Oh no! Arghh. Who has time to plan? When I first thought about planning our meals I thought I can not possibly make a plan and write it down. But then it occurred to me that I do it in my head anyway, and at least some times I even have a shopping list, in order to not forget, right? So here is the deal: you can do planning at many levels, quickly thinking about it is planning already. Planning assists you in two ways:
- It will reduce the grocery bill; and
- It helps you in your "upgrading" the quality of food you serve your children.
You have probably been told many times to plan your meals and unless you were really forced by circumstances (such as your child developed food allergy or your budget has been radically reduced) you probably have not done it.
Here is an opportunity to customize this website for your needs and learn to do a plan just sufficient for you to get the benefits out of it, nothing more.
The first step in this customization process is to record what your children eat for two weeks. Unless you already plan a good deal of your meals there is no reason to shortcut this step, just record what your children ate every day (at home and outside the home).
The first thing I realized after I asked my friends and acquaintances to record what their children ate is that most of us have a somewhat limited repertoire of what we offer to our children, and in outside-the-home situations we have much less control than we would like. From the planning perspective this is actually good news, makes it easier.
So after you have written down what your children actually ate let's look at the groups of foods and how you acquire them:
- Breakfast: You probably wrote down some type of cereal and maybe instant oatmeal with some milk and fruit juice.
- Lunch:Let's assume it's a school lunch or a lunchbox with sandwich, chips, and a juice.
- Dinner:Of the seven dinners a week, you probably prepare some (maybe with frozen foods), you probably have a pizza night, a casserole night, a pasta night, and a take-out night or diner dinner thrown in.
- Snacks:In the car and on the playground, during recess and at play-dates, the least controllable of all meals.
The way to approach planning is not to throw in something unrealistic, but to start with what you do already and alter it in small steps.
So starting with planning breakfast - if you would like to upgrade your child's breakfast you have several ways to go. You can plan for mixing up the usual cereal with less sugar or more-fiber grains, switch from instant oatmeal to rolled oats, or add protein such as an egg. These items go to your shopping list.
For dinner I suggest that you do the same method. If you serve pizza one night, see if you can upgrade it by a) adding vegetable puree to the sauce, b) adding a fresh vegetable to the sauce (these two you can do even if you eat frozen or take-out), or c) changing the crust into whole wheat. Whichever you decide to do, the new item goes straight to the shopping list. Check out ideas at Upgrading Your Meal.
Once you look at meals from this angle, you start to look at ingredients, not "food products" you take from the shelves, and you can really take advantage of planning. You can look at leftovers, and plan successive dinners by using the remaining ingredients from the meal before as the base for a new meal. The classic is the roast chicken, chicken quesadilla, chicken soup following each other in successive days. You take a different look at what is in season as well, what vegetable is fresh and on sale in the store which you can combine with pasta or rice or put on top of pizza, and the chicken from Monday. So you start to look at food magazine covers in the store for inspiration. When you get to the point of thinking what protein (fish or chicken or beef or soy) with what carbohydrate (dough or rice or pasta or couscous) with what vegetable or fruit (salsa or topping or salad), your planning will make your time spent on acquiring your meals that much more efficient. You still cook using only a few techniques but your repertoire widens. You also develop shortcuts and your own convenience food - freeze up stews, soups, rice, have pasta and pesto and a can of beans in the pantry for when the fridge is empty.
This is not a rigid method of planning, it is just good enough to guide you in the store, leaving you with enough flexibility and some frustration, but a reduced grocery bill and a whole level better quality food.