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.
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.”)
I add recipes to my Recipes to Try or Recipes We Love folders in Evernote two different ways:
- Typing them in by hand (I might do this for a dish in a cookbook, making a note with the title “St. Basil Soup,” and just saying something like “12 Months of Monastery Soups, page 6″ in the body).
- Using the Evernote Web clipper for ones I find online. This handy browser extension will clip an entire Web page to the folder of your choice.
Evernote keeps your content synced across all your devices, so when it’s time to cook, I just prop up my tablet in the kitchen and call up the night’s recipe.
4. I plan the week's meals the weekend before.
I am not naturally consistent or self-disciplined, however, I’ve found that getting my meals planned and my grocery shopping done before the week starts makes all the difference in how our entire week goes. A few notes on how it plays out in practice:
- I have my calendar open when I plan the meals. This sounds obvious, but I can’t tell you how many times I scheduled an elaborate meal for the same night we were going to be out at an activity.
- For busy nights when I won’t have time to cook, I plan crock pot meals, leftovers from the night before or frozen leftovers.
- I plan dinners only. I’ve found that planning breakfasts and lunches overwhelms me and is not really necessary; I stock up on a few things we like and play those meals by ear.
- I write in a Leftovers Day almost every week, which forces me to use items that are languishing in the freezer or pantry.
- I don’t plan weekend meals. Saturday and Sunday nights we might clear out leftovers, eat at a grandparent’s house, grill in the backyard or swing by the store for a spontaneous new meal.
I’ve always believed that kids need to eat what they’re served. But then I had my fourth child, who only likes about five foods and really would choose starvation over eating anything outside of that list. For her (and any other kids that happen to be in a picky mood that night), I keep a couple of very simple, unexciting things on hand that they can have if they don’t like the main course (chicken nuggets, packets of frozen rice that can be easily microwaved and topped with cheese, etc.) When I sit down to do my weekly meal planning, I choose dishes that most of us will like, but I know that I have some fallbacks in case anyone just can’t deal with the main course. That way the picky eaters don’t go without dinner, but they’re incentivized to try new food since they get sick of having the same things after a while.
6. I add email reminders to my calendar.
For any meals that require effort from me other than wandering into the kitchen a half hour before dinner time, I put notes on my Google Calendar and schedule email reminders. If it weren’t for the emails saying “START CROCKPOT MEAL!” that I have sent to myself around 11 a.m. on days that I’m using the slow cooker, our dinners would be ready around midnight.
7. I print my weekly dinner plan and post it on the fridge.
When I have my meals planned, I enter them into a Google Doc, print it, and slide it into a plastic holder on the fridge. For me, this step is not optional. Having the meal plan posted in the kitchen means that I see it every time I walk into the room, and I can’t lose it.
8. I do all my shopping before the week starts.
I don’t have the kind of life where I can swing by the store in the middle of the week; leaving the house is always a voyage of epic proportions, even if it’s just to check the mail. And because I always count the milliseconds until my husband gets home in the evening, it’s painful to have him get home later, even if it’s 20 minutes for a quick store trip. So after I get my meals planned, I shop for everything we need during the weekend, so that I don’t have to disrupt our week with trips to the store.
9. I think carefully about how to use leftovers.
Before I put leftover food away at the end of the night, I think about how it would be best used. I do some combination of:
- Storing a large quantity in the freezer for a future dinner.
- Storing a large quantity in the fridge for another dinner this week.
- Sending some to work with my husband.
- Freezing small portions in Ziplock snack baggies for easy lunches.
Again, this step is probably obvious to other people, but I used to find that too often I was just throwing extra food in the refrigerator without thinking about how to use it, and then I’d forget about it and it would go bad.
So that’s it: the meal planning system that has served me well week after week, through all sorts of chaos. If you have any good meal planning tips, I’d love to hear them!
Jennifer Fulwiler is a programmer-turned-writer who chronicles her experiences of faith, motherhood and a never-ending scorpion infestation on her blog, ConversionDiary.com. She was the subject of the reality show "Minor Revisions," and her memoir will be released by Ignatius Press in 2014. She and her husband live in Austin, Texas, with their six young children and a one-eyed cat.