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The meal planning system that saved my sanity

By Jennifer Fulwiler

For Conversion Diary

Published: Thursday, Oct. 17 2013 11:30 a.m. MDT

Jennifer Fulwiler shares her approach to planning family meals.

Jennifer Fulwiler

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Editor's note: This post by Jennifer Fulwiler originally appeared on her blog, Conversion Diary. It has been shared here with her permission.

I have six kids under the age of 9. I’m scatterbrained and easily overwhelmed. I have no natural gifts for cooking. We also avoid most grains and processed food, which means no bread, pasta, tortillas or any other foods that make life easier. A couple of my children are picky eaters.

Despite all of this, dinner is rarely a source of stress for me.

Out of sheer necessity I created a meal planning system when my first child was a baby, and, with a little fine-tuning, I’ve used this same basic system pretty much every week for the past eight years. It has helped me kick things up a notch when things are going well and has kept everyone fed through survival seasons. Of all the systems that have come and gone in my years as a parent, this one has been the most helpful and effective.

1. I find the right kind of recipes.

I pretty much only cook recipes that I have found in a trusted cookbook or on sites that offer user ratings. Maybe in a different phase of life I’ll be able to try dishes that I find on Pinterest or cooking blogs, but right now my life has no margin for error: When I try a recipe that I’d pinned and it ends up producing a bubbling mess that is somehow both liquefied and on fire, this is a huge deal. We have no budget for last-minute takeout, and having six hungry kids and no dinner is not the way you want to start your evening (see Mama H’s hilarious-because-it’s-true post for a glimpse of how things typically go around here after 6 p.m.).

When I’m looking for new meals to try, I go to Food.com or Allrecipes.com because they have user ratings. I search on main ingredients that we like, and choose ones that are rated well. My theory is that if 100 people have reviewed a dish, and it gets something like 4.8 stars, it can’t be entirely bad. Sure enough, I don’t think I have ever once cooked a highly rated dish that we disliked.

2. I organize my recipes in a simple, functional system.

I have two recipe-related folders (they’re on my computer, but paper folders work fine too):

  • Recipes to Try
  • Recipes We Love

When I find a new recipe, it goes in the Recipes to Try folder. If we like it, it gets moved to Recipes We Love (if we don’t, it goes in the trash). I find that any categorization beyond that overwhelms me; it’s easier for me to scan through my folders at mealtime to find what I need than to deal with categorizing dishes by ingredient as I file them.

Recipes to try

Having our meals categorized this way helps me manage my time and energy: If we have a busy week coming up, that is not the time to be experimenting with new meals, so I can pick dishes from the Recipes We Love folder and know that they’ll turn out well.

(A note about sides: If I have a side dish recipe, I file it in one of these two folders along with the main courses. However, I only rarely cook sides. For simplicity’s sake, I do things like sliced apples; prepackaged steam-in-the-bag broccoli; rice made in the rice cooker topped with cheese; microwaved frozen peas or green beans; or other stuff that doesn’t require much preparation on my part.)

3. I keep my recipes in Evernote.

I use the free program Evernote for the categorization system I described in No. 2. You don’t have to do this — I used paper and file folders for years, and it worked just fine — but I find that Evernote makes things run even more smoothly. (My husband commented the other day, “I wish I could find something in my life that I love as much as you love Evernote.”)

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