Meal Planning For Real Life
Food is at the foundation of parenting. We all need to eat, and we all deserve to enjoy it. But the bar on family meals has gotten a lot higher in recent years, with health scares about childhood obesity and nutrition, worries about the developmental importance of family meals, and the ever-present food- and homemaking-perfection imagery in the media. Add to that the time it takes to pull off serving a balanced meal, and it’s no wonder that feeding the family ends up feeling like yet another task on a very long to-do list.
Choosing, shopping for, preparing, and enjoying our meals is at the center of family life, so it stands to reason that it should nourish more than our bodies. Mealtime can and ought to be an enjoyable, integrated part of the family system. By streamlining the process, bringing expectations down to earth, and injecting some fun, you’ll increase the odds of getting good food on the table and enjoying it with your family.
Feeding Your Family with a Minimalist Mind-Set
We love food. I mean, we really love it. But we’re not immune to the factors that can turn meal making into a chore. It’s no wonder we’re feeling a little inadequate: it sometimes seems as if one needs a degree in nutrition to keep up with all the changing standards and a year in chef school to turn out five gourmet meals per week. But such expectations don’t reflect reality! You can eat well, enjoy mealtimes with your family, and stick to a reasonable grocery budget without having to jump through every nutritional and culinary hoop. It all starts with you.
How Do You Feel About Food?
Before you start planning next week’s meals, take a few minutes to acknowledge your feelings about food and cooking, because they’ll guide the planning process.
• Do you enjoy cooking or would you rather “assemble and heat” or get takeout?
• Do you enjoy eating or are you just as happy to grab whatever’s available as long as it’s filling and relatively nutritious?
• Do you consider grocery shopping a fun outing or a dreaded chore?
• Are there particular meals you like to prepare more than others? (Perhaps you’re a lover of big breakfasts or a whiz with the grill?)
• Do you enjoy planning meals in advance, or do you prefer to let what’s in season inspire your cooking?
• How would your partner answer these questions?
There are no wrong answers here. If cooking relaxes you and brings you joy, great. But don’t feel guilty if food isn’t your cup of tea—there are plenty of ways to feed your family well without devoting yourself to the kitchen. Knowing and accepting your unique baseline is always the place to start.
What’s Your Family’s Situation?
Let’s think practically for a moment. How do the dinnertime hours look for you and your family? Two working parents who pick the kids up from child care at 5:30 p.m. every weekday have very different needs than a family with an at-home parent and three kids under four years of age.
Ask yourself these questions about your family’s situation:
• What time do you and your partner get home each day? Do you need meals you can throw together quickly, or is someone home to get dinner started earlier in the day? Does one of you regularly get home after dinnertime?
• How much hands-on help do your kids need during mealtime? Are you working with high chairs and baby food, or are your kids cutting up their own waffles and pouring their own milk?
• What about after-school activities? Are the predinner hours spent shuttling kids to practices and classes? Are the kids even home at dinnertime?
• Does anyone in your family have special dietary needs?
Every family’s answers will look different. You may even find that your answers cause you to take a second look at some of your family’s choices about work schedules and extracurricular activities. Or not! If you’re happy with how your schedule is laid out, there’s a way to feed your family that will work with it. Yes, sit-down dinner is lovely and it’s something we consider to be an important touch point. But it is not a nightly requirement for a well-connected family and well-adjusted kids.
We’ve never been big on after-school activities in my family, simply because my husband and kids need lots of unstructured “recovery” time between school, work, and other activities. We’re also both fortunate enough to work at home, so long commutes don’t affect our mealtimes and we sit down to dinner together most every night. But I know other families who juggle multiple kids, jobs, and sports activities, and dinnertime for them looks like a buffet with a revolving door. It takes planning, but they make it work beautifully—while dinner warms in the oven or slow cooker, kids come and go, sharing a meal with whichever parent is on duty that evening. They have their big family meal every Sunday evening—and it’s “breakfast for dinner.” They schedule their mealtime family connection for a time that naturally fits into their family’s rhythm.
Getting Your Family Fed with a Plan
Now that you have a good sense of your feelings about food and the practicalities of your family’s overall situation, you can map out a minimalized plan for getting everyone fed.
Planning Meals: Keep It Simple
When you hit the grocery store without a plan, you can spend an hour shopping only to return home feeling as if you have nothing to eat. Somehow, the granola bars, apples, broccoli, and milk you bought are not magically coming together as a meal!
Meal planning takes a few minutes, but it will save you hours (and stress) during the week. Even so, it’s easy to let it fall by the wayside. A good way to start is to plan the week’s meals before you hit the grocery store. Even if you prefer to shop and cook seasonally, having even the bare bones of a plan will save you so much time and mental bandwidth. Write your menu ideas on a piece of paper (Asha uses the flip side of her shopping list) or plug them into your calendar.
Start by Looking at Your Schedule
Which nights are busiest for your family? Plan on leftovers, slow-cooker meals, takeout, or super-easy meals (breakfast for dinner!) on those nights.
Keep Meals Simple
No need for complicated entrees, coordinating side dishes, and homemade desserts. Simple food—quick pastas, simply seasoned broiled meats, and stir-fries—is easy to prepare, easy on the pocketbook, and easy to love. Mealtime accompaniments can be as simple as a platter of cut veggies and fruit, a bowl of baby carrots, or a pot of steamed rice. Come up with a few meals based on pantry or frozen items so you can always have the ingredients on hand.
Involve Your Family in Meal Planning
In order to increase the likelihood that people will eat (and enjoy) what is being prepared, and—perhaps more importantly—to spare you the responsibility of meal planning solo, get everyone involved. Survey your family for meal ideas. The nice thing about this approach is that invariably someone thinks of a great dish that the family enjoys that hasn’t been in rotation for a while.
Make the Meal Plan Visible to the Whole Family
Write down the suggestions somewhere easily visible. Christine likes to use the adhesive chalkboard circles in her kitchen, but the back of an envelope taped to the fridge or tacked to a corkboard works just as well.
Once you find a meal your family likes, repeat it! Most families look forward to a little predictability. You might even consider the old-fashioned-but-helpful meal-per-day approach (Monday: pasta, Tuesday: chicken . . . ). You can even repeat entire weekly meal plans.
While writing Minimalist Parenting, I decided that I needed to vastly reduce the amount of time and creative energy I spent on the weekly meal plan. I came up with a simple menu that repeated each week, including a meal built around a weekly rotisserie chicken. The plan also included neighborhood meal swaps: my neighbors and I shared the job of buying the chickens, salad, and bread and delivered them to each others’ houses each Monday. My kids’ reaction to certain meals was lukewarm, but we talked about balancing my need to simplify the plan with their need for nightly favorites. In the end, they understood the compromise, even though they weren’t particularly thrilled about it.
Don’t Forget About Lunch
Whether for yourself or your kids, don’t forget to plan some lunch options and make sure you add those items to the grocery list. We minimalize lunchtime (both at-home and packed for school) in the next chapter.
Add Extra Fruits and Veggies to Your List
We all could probably stand to eat more fruits and vegetables. Even if you don’t have a specific purpose for them, pick up extra fruits and veggies for snacking and bolstering leftovers. If you’re worried they won’t get eaten, consider good-quality frozen vegetables.
Plan for Double Portions
Certain meals, such as casseroles, soups, stews, and roasted vegetables, are worth doubling up. The prep isn’t much harder, but the result is another meal! Freeze leftovers for future meals or as components for meals later in the week.
Getting Help: Meal-Planning Services
If meal planning fills you with tension, there are some fantastic, reasonably priced services—for example, The Six O’Clock Scramble (the scramble.com) and Relish (relish.com)—that will do the meal planning for you. They generate the plan, the shopping list, and the recipes, and all you have to do is shop and cook. Most services are flexible enough to handle different dietary requirements and preferences.
If you’re shaking your head thinking, “There’s no way my picky kids would go for that,” consider that it might be an ideal way to introduce your family to new foods.
My kids are so much more receptive to meals that get served because they’re “on the plan” rather than because of my nutritional or culinary whims. Somehow having a neutral third party (the plan!) calling the shots changes the entire situation.
Streamlining Grocery Shopping
Now that you have your menu plan, it’s time to hit the store. Here are some things to keep in mind:
Don’t Forget the Grocery List
Once you embrace meal planning, your grocery list will be easier to generate. You can write up a new list each week, replenishing staples and supplies as you go along, or you can use a preprinted list you check off throughout the week. The beauty of posting a preprinted list? The whole family can add items as they notice the need.
I post a list on the fridge and encourage the whole family to add items. I then only buy what’s listed. Not only does it keep the grocery budget in check, it prompts my kids to step up and use the list if they really want something. Long-term, this also prepares them to do their own weekly grocery planning once they move out.
If Tech Helps You Streamline, Go for It
Some people prefer handwritten lists; others prefer smartphone apps.
Maddie via the Minimalist Parenting blog: I use GroceryIQ, a free grocery shopping app that occasionally offers coupons, to keep track of my grocery list. I share the account with my boyfriend, who can see the automatically updated list sorted by store. No more calls to ask if we need anything from the store! I also keep a recipe archive in Evernote. (I’m starting to sense a theme here: my grandmother had recipe cards, I have Android apps.) I link directly to the recipes and sort them in categories that I can refer back to when I’m making a grocery list. Having that list and sticking to it keeps our grocery bill down to very reasonable levels (even for New York!).
Shoot for Shopping Once a Week
Meal planning will help you reduce the total time you spend grocery shopping because you’ll have an accurate list of everything you need to get you through the week. Consider shopping at an all-in-one grocery store that includes household items as well. Remember—your time is valuable, and it might be worth compromising on the exact food item to save you a shopping trip.
Know Your Stores and Space Out the Trips
If shopping at a single store just won’t work for your family food- or budget-wise, split your shopping into multiple trips on different days. That way you can pick up any forgotten items later in the week at the second store.
Consider “Supplemental” Grocery Shopping
Is there a grocery store you can hit during in-between pockets of time? Say, while your kid is at soccer practice? With a menu plan and grocery list in hand, you can accomplish plenty in twenty minutes.
Investigate Healthy Convenience Foods
Supplement your cooking with healthy, ready-made items. Frozen vegetables have gotten a lot better over the years and, unlike the fresh versions, they don’t shrivel in your vegetable crisper and you don’t have to chop or wash them. Also, frozen fruits and vegetables are picked and frozen at their peak so they taste pretty good! Premade fresh salsa, hummus, and dips can turn a bowl of rice and beans or cut veggies into a meal or side dish. Asha’s local natural food grocery puts roasted organic chickens on sale once a week, and they end up costing the same as if she were to buy raw chicken and cook it herself.
Say Yes to Bulk Buying
Convenience foods are great, but are they worth the money? Some bulk items such as dried beans and grains—which initially seem like more work—are actually easy to fit into the weekly plan, especially if you use your freezer. Boiling a pot of beans takes time but very little prep or attention, and the cooked beans can be frozen for later use. Same goes for grains such as brown rice.
A caveat: if your definition of bulk buying includes a 128-ounce jar of mayonnaise from the warehouse store, you’re wise to consider the mental “cost” of having to rearrange your refrigerator contents to house it, come up with ways to use it up, and clean and recycle the empty container.
Outsource Grocery Shopping . . . and Even Some Food Prep
If grocery shopping is among your least favorite things to do and you don’t mind someone else shopping for you, opt for an online grocery shopping service such as Peapod.com. Some stores also offer an online ordering system so you can select your items in advance for pick up.
Shop with Your Kids
Taking kids with you to the grocery store is a double-edged sword. It takes longer. There’s the prospect of meltdown and the clamoring for junk food. And the chasing of children. But grocery shopping with kids can also be an opportunity to educate your kids about nutrition, money, and independence while spending time together—and it can even be fun. Here are a few basic operating tips to keep your shopping trip running smoothly.
At some point I decided to shift my perspective on grocery shopping and think of it as a fun activity with my kids. When I’m on my own with Violet, I look at grocery runs as a way to get out of the house and show her something new (if I just need a few items, I run with the jogging stroller and piggyback my own self-care). When I’m alone with Laurel, I use it as reconnection time. We chat, she serves as my helper, we enjoy some samples, and I usually offer her a treat (amazingly, she doesn’t always take me up on it). I know a lot of parents are skeptical about the fun factor, but we really end up having a good time.
One rainy weekend afternoon, the girls and I were getting a little stir crazy so I suggested we take care of the grocery shopping. Laurel resisted at first, as she tends to want to just hang out in her jammies all weekend long, but we eventually got out the door (I told her she could wear her jammies to the store, which she thought was awesome).
We ended up having a lovely time. It was one of Violet’s first times sitting in the shopping cart and Laurel was so excited to push Vi around and show her the store. It was incredibly sweet, and we got a chore done without it feeling like a chore. Laurel said, “Mom, keep asking me if I want to go to the grocery store. I know I usually say no, but it’s because I forget how fun it is.”
Enlist Your Older Child As a Helper
Kids love having a little control. Put your child in charge of checking items off the grocery list, bagging fruit (it’s okay if they pick one or two squishy items), turning on the peanut butter or coffee grinding machines, or tracking down items as you work your way through the store. Turn small jobs into a game that lets them sidestep boredom and temptation.
Encourage Them to Pick Something New
While in the produce section, ask your kids if there are any new vegetables or fruits they would like try. Offering your children autonomy to choose will help them get excited about eating whatever they select.
Breeze Past the Junk Food Aisles
Seriously. You’ll avoid much wheedling and cajoling. Some stores even have “family friendly” checkout lines with fewer tabloids and candy bars.
Don’t Let the Occasional Meltdown Deter You
Public meltdowns are maddening, but like anything in life, just because they happen once doesn’t mean they’ll happen every time. When kids grow up with the expectation of “grocery shopping manners,” they will eventually fall in line. The learning and the time you’ll have together are worth the wait.
Signing up for a community supported agriculture (CSA) share, stopping by a farmer’s market, or growing a backyard garden may at some level feel like more work, but such choices may support your newly-minimalized meal plan in other ways. The key is to find a way to source local that works for you but is not driven by guilt.
We were devoted to our CSA share for two years. I loved the variety of produce and the fact that picking up our share created an opportunity to talk to Laurel about the food cycle. It also encouraged her to eat more vegetables. However, the pickup location and time were not convenient for us, particularly as a one-car family. It turned our CSA from a beloved partner to a chore we grew to resent.
I realized I was carrying a lot of guilt and “should” feelings about the CSA, and that I could easily solve this problem by continuing to source local food in different ways—whether by patronizing local farms via our grocery store (which highlights local produce) or by shopping at one of the weekly farmer’s markets near our home.
Stefania Butler of citymama.typepad.com: The key to making the most out of the CSA delivery is to be sure that you process everything the day you get it. This means that each delivery day I spend about an hour washing and spin-drying greens, roasting or boiling root veggies, and chopping celery and carrots into sticks for lunches or dices for recipes throughout the week. It is so much easier to just grab already roasted beets and toss them into a salad (or grind into baby food with chicken and sweet potatoes) or toss prewashed spinach into a pan with olive oil and roasted garlic. Taking the time when you get your delivery will save you from throwing away unused produce a week later.
Food can be simple, nourishing, and fun. Aligning your family’s food style and scheduling, meal planning, and adopting a few tricks to streamline grocery shopping will go a long way in helping you figure out your family’s minimalized mealtime. Now it’s time to get on to the food preparation and eating!