Most meal plans out there miss most of the steps I address (or will) in this meal planning series. They focus so much on arbitrarily picking meals to put in your weekly meal planner that people often fail to actually execute any or all of these meal ideas week after week.
That's why I don't start with this step, nor is it where this meal planning series ends.
I would be doing you a great disservice if I guided you over to Pinterest to start pinning away any and every recipe that looks appealing. While we have all been guilty of doing this, it needs to stop.
It isn't serving you well.
I also wouldn't be serving you well if all I gave you were ideas. I think more parents need a new routine to meal planning than they need new recipes.
That's why in this post, I will guide you through how to pick the items that go in your meal plan a bit more methodically.
Here is how:
1. Pick your family's favorite cuisines.
Create a loose outline of your family favorites that you would put on a weekly rotation. Some examples of other family's favorites are as follows. These were answers to a question I asked as part of a recent survey I conducted among Veggies & Virtue subscribers being, "Which weekly dinner offerings does your family tend to prefer? (Select all that apply.)"
2. Plan which night you will serve which cuisine.
Based on the calendar demands outlined in Step 1, plug in which cuisine you want to make each night of the week. While you don't have to organize your meal plan this way, it eliminates some of the guesswork out of what to make each week. When you already have five or so favorite cuisines/meal types outlined as part of your weekly meal plan, all you have to do is pick from a select few recipe options for any given night.
Based on our schedule and the foods we enjoy eating, this is what our family's weekly rotation looks like:
"Simple Sundays" --> Bible study at church --> Need a simple dinner for the girls to eat on the go and us when we get home
Since I know we will be at church past dinner time, I pack Bento dinners for the girls to have at church then my hubs and I eat leftovers, a sandwich, breakfast for dinner, or something simple once we get home and get the girls down.
"Meatless Mondays" --> "At home" day --> No major needs; have time to cook complete meal
Since we stay home on Mondays as our laundry, meal prep, at-home work day, I know I will usually have time to cook a complete meal at dinner. So while I know that this is a bit cheating, I make "Meatless Mondays" our intentional seafood night each week. My Texan husband can't wrap his head around "meatless" meals, so this is a good compromise in our house. Plus, I try to cut down the amount of meat we eat every night by offering MORE plant-based sides. So this is what works for us and helps keep us on a schedule to ensure we get in at least one healthy dose of omegas at dinner each week.
"Taco Tuesday" --> "On my own" evening --> Need something easy to prep ahead and serve in stages
Consistent with reader feedback, our family loves Mexican. It is an item we gladly include each week. It is also one of the easiest meals to prep ahead and later reheat, which is nice since I know Tuesday is the day my husband won't be home until later. I feed the girls, then eat myself once they go down. Then my husband can pull out what's prepped once he gets home later. Mexican makes for one of my favorite lunchtime leftovers, so that is nice to have a lunch or two taken care of mid-week.
"No Work Wednesday" --> Swim practice --> Need a meal that's ready made when we get home
Not only is it hump day, but our girls have swim lessons on Wednesday evenings that keep us out until almost 7:00. For this reason, Wednesday's dinner is always a meal I have ready ahead. For us, this is usually something in the crockpot or a ready-made store-bought meal that takes minutes to put out.
Italian Thursdays --> Bible Study --> Family meal but with easy clean up
Another family favorite we seem to share with readers is Italian. This is one I can usually make, serve, and clean up with not a lot of fuss and yet I know each week it is a night where we can enjoy a slower, family meal. This helps since I try to have everything tied up before I leave for Bible study when the girls go to bed, as I HATE coming home to dirty dishes.
Freedom Fridays --> Impromptu potluck or take out or go out --> No stress dinner
Freedom from cooking! I am pretty sure every mom ever has appreciates any meal she didn’t have to make. Sometimes, I still end up cooking something if we have company over or go to our neighbor's for a potluck, but more often than not we order take out or go out to eat. No matter what, low stress dinners are our jam for Fridays so I rarely plan this meal much in advance.
Sit Outside Saturdays --> Family Dinner --> No major needs; enjoy family meal at home and/or invite over friends
We love being home on Saturday evenings. It gives us the chance to enjoy our whole day without trying to rush back out for dinner plans, especially if we did something out the night before. Instead, we usually try to spend time as a family outside, grilling and enjoying our slowest paced meal of the week.
3. Narrow down your recipe options within each cuisine.
Once you have determined what your week looks like and what menu options make sense within the given week, it is important to have a list of "go to" recipes to fill in for each night. For us, I tend to pick 4-6 main entree options for each night/cuisine type each season. While a few staples like turkey tacos and spaghetti may stay the same from season to season, this gives me a chance to rotate through our favorite recipes while also introducing new ones every few months. Within each cuisine type, I try to pick ones that vary in their effort level. This helps me to choose between more difficult and more simple recipes within each category, based on what we have going on during the week as a whole.
4. Save your family's favorite seasonal recipes.
Whether it be printing them out to put in a seasonal recipe binder or pinning your family's favorite recipes on Pinterest, save and organize the recipes you use most often. Keep track of new recipes you love, while also trading out those your family didn't end up enjoying. This will help you keep track of you favorites each season, as well as give you a data bank of seasonal favorites to reference year after year.
5. Assign a recipe to each night.
Once you have gone through and:
- Picked your family's favorite cuisines
- Planned which night you will serve which cuisine
- Narrowed down your recipe options within each cuisine
- Saved your family's favorite seasonal recipes
Then you are ready to actually assign a recipe to each night of the week. Using the meal template (free download offer at the bottom of step one), plug in what recipe you will make each night. Be sure to vary how time intensive the main entree is each night, leaving margin for what sides you wish to also make and how many more-involved recipes you are prepared to make that week.
This step also helps you plot out additional considerations like if you are preparing a meal for a new mom, need to cook once and eat twice, etc. Make a note of this on whatever menu item you need to apply these considerations to so doing so becomes a part of the weekly meal plan.
I may have just brought the hammer on the next time you get pin happy over more recipes than you'll ever know what to do with. But for so many moms like me, it isn't about finding more recipes. It is about making dinner time more manageable so that you can rotate through favorites, introduce new options, and continue to expose your kids to healthy foods the whole family can enjoy.
If you would like to see which recipes fall into this step of meal planning, hop on over to my Pinterest page. Follow along for more updates of our faves each season.
A Note to the Short-Order Cook
If this all seems like a far-fetched effort, stay tuned. Next week's post is highlighting step three to the Veggies & Virtue meal planning process: pairing appropriately.
Step three is the hidden ticket to how you turn all the main courses selected above into the only meal option you make. Never again do you need to short order cook if you can adopt this approach and pair appropriately. Your meal plan doesn't need to include mac & cheese with a side green smoothie every night if you plan using an evidenced-based, age-appropriate approach.