Friday, June 10, 2011

Planning Your Meals for the Month

I hate lunch. I find nothing redeeming in the meal. I am rarely hungry for it. I tire of endless sandwiches, soups, leftovers, and the like. It is yet another meal to prepare and clean-up. And it gets the least positive feedback.

So, it should come as no surprise that I would find myself moving between the open pantry and fridge for longer than it took to consume the actual meal, trying to figure out just what to serve to my hungry family. (Why are they hungry? We just had breakfast. I know; I was there!)

It finally dawned on me that if I actually planned lunches, then I would not waste time everyday pondering my empty shelves. I could also better plan my grocery shopping. An added bonus: I could point to the menu when my boys wanted to know what was for lunch. If they balked at what was listed, it would somehow become the menu’s fault, not mine.

So, being the over-achiever that I am, I set out to organize a monthly menu. I quickly found it made the entire feeding process easier. I wasted far less food, our grocery bill was lower, and I hardly spent anytime staring at kitchen appliances seeking guidance.

The steps are actually quite simple. The hardest part is facing the empty calendar at the beginning of each month. But, with a little practice, even those blank spaces can be a source of inspiration.

Create your menu calendar
On an 8-1/2 x 11” piece of blank white paper, mark out eight columns and 16 rows. Leave room at the top for your title (i.e. “Monthly Meal Menu” or “What We’re Eating This Month”), and at the bottom for three or four “snack ideas” lines. Label the columns: “Meal,” “Monday,” “Tuesday,” and so on. Label the rows: “Breakfast,” “Lunch,” “Dinner,” five times.

Next, have the menu laminated. Use heat lamination, not cold lamination, as the Vis-à-Vis markers do not write well on the cold lamination.

Fill in your menu
Using your Vis-à-Vis markers, start with the meal you find the easiest to plan. For me, that would be breakfast. We have oatmeal on Mondays and Fridays, breakfast biscuits on Tuesdays, cereal on Wednesdays and Sundays, Cream of Wheat or eggs and toast on Thursdays, and pancakes or French toast or hoe cakes on Saturdays. Since it is the same every week, I quickly fill up a third of my menu. It looks better already!

Next, start filling in the remaining spaces. Do not be afraid to repeat a meal once or twice a month. Choose one day to have the same meal each week. We have Pasta Mondays. When our Cub Scout meeting fell on the same day as our Park Day, those days became Crock Pot Wednesdays. Pull out cookbooks, look through the food section of your weekly newspaper, ask friends for suggestions, and add one or two new meals a month to test on your family. You might find a new favorite!

Snack ideas
I added a few lines at the bottom of my menu with snack ideas for the boys. I tired of hearing, “What’s there for snack?” especially when perfectly good food was sitting on the shelves waiting to be nibbled. Our snack ideas include bananas, apples, bread, yogurt, raisins, cereal, leftovers, hard-boiled eggs, carrots, and so on. Being able to point to a menu, rather than sounding like a broken record, makes life much more pleasant.

Get family involved
Do not plan alone! Sit with your family and solicit suggestions. Perhaps a favorite meal or two can make it on the menu. Maybe your children would like to prepare a meal for the family. Make everyone a part of the process. Everyone shares the food, so everyone should share in the planning.

Post the menu
Place the menu where you and your family can readily see it. Ours is stuck on our refrigerator with magnets. Perhaps you have a message board in the kitchen. Or, you could stick it inside a cupboard door. Wherever it will be seen and used, that is where you should place it.

Taking the time upfront to organize a monthly menu allows you to purchase more items in bulk (which reduces per-item cost), plan quick or time-intensive meals according to your schedule (quick pasta meal on busy days, ”roast and three veg” on a leisurely Sunday), and reduce waste (you know what to buy and when).

We have taken the opportunity to add more vegetarian meals to our rotation. Vegetarian meals often require more prep-work that meat meals (lots of chopping verses throwing a slab of meat on the broiler and some vegetables to steam). Because the only food I have available is meant for a specific meal, I do not waste time figuring out what to do: I just get on with it.

A monthly menu lends itself well to the homeschooling lifestyle. It incorporates planning, budgeting, reading, culinary skills, and family discussion. Give it a whirl, and see how much you gain from so simple an activity.

Article by Sarah J. Wilson. Originally published in California HomeSchooler.

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