Thursday, June 16, 2011

Grocery Bag: Behind the Scenes

A reader recently asked me to share the "behind the scenes" of my weekly meal planning.  I can't claim my methods to be either grand or ground breaking, but I am proof that motivation and a little extra effort can go a long way when it comes to making healthy, homemade meals for a growing family. 

I was first motivated to start a weekly dinner meal plan about a year ago.  We were in the midst of our previously mentioned "(mini) Food Revolution,"  and I had hit a breaking point.  I was trying to implement  improvements in the food we were eating: eat fewer meals out of boxes, freshen up with fresher foods and make more meals from scratch.  But, these changes were coming at a high price that I couldn't afford: the price of my time.  Because fresher, healthier food often takes longer to prepare, I needed a better game plan.  One year later, my weekly "Grocery Bag" meal plan has become an indispensable part of our life.

One of the many perks of meal planning is that it allows me to look for new, varied recipes for our family to try.  When it comes to eating, my kids are pretty average for preschoolers and toddlers.  If they are starving, they will try just about anything, but usually they are somewhat skeptical of things I put on the table.  I don't cater to their pickiness in my planning, but I do my best to make the food on their plates look as inviting as possible.  For me, this means separating out the various foods into separate, identifiable portions on their plates: if T and I are having a stir fry or pasta dish, I may separate the ingredients into piles for my kids rather than leaving them all mixed together.  I always try to plan a fruit and a vegetable as part of the meal, offering our kids something familiar with each meal regardless of the main course.  I also employ kid-friendly tricks in my cooking, such as pureeing or finely chopping veggies to hide their foreign texture before adding them into casseroles, sauces or pastas.  We always ask that our kids take one bite of the dinner they are given before they leave the table.  Beyond that, if they choose not to eat, that is ok, but no other dinner or bedtime snack choices will be offered other than their dinner plate that night.  Many nights our toddler leaves the table having eaten only one bite, and we have to be ok with that.  However, as a result of this, my kids will eat many foods that they wouldn't otherwise try if I didn't offer them as part of a meal on a regular basis.

Here is an outline of how I get meals on the table:

*Depending on when I am going to do my grocery shopping, I try to assemble my recipes for the week during the weekend before.
*I make a grocery list and a plan for when and where I will do my shopping for various groceries.
*I also make a plan for when I will do the prep and cooking for each day's recipes.  That way I know what preparations I have to do in the evenings and mornings in order to prep for the next day's dinner.
 *I have several go-to sources for my recipes, including a store of monthly cooking magazines (Everyday Food and Fine Cooking are my current favorites), a few favorite websites (MyRecipes, Fine Cooking,, Tasty Kitchen, The Pioneer Woman, and my friend SnoWhite's cooking blog, Finding Joy in My Kitchen) as well as a few cookbooks.  
*I only plan five dinners each week.  This is allows for at least one night when we eat leftovers and one night when our schedules will be too unpredictable for me to cook a full meal (perhaps we will be eating with family, T will be on call, we have an event out and much pack sandwiches to go, etc).

The evening before:
Part of the benefit of meal planning is that I can make double use of my preparation time during the week.  I don't make many meals that require prep time the night before,  but my meal plan allows me to anticipate my needs for the next days as I am working on tonight's dinner.  For instance, if I am chopping a cup of onion for tonight's dinner, I may know that I will need another onion and a green pepper chopped for dinner the next night, and I will be able to chop and set them aside while I am poised and ready.  Additionally, because I make our bread in our breadmaker, I may fill the maker and set the timer so the bread will be ready the next morning.

The morning before:
Similarly to the evening before, I try to use time in the morning to advance the evening meal along.  I may chop veggies, make dough, fill and start the slow cooker, defrost meat, make a sauce, etc.  Ultimately this means that I won't have as much prep work to do in the evening.

This is go time for dinner.  My kids still take naps, so if I am at home during nap time (i.e. not at work) I try to take a few minutes to finish any prep work that may need to happen before the evening low-blood-sugar-craze hits.  My kids wake up from naps/rest time right as dinner prep is in full swing.  This time of the day is often devoted to puzzles, coloring, playdough or another semi-independent activity that I can observe while finishing dinner.  If someone is particularly squirrely or just interested in dinner prep, I have them in the kitchen to help "cook" or  "sample" what I am making.  We have a Learning Tower in our kitchen, which is indispensable.  While in "The Tower," my toddler & preschooler can join me at counter height, play with playdough or color next to me as I cook, see what's going on, or sample what I am making.

*Note:  Because we make and eat nearly all of our meals at home, I have been forced to teach my kids that post-nap time is dinner-making time for mommy.  I have explained to my kids over and over that they are welcome to join me in the kitchen or choose a semi-independent activity to enjoy while I make dinner.  Over the years we have had many timeouts for whining or poor behavior while I am trying to cook.  Many nights still melt down and I miss my goal time for getting dinner on the table.  However, meal planning has helped me to limit these episodes because I am better prepared and have less prep to do on any given night.

Record-Keeping and Follow-up:
A final, important part of my meal planning is storing the meal feedback and recipes we like in an easily-accessible format.  For me, this means having a digital recipe library on my computer.  This makes future weeks easier, as have a whole set of old recipes at my fingertips.  I used to just have a folder on my computer for my recipes where I stored electronic copies of my recipes for later review.   This quickly became cumbersome as my library ballooned.  I now use a Mac application called Yummy Soup, which I love.  It allows me to create a recipe library, easily import recipes from the web or create new ones, store recipe pictures, make meal calendars, grocery lists, and easily search my recipes by name or ingredient.    Yummy Soup is available in the here at the Mac app store for users of Mac OS 10.6 or newer.  You can sign up for a free 15 day trial here and purchase it later if you like it.  I bought it at one point when it was on sale, so keep an eye out for discounts if it looks helpful.

A few notes on breakfast, lunch and left-overs:
What about our other meals during the week?  I do far less planning when it comes to breakfasts and lunch.  Our breakfasts tend to involve less variety and require less preparation:  homemade granola, yogurt, peanut butter toast, eggs, even pancakes, all come to the table in a few minutes.  When it comes to lunch, we eat a lot of sandwiches (so I have to be sure I have made bread), raw fruit, veggies, and LEFTOVERS.   While cooking dinner for our family, I almost never make a recipe with less than 6-8 servings.  This means that I almost always have some leftovers to use for lunch the next day or a train-wreck dinner later in the week.  

I am always on the lookout for additional tips, tricks and new recipes, so please feel free to share them with me in the comments or after future Grocery Bag posts!  Finally, as I have written before, I try to remember to keep a balance perspective when it comes to feeding my family:

"Food is essential to life.  Therefore, make it good."
~S. Truett Cathy, founder of Chick-fil-A

....yet sometimes it's best just to... 

"Start where you are.  Use what you have.  Do what you can."
~Arthur Ashe

May God bless our kitchens!


SnoWhite said...

Thanks for sharing this, Queen B. Such helpful insights -- and that kitchen learning tower is amazing!

I too find that maximizing the prep time I do have by chopping veggies for that meal and the next helps so much. We've recently started keeping frozen pizza dough, and I wasn't sure how I'd like it ... but we LOVE it. It's so easy to have the dough in there ready to go for breakfast, lunch or dinner.

Oh, and we love leftovers too :)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for such a detailed post! You have definitely given me a lot to think about. I'll especially enjoy looking over the recipe website suggestions. I don't particularly enjoy cooking, but I am committed to providing healthy meals for my family, so your advice is helpful. I'll also have to check out the recipe software. I think that getting organized in that manner might cut down on the tedium of planning meals. Do you have a laptop or tablet computer that you keep on the counter while cooking to reference the recipes? --K

Queen B said...

K, you are welcome, thanks for prompting me to put it into writing! Yes, I have a laptop so I can have it with me in the kitchen when I cook. It is very handy. If we ever get a desk top, I might have to have it on the kitchen counter!

Queen B said...

SnoWhite, what a great idea? Do you freeze your own or buy it at the store?