Dinnertime can be a stressful time of day in an active household. To try to run this busy time more smoothly, I have found that a planned menu is very helpful. I first tried a similar system a few years ago, and failed, but the adjustments I have made since then have been very helpful for our family. The way I tackled it the first time did not work, and here’s why: I created a large menu plan that would repeat once we reached the end of it. We would then start over from the beginning instead of going through the effort of making a new menu. I created a menu that extended over 7 weeks, to give us variety. It turned out that 7 weeks was not enough time between certain dishes, and we got really tired of dishes that we used to enjoy. We have found that we can eat some meals quite often without ever going tired of them, while others are only enjoyed if served infrequently. Another problem was that over the course of several months, our daily schedule changed too much to work with the current menu. I also found that the amount of leftovers changed as our young kids grew and ate larger portions. All in all, too many adjustments needed to be made, and it became too complicated to continue.
The new menu plan that works for me!
What does work for our family today, is to make a brand new menu every three weeks, and write it down on a magnetic white-board that’s kept on the refrigerator. There are several advantages to this: The items on the menu are easy to erase or edit, which of course makes the board reusable; it is conveniently located for everyone to see, cutting back on “What’s for dinner, Mom?” questions; it’s easy for me to figure out how to plan for upcoming meals since I’ll know at a glance whether something needs to be taken out of the freezer, or an ingredient is needed at the store; it is fun to use, the kids can help write things down, and I even have room on the board for a shopping list.
My board measures 11 x 14 inches, and I store skinny dry-eraser markers on top of the frame (it came with a marker containing a magnet, but once it ran out of ink, I just got the regular kind to store on top. Works great!) Here’s our current menu:
In order to make things easier when creating the menu, we often sit down together as a family to plan. I printed out a list for each of us, of all the various recipes and dishes that we have to choose from. This way we all get to have a say or make suggestions for what to include on the menu. The requirement I make, is that most of the meals need to be nutritious; so if my kids start suggesting only pizza, hot dogs and whatever junk they can think of, they simply won’t be allowed to be a part of the decision making. I’ll bring out the family calendar at the same time, which allows me to know whether a dish is realistic or not for that specific day. It makes sense that time-consuming meals are made on days when we have a light schedule, and easy meals on busy days. I also think through whether it is likely that we’ll have enough leftovers for a meal in a couple of days, and I call that “mus’go” (must-go-before-it-gets-old foods). I will then decide which veggie I should serve along with the meals. Potatoes, rice, pasta, etc. are usually chosen on the day of the meal, as I typically serve the same thing with the various dishes, and almost always have these items on hand. So this part doesn’t require any creative thinking and planning time for me.
As we go through the days, one of us will draw a line through meals already eaten, both to make it easier to know where on the menu we currently are, and also so that we can see what the previous meals were. This is helpful to know for the sake of leftovers, so we can know how old they are and try to use them up before they go bad. I tend to think that I’ll remember which day it was served, but I rarely do. By the end of the week, it’s all a blur.
I am not always faithful to use this system of creating a menu, and when I don’t, I find my everyday life to be a bit more stressful. Having this menu planned out ahead of time saves so much time and effort for me, as it is one less thing to have to figure out in a busy life. I am certainly not a slave to what’s on the menu though; I’ll change it around in a heartbeat if it makes sense to do so, such as if there is a change in our schedule. If our day ends up being busier than planned, and there’s not sufficient time, we’ll just cross it out and do something easy that day. The idea of this menu is, of course, to make my life easier. So if something else works better for us, I’ll happily make changes, which is a snap to do with this dry-erase system.
In addition to making this menu, I also find it very helpful to have some meals ready in the freezer. Sometimes I will spend extra time in the kitchen to make lots of meatloaves, meat balls, or portions of browned ground beef all at once to put in the freezer, so that when it’s needed, these items are ready to thaw and use, and I only need the sides to go with it. Some people will make entire meals to freeze, but for me it is easier to do only the main dishes. I think it’s easier to make several portions of the same thing once I get going, rather than having to focus on a variety of different meals in one long, stressful day. But whatever works for you, right? This is just my personal preference. Sometimes I also put leftover meals in the freezer for extra busy days; otherwise it is often easy enough to double up on what I’m currently making anyway, and freeze the other portion.
Here is my oven, filled with ready-to-bake portions of meat-loaf, half pound each:
When making browned ground beef, I let two portions cool on foil. I shape the aluminum foil to make it quick and easy to pour directly into zip lock bags for the freezer once the meat is cool enough. I work on these things while browning the next portion. There is no waiting in between, so it makes for an efficient and time saving way to get as much done in as little time as possible. These next two pictures were taken with my cell phone, so the quality isn’t the best.
Turkey is another meat I like to have on hand in portions; some for turkey dinner, and some cut up for soups or casseroles (my all-time favorite turkey-noodle-soup recipe HERE!). I usually bake a much larger bird than what we need (link to my favorite turkey recipe HERE), just for the sake of leftovers, in addition to the drippings that I use for gravy, and the stock for soups. (See THIS LINK for how to make a highly nutritious, delicious turkey or chicken stock; cheap and easy!)
Turkey in bags, ready for the freezer:
Turkey drippings; in addition to using drippings for gravy, I also use it to flavor rice or other dishes:
And turkey stock, also measured up into portions for the freezer, to use for soup:
There are many ways to make dinner planning easier, and this is what works for us these days. I hope my post will help give you some ideas for your own household; if you have any suggestions or would like to share what you do to make dinner-time go more smoothly, I would love to hear from you, and I’m sure others would love to know as well! Please leave a comment below. Thanks!