Making Meals Easier

Meal planning could be the answer if you:

Want your family to eat better

Intend to stick to a grocery budget

Are interested in trying new dishes

Have a challenging, busy schedule

Want to simplify decisions about what to cook

Are tired of not knowing the answer to that timeless question, “What’s for dinner?”

If you answer in the affirmative to any or all of these questions, why not give meal planning a try? We can help you get started.

Things To Consider

The beauty of meal planning is that it can work in a variety of situations. That’s because you create the plan that works best for you. We’ll give you proven ideas and helpful suggestions for how to create and stick to a plan, but ultimately, you’re in control. Even better, you can “tweak” and customize the plan as you go along, making it work better for your family.

A meal plan doesn’t have to be the same every week. If your kids have extracurricular activities certain nights of the week or your work schedule fluctuates on specific days, take commitments and schedules into account as you create the plan. And remember: The goal is to simplify, not complicate!

For hectic weeks, it can help to choose recipes that can be prepared in a slow cooker or made ahead of time and just popped into the oven when you walk in the door.

For meal planning to be successful, it helps to think of it as a puzzle. By choosing recipes that have similar and/or overlapping ingredients each week, you can streamline the process. Let’s say you want to make lasagna as one of your meals. Look over the recipe and then choose a second recipe you can make with some of the same ingredients. For example, make lasagna one night and chili pie another night that week, as both recipes call for ground beef, cheese, onion and some of the same seasonings. This makes it easier to stick to the plan but also prevents waste and controls the budget because you’re not buying completely different ingredients for each recipe.

You’ll also want to consider what’s in season and on sale when looking for recipes and deciding what to make.

Look at your individual family’s needs and preferences. If you pack lunches, choose recipes that will provide leftovers or at least part of the next day’s lunch. Tonight’s roast chicken can become tomorrow’s chicken salad. Start thinking of meals as being connected to one another instead of stand-alone.

Make It Happen

For starters, if you can spare some time to be sucked into the online vortex that is Pinterest, you’ll find a wide variety of posts about menu and meal planning. It’s an incredible way to find inspiration and resources.

If you haven’t done it already, allocate a grocery budget so you know how much you can spend.

Once you know what the week holds, write your schedule on a calendar and note which days you need meals for. Some people start meal planning for just a couple dinners a week and expand from there. Others start big and plan for every night of the month. There is no right or wrong plan, but it’s always easier to expand than downsize, so you may want to be less ambitious in the beginning and then add more scheduled meals to the calendar as you get the swing of things.

If you’re the sort that likes ready-made forms, just go online and search “meal planning calendars.” You’ll find numerous ones available for free download. Check out:

Don’t over think the calendar part of the process! Use whatever is easiest for you, whether that’s a legal pad, a collection of 3×5 note cards, a digital version or printable template you download.

Now, it’s time to gather and organize recipes. This is the fun part. You can go online or peruse your cookbooks and magazines, or a combination of both. Good online sources for recipes include:

If you’re specifically searching for healthy recipes, check out:

When you find recipes online, they can be added to an online “recipe box.” You can also use a note-clipping app on your smartphone; Evernote is one such app.

Or, you can go “old school” and print out the recipes and start saving them in a three-ring binder, tucking them into plastic sleeves, if you like. As you prepare each recipe, you may want to jot notes in the margin. If the kids love it, it’s a keeper. The goal is to begin building a master list of go-to meals. The more you do this, the easier meal planning becomes over time. Eventually, you can pull from the master list of tried-and-true recipes each week and also work in one or two new recipes to try.

Recipes typically include prep time and cooking time. Because efficiency is likely one of your goals in meal planning, aim for recipes that take an hour or less to cook.

Make your grocery list, making sure you have the necessary ingredients for each recipe. Check your pantry beforehand to see what you already have.

Go shopping. You can shop for a few days at a time or a week or more. It’s up to you.

Decide which meals to cook first. A simple way to do this is to make recipes with the most perishable ingredients first. Opting for “theme nights” also helps determine when to make certain meals. For example, one family I know always designates Tuesday as “Mexican food night.” It might be tacos one week and burritos the next, but it’s always the same theme. You might want Friday to be “pizza night” or “soup night,” even though you vary the type of pizza or soup from week to week.

Prepare ahead as much as possible. Think like a restaurant chef. Prep food by chopping, slicing and dicing the night before after you’ve put the kids to bed. Let’s say Tuscan Bean Soup is on the menu for the next day. You can chop the onions and potatoes, slice the sausage and store overnight in the fridge in airtight containers. Then, tomorrow evening, just add the prepped items and remaining ingredients to your stock pot and cook.

If you’ve chosen a slow cooker recipe, you can still prep the night before. Just place the ingredients in the slow cooker the next day, turn it on and head to work, knowing dinner is taken care of.

You can let the family know what’s cooking by displaying the week’s meals on a weekly menu board. This can be as basic as a blackboard in the kitchen, or you can get crafty and create a unique menu board like those you’ll find on Pinterest. If yours is a “techy” family, you may prefer making a sub-calendar in a calendar app, such as Google or Outlook. Share it with each family member so they can access the app on their smartphones and know what’s for dinner without asking.

Finally, savor the fruits of your labor. Preferably, with the whole family sitting down at the table together. You’ve taken the time to make a home-cooked meal for people you love—enjoy it!

Posted in Ocala Style Features

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