As our family has grown, however, and I’ve realized how important meal planning is to my husband, I’ve tried to find ways to more effectively plan meals for our family and to rely less on prepared foods and take out. (In any case, we are making an effort to be better stewards of our financial resources, and prepared and take out foods are definitely a more expensive way to eat, especially with two little boys who can eat as much as I do sometimes!) Last year, when I was pregnant with M, I discovered the Like Mother, Like Daughter blog, which has wonderful worksheets to help develop a meal plan. The thing I liked about the worksheets is that they don’t force you to use meal ideas that aren’t a part of your family’s repertoire. She first has you list all the meals that your family likes to eat, and the whole process of meal planning proceeds from there. I used her worksheets to develop a master menu for Lent, and we had a great Lent last year, at least meal-wise. I felt that I had finally conquered the meal planning monster.
After Lent, we began the Paschal season (the 40 days after Easter), and I found myself struggling again. I had made a master menu for ordinary time that included vegan and non-vegan meals, in accordance with the fasting rules of the Orthodox Church, but my original master menu was heavily reliant on several meals that I suddenly found I couldn’t eat any more due to allergy concerns, or were recipes that I’d tried once and our family didn’t like them. I continued to use the master menu for ideas, but increasingly found myself at a loss when thinking about a meal plan for the week. There were many meals that I made and then couldn’t eat myself, and there was so much that didn’t appeal to me. I think this is the biggest hurdle for me with cooking. I don’t mind it, as long as I don’t have to eat it myself. Most of the time, what I make doesn’t taste that great to me. And therefore seems completely unappealing when trying to make a plan.
After a while, I developed a kind of short hand with meal planning, and our meal routine became extremely monotonous, especially after I became pregnant again in late December. I was still using a monthly planner to make a meal plan for each week, but I was having a hard time with execution. Because of the challenges of grocery shopping in the city, I still shopped every day or every other day. Oddly enough, the frequency of my shopping trips seemed to undermine my meal plans. As my most recent pregnancy progressed, we entered what I like to term The Summer of My Discontent. I think I’ve mentioned that we live in a row home without air conditioning, and every summer there are several weeks that top 100 degrees. With about 70% humidity or higher. This summer, I was in my third trimester of a somewhat challenging pregnancy, and we had weeks and weeks and weeks of temperatures around 100 degrees with extremely high humidity. (Did I mention that my daughter was born just in advance of a hurricane? It was one of several extreme weather events we had this summer). The temperature inside our house hovered between 85 and 87 degrees for much of July and August and didn’t cool down at night. My meal plans flew out the window as I tried to find meals that didn’t require anything in the kitchen to be turned on. I craved watery fruits and cool yogurts and not much else, but my husband and sons wanted more substantial fare every night. I do confess that we had more than a few sandwich nights, and ate a particular cold pasta salad quite a lot this summer (for my Orthodox readers, omit cheese and substitute 2 cans chickpeas and you have a wonderful fasting dish).
After our daughter was born at the end of August, I realized that I needed to get on top of meal planning. With a housemate, two growing boys, one of whom needed lunches packed every day for preschool, and the witching hour made that much more chaotic with three, I happened upon a blog that mentioned a meal rotation schedule. I was intrigued. Basically, with a meal rotation, you pick a generic rotation of dishes that you then just have to input the specifics every week. So if Mondays are pasta night, you can plan to have spaghetti one Monday, lasagna the next, and so forth. That way if you eat fish every Friday, you just plan a different fish dish, and so on. The rotation plan appealed to me a lot because it gave me a framework on which to hang many of the recipes that skulk in my cookbooks. I sat down one morning and came up with our meal rotation and it looks like this:
Monday: Meat or dairy-based soup with salad
Wednesday: Vegan soup
Friday: Vegan bean/lentil dish
Saturday: New recipe/leftovers
One of our week’s menus looked something like this:
Sunday: Sloppy Joes (my mother's from-scratch iteration)
Monday: Provencal Beef Stew with pumpkin bread (from
Tuesday: Lemon Olive Turkey
Wednesday: Turkish Lentil Soup (I use 1 c. bulgar wheat to make it thicker)
Thursday: Company Casserole (a pasta based Italian-type dish)
Friday: Mujddarah (a Middle Eastern lentil/rice/onion dish)
Saturday: Hamburger pie (an old family recipe that I've been tweaking for several years)
While I can’t say why this is so, meal planning suddenly became easier for me. I could make a month’s worth of menus very quickly. I didn’t always stick to the rotation, but at least the framework provided a launching pad for my menus.
I went shopping the following Saturday to pick up the ingredients for the week, and when I got home, I thought perhaps I would make one or two things ahead to make the week easier. Several hours later, I had made up everything on my menu, and even had enough of several meals to freeze half for a rainy day. That week went so smoothly! I could simply reheat what I had made on Saturday, add a veggie or grain on the side and we had a hot nutritious meal on the table before my children started gnawing their arms off and whining with hunger. I also spent far less on groceries than in the past because I only went the one time. I found that we had many more leftovers, which my husband likes to take for his lunches at work.
I decided this rotation thing might just work for us. I’ve spent the last three Saturdays cooking up a storm and our freezer is pretty full with frozen meals ready for a rainy day. As our freezer is fairly small, I’m thinking those rainy days might have to come in October, but that is fine too. I do realize that planning to spend a significant part of every Saturday cooking may not be sustainable, but I’m hoping to find ways to work around those weeks when we are busy on the weekends. I will also say that I've taken a few short cuts during those marathon cooking sessions, such as buying precut onions, and preshredded cheese and the like. I know it costs a little more to do so, but it saves me time in the kitchen, and that is worth a little extra to me if it means not having to rely on take out or put up with chaos during dinner prep during the week.
I will also say that it is challenging to get a whole week’s worth of groceries home in one go on foot, but it is so much more challenging to get to the grocery store with two non-walking children during the week that I think I’ll make it a priority to work it out. (Besides, I’ve got to get some exercise somehow—this post-baby jelly belly isn’t going to go away on its own!) I'm also concerned when we get back into a season of fasting such as the Nativity Fast, or Lent, because my fasting repertoire is getting pretty boring, but I'll cross that bridge when I come to it. I think, in the end, it will be worth sticking to this method. It’s not perfect, and there have been one or two nights where things didn’t quite go as planned with the side dishes. (I completely scorched my steam pan while trying to make broccoli one night, for example. I had to deal with a potty crisis, break up a fight between the boys, change a diaper or two, then the baby needed to be nursed Right. Now. and in the ensuing chaos, I forgot about the pan on the stove until it had boiled dry and then some). But for the most part it is working for us. Oh, and some of the food even tastes good to me.