How to Make a Meal Plan You Will Actually Use

For most people, the idea that being stuck at home for a month is overwhelming. There are so many things to arrange: schooling for the kids, figuring out working from home, and keeping everyone sane. Then comes what can be the biggest challenge: the dreaded question around 3pm, “What are we having for dinner?”.

Photo by Vegan Liftz on Unsplash

After you spit out the exasperated response of, “You just ate two and a half hours ago?! How are you hungry?”, your mind begins to spin around with questions. First, what do you have in the house? Second, what will everyone eat? And finally, how am I going to make dinner when Wal-Mart is now limiting the number of people in the store at once? As it would happen, what everyone would eat is a meal that you don’t have all of the ingredients on hand at home and you will have to make a trip to the store.

Photo by Fabio Bracht on Unsplash

The big push right now is for people to be making one trip to the grocery store a week. You have never been the once a week grocery shopper before, and this whole idea is adding to the stress you are already feeling. What do you do now?

I am no expert in this field, but our family has been doing a two-week meal plan for a little over a decade. I want to take a few moments to share with you how I meal plan and how to possibly help it work for your family.

Many families have an issue with picky eaters. When you finally get around to making dinner, half of the family won’t eat it. Then you are stuck making a second meal or sending out one adult to get fast food for the other members. Fast food will run through your budget in a hurry, so for right now let’s not even consider that an option for our meal planning. There is a time and a place for fast food or taking out your favorite local restaurant, but that isn’t what we will be dealing with here.

Okay, so how do you cook a meal everyone will eat? I know it seems simple, but you need ask everyone what they would eat for dinner. What kind of meals does everyone like? The first step is to ask (or interrogate, if you have teenagers) your family what they would eat for dinner and make a list. The list does not have to be fancy. Just a piece of paper with a list of meals on it. If you are adventurous, ask the family what side dishes they like too. Be patient, the brainstorming process can be hard.

Here is our dinner list. See something you like and want a recipe, just send me a message!

Now you have list of things your family will eat. Place that list in your cabinet. For years I have had a list taped inside my cabinet door. When I find a meal that we like, I add it to the list.

I know that not everyone will like every meal, but even a typical picky kid will eat part of a meal. My youngest doesn’t like many things that we eat, but he will eat part of the meal. Typically, he won’t eat meat that has been in a sauce. After I cook chicken, I keep out a few pieces for him before I add a sauce for the rest of the family. If there is a side that your picky eater will eat, then pair that with a meal he/she may not like best. Remember, you don’t have to make everyone happy all the time. As long as the person had an option of something to eat that he/she wanted, then you are fine. My go-to response for the picky eater is if the person is still hungry is to eat a piece of fruit.

My mother-in-law made me this cute board and I am just not cute enough to keep up with it.

The next step seems pretty simple, but write out the days of the week and pick what meal you want to potentially cook that week. Think about your schedule and how much time you want to spend cooking. I know most people’s schedules are a little less busy now, but on Friday night you still may not want to have a labor-intensive meal at the end of the work week and school week. Some meals are more week night friendly than others.

If you are an artsy type person, you can make yourself a chalkboard in your kitchen and put up a menu for the week. My handwriting isn’t the best and I find the chalkboard a bigger nuisance than just writing out a menu on a quarter sheet of paper and putting it on the fridge.

Yep, this is our two week dinner menu.

Now that you have a menu for one or two weeks, think about what groceries you need to buy. I look through my cabinets to find what items I am running low on and put them on the list. Next, look through your menu. Think about every ingredient you need for those meals. What you don’t have, put on your list. Also, if you don’t have a stocked spice cabinet, think about picking up some basic spices that you might use (onion powder, garlic powder, chili powder, cumin, salt free seasoning, and Italian seasoning are all good to have on hand) along with salt and pepper.

My spice cabinet.

Additional things that I like to keep on hand in the cabinet are evaporated milk, crushed tomatoes, tomato sauce, canned vegetables your family will eat, and black beans. All of these can be used for many different meals and are good to have in the house. A can of crushed tomatoes, a tablespoon of Italian seasoning, a little garlic powder, and a little onion powder cooked for a few minutes makes a great pasta sauce at a fraction of the price of your typical jar sauce. In my opinion, it tastes much better too. I use evaporated milk for cooking, so we don’t have to use our fresh milk when I want to make a dessert or adding milk to macaroni can cheese or mashed potatoes.

Here is my stocked pantry. We don’t honestly use that much ketchup, I just went shopping twice and thought we were out of it.

Speaking of milk, our family can go through three to four gallons of milk in two weeks. There is no way that I have room in the refrigerator for four gallons of milk. Then sometimes when I buy four gallons of milk, we only use two and milk potentially goes to waste. Here is how I get around wasting milk. I freeze my milk.

Now you just can’t put a full gallon of milk in the freezer and expect for it to end well for you. Like any other liquid, milk will expand and your milk jug will break open leaving you with a mess in your freezer. Here Is my solution. I keep and wash out my half gallon orange juice containers. I open the gallon of milk and put around 3 cups of milk into the orange juice container. I can put around 6 cups of milk safely in the orange juice container and freeze it without any problem. That means that I can open two gallons of milk, pour out three cups from each gallon into the orange juice container, and freeze the three containers at once.

Frozen milk looks funny. It is much more yellow than you might think, but it is fine.

When you get just under half a gallon of milk left in the refrigerator, take out a frozen milk from the freezer and put it in your sink to thaw. If you are in a hurry, you can put the milk jug in some water to speed up the thawing process. Typically, it takes a day to a day and a half to thaw out a gallon of milk. If you bought your milk with ten days until the sell-by date, then after it is thawed, you have ten days to use the milk. Make sure you shake the milk before using it to make sure it is homogenized again.  

Inventory your freezer and then you will know what you have when you start meal planning.

Remember, your freezer is your friend. If you have fresh fruits and vegetables that will spoil before you can eat them all, consider prepping them and then freezing them for later. For example, we don’t go through that many green peppers in a two-week time period. When I buy a three pack, I cut them into diced size pieces and freeze them in a bag. Most fruit will keep for a few days, but if it is close to spoiling then either use it or freeze it.

Diced green peppers. Usually I write on the baggie, but just was in too big of a hurry this time.

What happens when you have a menu, you bought all of your groceries, and you just don’t feel like that meal you had planned? Does something else on the meal plan sound good? Then just swap out the meal. You are now stocked up enough to cook that other meal for dinner. There will come a time when you will cook the meal you skipped or it will just go on for another menu in the future. Sometimes I even use part of the ingredients from the skipped meal to make something completely different.  I normally pick up a few extra ingredients with my grocery budget that will make one or two simple meals that are crowd pleasers. Then I can pull out those meals when I really don’t feel like cooking.

The shelf stable starches. You can always make a quick meal with any of these and a few other simple things.

I hope that helps you as we all figure out what life right now.

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