|Meal Planning for Large Families|
Meal Planning has been a long-time practice of the "thrifty" and "frugal". With the economy struggling and many people in financial straits, meal-planning is becoming more popular in the mainstream because it is a proven method to control your grocery budget. Thing is, there are more benefits to meal planning than just saving money. One of the big pluses is that it can be a huge stress-reliever. One visitor to Lotsofkids told me that the discovery of the LOK Meal Chart generator literally changed her life. She would do the daily routine of fretting about what she would put on the table that evening. She created a 1-week plan and posted it on her refrigerator. The next day she was going about her daily routine and started to worry about what she was going to make that evening, then was overjoyed remembering her plan was set and it was one less thing she had to worry about.|
Some will tout time savings as a benefit of meal-planning. I'll agree that it's a benefit to know ahead of time what you're making, so you can pull out food to defrost, and don't waste time trying to pull a meal together. However, I think it should be noted that in order for it to work well, meal planning does require effort and time. Initially it takes a commitment of a few hours to get yourself set-up. After that, it can take anywhere from 10 minutes to a half an hour each week to make your plan. The good news is, once you get into the habit of planning, you'll get better at it and you'll find it goes a lot quicker than in the beginning.
Most people plan 1 week at a time. I am a big advocate of planning out ahead. 2 weeks is ideal. Personally I try to plan a month ahead. For the sake of this article, I am to use a 2-week model. Don't let that scare you, though. You can easily use the same principles to create a 1-week plan.
The vast majority of people plan dinner only. However, some families find it helpful to plan lunch and dinner, and some plan all 3 meals. Some people even plan snacks and drinks. Before starting, tou'll need to decide what you will be doing. If you are new to meal planning, I suggest starting with your main meal only (that may be lunch or dinner depending on your preference), and then working upwards
Note, in the description below, I have links to examples. While not all people will find the useful, there are a good number of our visitors who appreciate having examples to help them. Click in the link and the picture will open in a new window.
The first step is to get an inventory of your food. This is time-consuming, but it is important in giving you a good base to start off on for your plan. It doesn't have to be formal or fancy, just a quick list of your pantry items, cooking staples and spices, and freezer items. The first time you do this, take some extra time and make sure you get a thorough list.
Using your inventory, sit down and think of as many meals as you can make using just the ingredients on hand. Remember, you're not making your plan yet, you are just creating a list of meals and side-dishes. So, say you have ground beef in the freezer and 3 boxes of hamburger helper, you would put that down as one meal, noting any sides like veggies. Cross off the food items when they are earmarked for a meal.
After you've made the list of meals, look at what remains on your food inventory. Make a list of the meals you could make using those items, plus the purchase of a few more ingredient. For example, say you have 2 lbs of chicken legs, you could purchase refried beans and tortillas and make tacos one night.
When you are done, you should have 2 lists. The meals you could make now and a list of meals and grocery items you would need to buy to create additional dishes. Click for Picture
The next step is pretty simple. Label a sheet with the days of the week and using the lists you created, fill-in various meals. Remember to include any "special meals". If you have a birthday coming up on Wednesday and will be making pasta, fill that in first. Special meals can also include a dish you simply want to make, such as you have been craving fried chicken and planned to make it soon. After that, use your lists and fill in the rest of the days. Click for Picture
Personally, I try to focus the current week's menu main on dishes where I have all the ingredients on hand. The second week I focus on menu items which require me to buy something. Why do I do this? It helps me stay within budget. For example, if I plan to make chicken parmensan this week and I am out of cheese, I need to put it on my grocery list. I typically try to buy cheese on sale. If I cannot find it on sale, I either have to abandon my plan to make the dish this week or I have to buy the cheese at full-price. If chicken parm was on the following week's list, I could hold off and see if it is on sale next week, or I could try another store before then.
I typically find that my list of meals is usually longer than what I have available for the week. That is where extended planning comes in handy. I will jot those additional meals down for future weeks. I think the most important thing to remember is that meal planning is meant to reduce your stress level, not increase it. That is why you need to remember that meal plans are flexible. Particularly when extended planning. I tend to view Week 1 as a given, Week 2 as flexible, Week 3 as tentative, etc.
So, you should now have a meal plan. Next you need to review it and make your shopping list. Of course, when you are shopping, you'll also be buying other general grocery items, so how much you can "buy-ahead" will vary. Your first priority is items you will need for the current week, then the next week, then any extended planning meals. I find that meal planning is not only a means of feeding your family on a budget, but also a great way to slowly build up a reserve. Since I have an idea of what I will need for future meals, I can grab them when they are on sale.
Once you have gotten over the hump of the first plan, future weeks should be easier. Ideally, you should update your inventory list every time you shop, but I'll admit I'm bad at that. I usually update it once a month. Still, when you are consistently planning, you'll find you start getting a good idea of what you have on hand at any given time.
For me, with the weeks ahead somewhat mapped out, planning is that much easier. During my planning time I will sit down and view the upcoming week. Oftentimes there will be a meal that I had planned the previous week that didn't work out. I'll move that to one of the following weeks. During my shopping, I may have unexpectedly discovered a great deal on something and decided to do that instead, so I'll tweak the existing plan. Click for Picture
While it's not necessary, you may want to consider making a master list of your family's favorite meals. These should be the tried-and-trues that you eat on a regular basis. This list can be handy when you're trying to get ideas for meals to include in your plan.
This is something I highly recommend for every family, whether you meal-plan or not. I am not talking about disaster preparedness, but rather those times when you just don't have the energy to cook and are tempted to hit the drive-thru. These meals should not be included on your meal plan, but rather should be "quick-alternatives" for those times when the day is crazy and you just can't do what is on your plan. These can be convenience food items that are quick prep, or they can be freezer meals that you have pre-prepared and can make in a pinch. Frozen pizza is a good example of something to have on hand for quick and easy meals. Whatever your family's preference, try to keep 2-3 of these meals on hand at all times.
MEAL PLAN VARIATIONS
That is the key to any successful home management plan is understanding that one-size does not fit all. This includes meal-planning. For various reasons, the above method of meal planning may not work for you. Don't worry, there are other ways to utilize the benefit of meal planning.
Sometimes you simply cannot plan off what you have on-hand. This might be because you don't have sufficient reserves to work off of. Perhaps due to budget constraints, you had to live off your pantry for an extended period of time and don't have a lot available. Or maybe you don't have the kitchen space to store that much food, so buying ahead is simply not possible. Whatever the reason, you should still have an idea of what you have in the way of staples, plus a list of meals/recipes your family likes. Do your shopping as usual. When you come home, sit down and create a plan. Since it's very likely you bought items you won't use that week, note them for use in future meals.
Some people simply do not have the time (or patience) to plan every single week. A set plan might be the answer. How many weeks you plan depends on your family, and how often you feel comfortable repeating meals. The average is 6 weeks, but some people create as many as 12 weeks worth of meal. Then, starting with Week 1, you simply rotate through the weekly plans. Yes, this will mean that your family will be having the same meals in the same order, but there will be a lot of variety as they will not repeat the same meal that often. I have known moms who had a 6 month plan of meals. Of course, remember that this is flexible. If you want to do something different on one night, go ahead. However, having this extended schedule laid out is a lifesaver for many. To help keep variety, when making your 3-month plan, specifically leave days open so you can try new recipes or let the kids pick their favorite on that day. Also, you may want to create 2-sets of plans: one for colder months when you would include stews and oven-baked items, and a one for warmer months where you would include cold dishes, salads and barbequed items. Click for Example
One mom I know decided the best thing for her family was to simply create a list of their favorite meals. She picked the top 20-30 of her family's absolute favorites and posted it inside a cabinet door. When she is uninspired, she glances at the list and picks a meal. This one-time planning gives her the flexibility of making what she wants on any given day, but give structure for those days she doesn't have something specific in mind. It's also help because it allows kids to pick a dish they can make if mom (or dad) is unable to cook. This kind of list can also simply grocery shopping, and you can always have those recipes in mind and make sure you have the ingredients on hand. This helps alleviate stress in the grocery shopping area since there is not a lot of variation.
Having a list like this can be a good thing even if you do plan, since as mentioned before, it allows kids to fend-for-themselves if need be, but also gives you meal ideas if you decide you simply can't do what's listed on your formal plan for the day.
As mentioned above, you can plan all three meals using the same tips posts above. However, for some, making a chart for 3 meals can be difficult. To help with this, you could utilize the rotating menu for breakfast and lunch, meaning you could create a 4-week plan and use that. It would provide variety but still wouldn't mean doing additional planning for that meal.
What I have done personally is create a base menus for breakfast and lunch. Basically, I have a schedule for each day. Lunch can be any leftover, or the choice of 1-2 different items. So, for example, Monday your family would have a choice of leftovers or hot dogs, Tuesday they could have leftovers or some sort of pasta, etc. Planning snack may seem a bit odd, but schools do it all the time. Again, for us the best route was to have a set weekly schedule. Click for Example
For a period of time, I also had a plan for drinks. I don't currently have one now, but at the time my kids were drinking way too much milk. Plus, we do have soda in the house, but I only like it to be consumed during dinner. The kids were drinking it all through the day, which isn't healthy, but was also expensive since we were going through so much. Charting it out helped a lot since the kids knew what they could and could not have. Now that the drink situation is better, I don't have it on the chart--but thinking about it, I may go back to it since I still think the kids are drinking too much milk again and getting too many calories that way.
While it is not necessary, you may want to consider making a master list of your family's favorite meals. These should be the tried-and-trues that you eat on a regular basis. This list can be handy when you are trying to get ideas for meals to include in your plan.
While not necessary, there are a couple of things you can do that can help make your meal-planning go smoother.
Organizes Your Recipes
This means dusting off your recipe box and taking stock of your tried-and-trues. It also means pulling out that folder of recipe clippings you've saved over the years. I find that meal planning is a great way for me to try new recipes. How many times have you seen a great dish you clip from a magazine, put in your box, and 2 years later find it again and think, "why didn't I make that?" I make it point to try 1-2 recipes per month. I keep a list of new recipes on my computer and when planning, I simply add one to a future week. This gives me enough time to familiarize myself with the recipe and incorporate the ingredients into my shopping list.
Take Note of the Sales Flyer
Meal planning around the sales at your local grocers is another way to maximize your savings. When planning you meal, try to incorporate foods and ingredients which are on sale. If you clip coupons, you can also plan around those items. Most stores have sales flyers in the local paper or in direct-mailings. However, if you don't get either of those, you'll find most stores have websites that feature their weekly specials (and sometimes unadvertised specials). Many stores allow you to sign up to receive sales information through email.
Save your Old Meal Charts
To some, this may seem silly, but there is a lot of merit in saving your old lists. First of all, we don't always remember every dish we made and if you happen to make one your family liked and forgot what it was, you have a reference to go back to. Also, having past lists lets you know the last time you had a certain meal. Your kids may be complaining they are sick and tired of the same dishes. Looking at your old charts, you may discover it's been 4 months since you've had meatloaf, which your kids love. Also, past charts can simply be inspiration. There are weeks where we just can't seem to put a list together. There's nothing wrong with repeating a list from a year ago, or taking elements from several lists and putting together your current one.
Post Your Plan
When you have your plan, print it out and post it on the refrigerator. I actually put up a clear copy holder on my wall so I can insert my plan and keep it free from dirt and tears. Keeping your plan in site helps remind you to follow it. It also lets your family know what you're having, so you don't have to keep answer the question "what's for dinner?" I also find that having the plan available allows my family to pitch-in without asking. If my son sees we are having tacos for dinner, he will start cutting tomatoes and getting some of the other prep done, which makes less work for me to do.
Join a Meal Planning Group or Club
There are many blogs and forums where the participants post their weekly plan. Joining one a group like that is a great way to keep yourself motivated. It's also a good way to find inspiration as you can learn other meal-planning techniques and discover recipes you may not have heard of.
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