So the real problem for me has been planning. Not coincidentally, this is where I go off the rails with any healthy eating plan, too. The first week after a grocery run is great. Then I run out of stuff and start eating dry cereal out of the box and the leftover chocolate chips, because all the healthy snacks are gone. You feelin' me?
Now that we've essentially cut our income in half, it's not prudent to just grab takeout, or hit up the Claim Jumper when the fridge is empty. Also, we have a 6 month old, who has not yet mastered the concept of "restaurant behavior" since she's JUSTABABY. So eating out is often a *stressful* exercise, and one parent usually ends up eating their meal quickly with one hand while holding a fussy baby. NOFUN.
So, meal planning. It's been one of my goals this year to master this skill that eludes me. Luckily I know my way around the kitchen. I love to cook. But for me, cooking is a multi-hour, multi-course *project*, something I did for fun once a month or so on a weekend day with no other obligations. Not the daily grind of getting a meal on the table.
I found SimpleMom's brilliant meal planning technique using Google Calendar. She advocates planning 2 weeks of dinners at a time, then repeating them, so you have a month done at once.
I made this even easier by picking a "theme" for each day of the week, and made the "theme" an All-Day appointment, recurring, on the Google Calendar. I'll change it up when we get tired of this rotation, but it's general enough that it'll be a while before that happens.
Monday = Breakfast for Dinner
Tuesday = Dinner Out (since T has dance class in the late afternoon)
Wednesday = Dinner in Asia
Thursday = Beef. It's What's for Dinner
Friday = Chicken.Chicken.Chicken (based on this brilliant paper)
Saturday = Dinner in MexicItaly
Sunday = Dinner with Friends
Here's the process I use. Maybe it'll help someone out in Internet-land who finds meal-planning incredibly annoying/hard/exhausting. (Click for a larger view of the calendar.)
1. I do a quick check of the fridge, freezer and pantry to see if there's anything I'd like to use up - meat, veggies, etc.
2. I grab 2 cookbooks and find main dish recipes that use those items, matching them to one of the themes above.
3. For 2 weeks, I fill in the main dishes and sides on the Google Calendar in an appointment at 5pm (which is when I have to start cooking). Sides are *extremely* simple, like steamed veggies, cut fruit, a baked potato, etc. unless the main dish is heat-and-serve. I also put down the cookbook and page number so I can find the recipes easily when I'm ready to cook. Each "appointment" is repeated in 2 weeks on the same day. At least once a week we eat something very easy to "cook", like a frozen or pre-made item from Trader Joe's.
4. On Saturdays, I look at the coming week and write up a grocery list for these meals (plus anything else we need for breakfast and lunch). If this is a "repeat" week, I remove anything we didn't like the first time and replace it with something else (and repeat it in 2 weeks to make planning easier). I also check for other evening commitments in case things need to be moved. For example, when I have a dinner with friends, I feed T something simple before I go, and TJ can fend for himself.
5. I'm keeping a running list of the things that were easy to make and well-liked so I can build up our own list of what we like to eat regularly instead of always picking out new things.
I started this a month ago with skepticism. I've gone down this OMGBRILLIANT path before and fizzled out. But seriously, this just worked. We've followed the plan most days of the month, and have reduced the random items languishing in our freezer. Most nights we are all eating the same thing (except for BabyM, of course), which is brilliant. No more kid meal + adult-fend-for-yourself. We're definitely spending less money eating out, and are more organized about our grocery shopping since I have an actual list.
We're luckily not in a position where I have to clip coupons or figure out what meat is on sale before I buy it, so I don't stress too much about what to choose. I do try to avoid the $18/lb filet mignon at Whole Foods unless it's a special occasion. Since we don't buy a ton of processed foods and snacky items, spending a little more on meat doesn't affect the grocery bill much.
The nice thing about this plan is that I can tackle health at the same time. I've mostly eliminated simple starches from our dinners, though we do love our potatoes. (TJ and T are definitely not into sweet potatoes as a substitute, yet.) We were already dairy-free, and now I can make sure we're getting enough vegetables in too.
Another awesome result of this is reducing my mental load. I don't have to make decisions each night about what to do for dinner, then throw up my hands and decide we should just go to Five Guys and get burgers. Now I just look at the calendar, make sure we have everything we need, and get to work at 5pm, usually with my 3yo helper. My routine-oriented self LOVES this part.
So now maybe I can earn one of my SAHM merit badges. :) My next goal is to tackle lunch, as we don't have as many leftovers as I thought, and then I skip lunch and then THECRANKY.
What about you? Do you plan meals ahead?