I always find that the hardest hour of the day, aptly nicknamed “the witching hour” is the one before dinner. At about 5:00 pm, my kids start losing it, and so do I! When they were younger, I would cook dinner with a wiggly baby in my arms and a toddler hanging on my leg… just thinking about it makes me not want to relive those particular hours, that’s for sure! Now my kids are older, but they are generally crabby and tired of one another (and truth be told, I’m often tired of their antics and counting the hours until bedtime) by 5:00. What makes it even worse is when I’m not sure what I’m making for dinner, and they’re clamoring for pizza or Chinese food!
On the weeks that I actually write down and post a menu plan, things run more smoothly. First, I can start dinner ahead of time, completing some of the prep-work in the relatively quiet afternoons. Veggies can be chopped, meat can be marinated, etc. If someone asks, “what’s for dinner?” at 3:00, I can give a sure answer, and this limits the whining for takeout. Also, if an item that is not a child’s favorite is on the menu, he or she has all day long to get used to the idea, and I’ve found that this reduces (but does not eliminate) complaining.
Here’s my general process for planning a weekly menu:
1. I look through the week’s grocery store ads and make note of what’s on sale. If there are any great deals, I plan to incorporate these into my plan.
2. I look in the freezer at the frozen meat to determine what I have available. We tend to buy what’s on sale, with a few exceptions, so sometimes we might not have chicken breasts or sausage or fish in a particular week. I usually choose four meat-based dishes and two vegetarian (or less-meat) dishes for the week’s dinners, and save one night for takeout. Most weeks, we have chicken, ground beef, pork, and either sausage or steak for our four meat dinners.
3. I determine how I’m going to cook the meat. If I simply write down “chicken” for Tuesday’s dinner, for example, we tend to get into the rut of eating only baked breasts, or only breaded cutlets every time we have chicken. I use the Internet or my cookbooks to come up with new ideas when we’re feeling bored with what we’ve been eating. As I go through this and subsequent steps, I make a list of what I need to buy at the grocery store.
4. I look in the pantry to choose side dishes, again, using what we have and writing down what we don’t have. The three main starchy sides that we use in our house are pastas, rices, and potatoes. I try to rotate these throughout the week, and will use varieties of each. For example, one night we’ll have white rice, but another night we’ll have brown. I substitute sweet potatoes for white, and I’ll cook potatoes in different ways for variety: mashed, baked, roasted, etc.
5. I choose vegetables based on what we have (or plan to buy) fresh, then on what we have frozen. Typically, we have fresh produce toward the beginning of the week, then I’ll switch to frozen as the fresh gets eaten. Sometimes I’ll plan to go to the produce store in the middle of the week if we need something fresh on Thursday or Friday.
6. I write down the meals and post them on the fridge. Everyone in the family can then read the list and make any suggestions that they’d like (which may or may not be taken).
7. At this point is when the grocery shopping is done. By now, all of the ingredients have been written on the grocery list, limiting the number of last-minute shopping trips for something forgotten.
This process could be expanded to include planning breakfast and lunch menus as well.
Do you have a different menu-planning strategy? Share it!