The other day I mentioned a meal we were having later this week. A friend joked, "You know what you are having later this week? I don't know what I am having tonight!"
The truth is I have to.
I have to plan.
Otherwise we would be eating out a lot.
Planning ahead is the only way I can survive.
I typically plan a week at a time. I used to plan for two weeks (mainly to avoid trips to the grocery store) but that was difficult. Plus I usually ended up with two carts of groceries which was really hard to navigate. I have also found that shopping for a week at a time reduces a lot of wasted food. I used to buy foods thinking I might cook something in the future. Then I would forget it was in the freezer. Now I only buy essentials ahead of time (ground beef is a good bet, especially if I can buy a big package and split it into 1.5 pound portions).
Anyway, I usually plan on Saturday or Sunday. I really prefer Saturday because I am much more likely to get to the grocery store on Saturday. On Sunday, with church and the mandatory nap (that gives me energy for the upcoming week), getting to the store is near impossible unless my dear husband volunteers to go. (And thanks to the iPhone app Grocery IQ, that is much easier these days to do :)
To actually plan the menu, I first look at our family schedule. When will we be home? When won't we? How much time will I have to cook? Those answers determine a lot.
Right now Mark and the big kids are attending church on Wednesday nights, so that is an automatic "On Your Own" night. It is really hard to cook for just me and the little people. Plus we need an "On Your Own" night once a week. It gives us a chance to use up on leftovers. The kids love it because they get to choose what they want (Ramen noodles a lot of times). And as much as I really do enjoy cooking, it is nice to have a night of just relaxing.
Thursdays (currently) are practice nights. The girls both have sports practices. So that is a crockpot night. That way, the food is warm whenever we have a chance to eat. We tend to eat in "waves" on those nights.
The weekends are reserved for the more complicated meals since I know we will have time. During the summer, that is the ideal "grill" time. I have also recently started having one child a week help me plan a meal to actually cook with me some time that week. The weekend is a good time for that too.
Typically in a week we have (at least one) chicken meal, a meal with beef, and a meal with pork. We are obviously not vegetarians. In fact, a couple people in our house don't consider it a meal without meat. Anyway, another night is normally either breakfast for dinner (like eggs and cheese or pancakes with a side of bacon) or sandwiches of some kind. In the winter, soup is a weekly event, grilling during the summer. We still do eat out on occasion, so if I know that is going to happen, I take that into account with the menu. And when Daddy is going to be out of town, a night with popcorn and Shakes or smoothies is a strong possibility. It is just kind of our special thing to do.
I try to vary the cuisines. Mexican typically in a week. Some kind of Italian. A little Chinese on a really good week.
And I typically do a mixture of the "tried and true" recipes and at least one new recipe (typically from Pinterest or food magazines).
I try to make meals that most of the kids will eat. I cannot please them all every single day. I have one who won't eat potatoes or veggies or even fruit. Another one doesn't really care for eggs. The youngest used to not eat much meat but that has changed a lot in the past year. And yet another is very picky and likely to turn her nose up at most things I make. I just try to make side dishes that will feed those tummies. I refuse to make separate meals. If I know it is something they absolutely won't eat, I will allow them to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. But really, that is rare. Usually SOMETHING offered on the table works for them. If anything, I figure they will be really hungry for breakfast the next day. (The one exception is when we make bacon wrapped grilled shrimp, we will throw some chicken on the grill because that is more a mom and dad favorite than a kid favorite, though in recent months, they have been eating it too)
Oh, and we do almost always have some kind of bread. And I do make an effort to offer veggies or fruit which is a challenge since most of the kids are not big veggie eaters. Sometimes carrots and Ranch is the best I can do.
It all sounds like a lot of work, but really, the actual menu part comes together in moments. (By the way, I usually post the menu on the fridge and point children to read it when the questions start coming..."What's for dinner?") The grocery list and the actual shopping is my time consuming project.
I will say though that once I started doing this, our eating out (especially fast food runs) dropped. Even on nights I am really tempted, I remember that we have a meal planned with all of the ingredients, and MOST of the time, I go ahead with my plan to cook. Most of the time. :)
I am not sure we save tons of money not eating out as much because our grocery bill is not exactly cheap. Ever try buying for a family of six? I am still working on being a more frugal shopper. (Not that I am really extravagant, though we do have one "splurge" meal a week typically)
But for those precious family moments around the table, eating a homemade meal, talking about our day, it is worth it.
I wouldn't trade those moments for anything.
Even the long trips to the grocery store.