brood has been a major theme all along. It’s just so WEIRD that they want to eat every single day!