Meal planning can be very frustrating. Every day we have to ask ourselves, “what’s for dinner?” Unfortunately, the cook is usually the person who has to answer that, and it can get tough to come up with something different every day. With our busy lifestyles, shopping for and cooking a healthy family meal regularly can cost us a huge chunk of time. However, it’s a task that must be done at least weekly, if not daily. Where do menu ideas come from? How do you know what groceries and ingredients to buy? How can meal planning be made simple for busy people?
As with most tasks, the practical solution comes from boiling the problem down to a simple level. You need healthy meals which the family, especially the kids, will like. You need ideas for what to cook. You need the ingredients in that pantry, not at the store. Already, by listing out our needs, we’ve found our key points: flavor, health, menu, and ingredients. Let’s take those one by one.
First, flavor. If your family doesn’t like the meal you cook, you may as well have gotten take out and saved yourself the trouble. Make a list of foods your family likes, and foods they refuse to eat. For example, my family likes pasta, chicken, seafood, pizza, and mexican food. They hate broccoli, stew, oats, and lima beans. Already, we’ve got a starting place for our meal plan.
Second, we look at health. How can we take the foods our family likes and make them more healthy? There are actually hundreds of tips and tricks we can use. For a pasta dish, we can disguise whole wheat noodles in a yummy distracting sauce. Chicken can be much healthier for us if it is baked with some margarine, herbs, and rice instead of fried in oil. Many vegetables can be slipped quietly into a casserole, placed under cheese on a homemade pizza, or drizzled with a honey glaze to make them more palatable to kids. These tips are easily found on the internet. See the resources listed below for some good starting points.
Third comes menu planning. Now is the time for some domestic science. Keep in mind which foods can be stored the longest, and which will go bad quickly. Fresh vegetables, breads, and seafoods need to be served early. Other ingredients like chicken, frozen or canned veggies, and pasta can be stored for much longer. Let’s plan a weekly menu, taking ingredient storage into account as well as variety and healthy foods. When we’re done with this step we’ll find that step number four, making the ingredient list, is already done!
We’ve decided that we’d like to serve chicken, seafood, pizza, and other items from our “foods they like” list. Your family will probably like different things than mine, so keep in mind that this menu may not be the best for everyone. However, as we go through the planning together, you will see why certain choices are made, and these can easily help you with you own unique menu plans. For now, let’s create seven complete dinners, each with healthy side dishes. An excellent combination is one meat, one starch, and one vegetable.
Since we want to serve seafood this week that meal should come first, because fish and shellfish don’t keep for long. Since fresh vegetables go bad quickly too, and go well with seafood, let’s make our first meal one of fish and veggies. Now, we could grill the fish and have side dishes of vegetables and rice (for our starch), but it’s easier to ignore or refuse a side of broccoli all on its lonesome. Let’s try to make it fun for the kids while easy on us. How about shish kebabs? Salmon is a firm-fleshed tasty fish, which can easily be cut into cubes. Pick two or three vegetables your family won’t object to, like tomatoes, onions, or bell peppers. The beauty of shish kebabs is that you can pick and choose what your family likes best. Assemble kebabs with the kids’ help if possible, as that can be a fun project. Then simply brush them with light olive oil and grill them under the oven broiler. Make plenty of rice and store half in the refrigerator for later. If the kids object to veggies, try brushing on a bottled sweet and sour sauce instead of oil. The mild sweetness will often make kids overlook the fact that they’re eating something healthy.
Since we have one meal planned, let’s add it to our grocery list. Salmon, tomatoes, onions, bell pepper, rice, olive oil, and sweet and sour sauce. Hey, this isn’t so hard!
Let’s be a little sneaky now and make a meal which we can use for leftovers later. Chicken is always good for this, and if we eat it now, a few days can pass before we use the leftovers, and no one will complain that they “just had chicken!” Let’s go with a classic baked chicken. A simple recipe would be to rub butter on the chicken, sprinkle on some salt and pepper, and bake it in a casserole dish. Since we’re baking anyway, why not add some cut up red potatoes, fresh veggies from yesterday, and garlic to the casserole dish as well? That’s an easy way to make a well rounded meal in one pan. Also, it will help use up the rest of our fresh vegetables before they go bad.
For our second meal of the week, we need only add to the grocery list chicken, red potatoes, butter, and garlic.
Bread is another item which goes stale quickly, so why not have fun with some pizza now? A very simple way to make this is to buy a loaf of french bread and cut it into slices. Add some creamy garlic dressing or pizza sauce from a jar, veggie and meat toppings our family likes (we’ll use mushroom and green onions), garlic, and grated mozzarella cheese. Reserve some of the cheese and pepperoni for later in the week. Bake for 10 minutes and now we have a meal which is fun to eat and includes a meat, starch, and vegetable. It’s not the healthiest of our meals, but it’s far better than a pie from the pizza place, which usually comes dripping in grease. Since you’ve got bread left over, let’s cut it into cubes today so we can use it later. Store these in the fridge.
Let’s add to our third meal to the grocery list: french bread, pizza sauce, mozzarella cheese, pepperoni slices, mushrooms, and green onions.
Going back to our “foods they like” list, we see Mexican food is an option we haven’t used yet. Let’s have tacos! These are yet another opportunity to sneak in some fresh vegetables. Here’s our chance to use that old standby, ground beef. Buying in bulk can save a lot of money, so we’ll get two pounds and use half today. Brown one pound, then put half of it in the fridge for tomorrow. Add taco seasoning to your remaining half pound of ground beef, heat some refried beans in the microwave, chop up tomatoes and lettuce, and grate some cheddar cheese. As usual, reserve some cheese for later in the week. For our starch, let’s use the rice you’ve got waiting in the fridge. Cooking rice in a fry pan with some salsa and light oil makes a wonderful, easy mexican rice side dish. Let the kids assemble their own tacos if they’re old enough, and you’ve both entertained them and cut back on some of your work.
Our grocery list for meal number three includes ground beef, taco seasoning, refried beans, lettuce, cheddar cheese, salsa, and taco shells.
For our fourth meal, let’s go with pasta. We’ve got french bread we need to use up, as well as tomatoes, onion, and garlic. If we have enough vegetables left, we could make a nice fresh sauce by crushing them in the food processor and cooking them with spaghetti sauce seasoning. If not, we can use a can of tomato paste to augment the sauce. Add in the half pound of beef you cooked yesterday, which will save quite some time. Boil noodles and drain, add the sauce, and make some nice toasty garlic bread with your remaining french loaf, butter, and garlic. For a vegetable, salad always goes well with spaghetti, and you’ve got lettuce left from yesterday’s tacos that you’ve got to use soon. Add sliced pepperoni and grated mozzarella from pizza night for a robust salad.
Meal number four only requires spaghetti noodles!
By now, meal planning has gotten a little tricky. We’re running out of ingredients that can be stored for long! Also, we’ve had beef twice in a row and it’s time to make a more exciting dinner, to forestall any complaints about leftovers. What can we make that is exciting, not beef, and doesn’t require completely fresh ingredients? One answer is pork fried rice. For your pork you could use frozen pork sausage, or char siu. Char siu is a traditional barbecued pork which holds up well in the fridge and adds a wonderful authentic flavor to fried rice. If it’s not available in your area, however, any frozen pork sausage will do well. Chop and cook your pork along with some teriyaki sauce. Make rice, and cook it a bit more with the pork in a large fry pan. Frozen vegetables selected specifically for stir fry can be added too, giving us once again our meat, starch, and vegetable. If you add them at the end of cooking, they’ll stay crisp. For even more interest, try adding two eggs when the fried rice is nearly done, stirring gently until they are cooked and mixed with the rice. Alternatively, you could make a pork stir fry with just the meat and vegetables, and serve the rice on the side.
We’re adding the following to our shopping list: char siu, teriyaki sauce, eggs, and frozen stir fry vegetables.
For our sixth meal, let’s really start taking advantage of leftovers. We’ve got ground beef on hand that we need to use, but are out of fresh vegetables. We still have potatoes and cheese, though, which go well with beef. How about a main dish of meatloaf, with a side of au gratin potatoes? Mix your remaining ground beef with bread crumbs, egg, and a packet of onion soup mix. We’ll want a sauce to go on the meatloaf, and you could use ketchup, barbecue sauce, or even the rest of your sweet and sour sauce if you want to be adventurous. For my family, we’ll go with barbecue sauce. Form the meat mixture into a loaf, brush with sauce, and bake. The potatoes are easy as well, and again we can bake them alongside the main entree. Slice them fairly thin, layer them in a casserole dish with the last of your shredded cheddar cheese, add a little milk, cover and bake. For a vegetable, heat some canned green beans or corn.
Here is our sixth meal of the week already, and we’re adding to the list: bread crumbs, onion soup mix, barbecue sauce, and milk.
Meal number seven can take advantage of the leftovers once again, such as the chicken and french bread we didn’t finish earlier. Boil the chicken carcass you refrigerated, strain out any leg bones and gristle, and then boil egg noodles in the stock. This is another opportunity to add vegetables such as carrots and celery, which can make a hearty noodle soup. Serve this with toasted cubes of french bread for a meal of true comfort food. By brushing a little olive oil on our bread cubes and setting them under the broiler for a few minutes, we can make homemade croutons while disguising the fact that we bought our french loaf almost a week ago. Note that we’ve managed yet again to fit in meat, starch, and vegetables too.
Adding our seventh meal of the week to our ingredient list, we need only buy egg noodles and packaged celery and carrot sticks, which will easily last in the fridge for a week.
Congratulations – the meal planning is complete! By planning a full week of dinners ahead of time, we’ve created a menu full of unique hearty dishes which take advantage of fresh healthy foods, but still allow you to go grocery shopping only once a week. If you create four or five of these meal plans, you can simply pull a different one out each week and reuse it without having to make a new one every seven days. Your family will have foods they like, and won’t be eating the same things over and over. The keys to meal planning are using fresh foods early in the week, buying some foods which can be stored for longer, keeping variety a priority, and using leftovers to stretch a food budget.
If you’d like to use this meal plan as a starting point, you can use this convenient shopping list which we created above.
- Whole chicken
- Pepperoni slices
- Ground beef
- Char siu or Pork sausage
- DAIRY AND EGGS
- Mozzarella cheese
- Cheddar cheese
- Bell peppers
- Red potatoes
- Green onions
- Frozen stir fry vegetables
- Packaged celery and carrot sticks
- BREADS, GRAINS, AND BEANS
- French bread
- Spaghetti noodles
- Egg noodles
- Taco shells
- Bread crumbs
- Refried beans
- SAUCES AND MIXES
- Sweet and sour sauce
- Taco seasoning
- Pizza sauce
- Teriyaki sauce
- Onion soup mix
- Barbecue sauce
- Olive oil
Of course, we’ve only addressed dinners in this list. Depending on how many people are in your family, keep in mind that many of these dishes can double as lunches the next day. How about a meatloaf sandwich? Nachos made from the remaining taco shells, refried beans, salsa, and cheese? Chicken noodle soup with a salad? And, of course, you’ve got plenty of milk and eggs for breakfasts.
Hopefully this article has given you some ideas on how to answer that age-old question, “what’s for dinner?” With a little organization, a few internet resources, and a knowledge of what your family likes to eat, you can make grocery shopping and meal planning much easier on yourself!