If I had to pick the Neat Freak hill I’m willing to die on, it might just be mealtime at my house. I’m no gourmand, and if forced to identify my favorite hobbies, cooking may not enter the top 5. But I do feel strongly about creating a healthy meal for my family most nights and having us sit down and eat it together. Below, I’ll share with you my favorite tips for making meal time work. Follow along and you may just find that you save time and money and, as a bonus, eat some amazing home cooked meals with the people you love.
1. Plan. Well, okay, that may sound obvious. But I mean really plan. Sit down once a week with the people who consume food in your home and talk about the next 7 days. What events or activities impact mealtime? Late swim meet? Business meeting? Book club? Boss coming home for dinner? Snack mom for preschool? That’s the kind of planning I’m talking about. Factor all of these events in as you plan your meals and shopping. Then start to build your shopping list around your real life.
2. Map out the meals you plan to prepare at home. I like to spend my Sunday afternoons surrounded by my favorite recipes and cookbooks, a stack of sticky notes, and my calendar. I make decisions about what I want to cook (this can be really fun during farmer’s market season when amazing local food is readily available) and then build a shopping list. I get the family involved and ask the kids to weigh in and make decisions about a meal a week. In another year or so, I’ll be ready to let my kids do the cooking, too. After decisions are made, I write my meal plans in the calendar so there are no “what in the world are we having for dinner?” moments in our week.
3. Create a pre-printed grocery list. This is, in all honesty, my meal planning lifesaver. Save your shopping lists for a couple of weeks. Sit down at your computer and type in the items you purchase regularly. Divide them into categories such as Produce, Baked Goods, Canned Goods, Snacks, etc. If you want to get super neat-freaky, arrange them in the order they appear in your grocery store. Update your list as needed and keep a few copies handy in your kitchen. As you run out of things during the week, circle them on your list. Then, when you’re ready to have your planning session and shop, your list is good to go. Don’t want to start from scratch? Just Google “preprinted grocery list” and you’ll find a few good ones online.
4. Keep it simple. Have your family brainstorm their favorite 12 meals, stock up on the essentials and rotate those meals for a few months. Email friends with similarly aged children and ask what their family favorites are and swap recipes. No one expects gourmet food and total originality every night (at least, no one who eats at my table)!
5. When all else fails, it’s time to cheat. Consider a meal planning service such as Saving Dinner or Six o’ Clock Scramble. If you want to make meal planning a social event, gather up some friends and cook large batches of food you can freeze and share. And if the thought of going to the grocery store practically brings you to tears, check to see if your store offers a shopping service that allows you to create and manage your shopping list online, place an order and pick up your food curbside.
I find that when I’m in my meal planning groove, my family eats healthy, fresh foods; my kids get to experience different tastes and textures; we save money by actually eating what we buy; and I save time by making only one (or sometimes two) trips to the store each week. And the biggest bonus? We spend a little time around the table, talking about our day and breaking bread together. Bon appetit!