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How to Make a Family Meal Plan That Works

It is another typical day. You wake up and jump in the shower thinking about what to throw on the table for breakfast. After considering many possibilities, you realize you are out of time. You grab a couple boxes of breakfast cereal from the cupboard and the gallon of milk from the fridge. Lunch passes in a blur too, the bread winner of the family ends up buying lunch at the local fast food joint, and you end up feeling guilty about the health (or lack thereof) of the cookies you snatched up for a snack. Finally, after a long and tiring day, you stand despondently in front of the fridge while the kids bounce off the walls screaming they are hungry. Must be another pizza night.

Does this sound familiar? You need a plan! If you thought making a menu was only for those über-organized. Type-A personalities, think again. You will reap lots of benefits such as:

  • Reduced stress knowing what to make and when to make it.
  • Cutting your food costs since you know exactly what you need, can make a list, buy in bulk, and stock up when prices are low.
  • Saving time for things that are much more important that standing in front of the fridge with a glazed look in your eyes – such as prepping, gardening, raising chickens, or even the simple joy of an impromptu ball game outside with the kids.
  • Improving the health of your family and yourself through better eating.
  • Facilitating cooperation from the whole family, as now anyone can look at the menu and see what is for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snack time.

Ready to have a family meal plan that really works? Here is how to get started.

Start Small

Like any project, trying to create a long-term plan for what you will eat can seem overwhelming. If you have trouble deciding what to make for dinner tonight, how will you decide what to make for dinner for seven, ten, or twenty nights? But it can be done, and you can do it!

At the beginning of the week, sit down with pen and paper (or your computer) and brainstorm all the foods your family loves to eat. If you need ideas, ask your kids, spouse, or roommates for ideas, and soon you will have more meal ideas that you know what to do with. Your initial goal should be to plan your menu for one week.

Be Realistic

Think about the limits your days put on you and your family. Organize your plan so that it fits you and your family.

  • Number of meals. You can just write a list of seven breakfasts, seven lunches, seven dinners, and seven snacks. Then for any given meal time, pick any of the above, and cross it off the list.
  • Day-by-day. Another method is to actually assign different meals for different days. Put the quick and easy crock-pot stew on the menu for the night you have activities out of the house, or the big breakfast on the lazy weekend morning that you have more time.
  • Combination. Perhaps most days you would like a set schedule, but need a quick go-to meal in the event things change. Then create a meal plan that includes a few “extra” flex meals that can be thrown together in a few minutes, if need be.

Make sure there are enough snacks on the menu, and don’t forget the occasional dessert too!

Another tip is to plan a “buffet night” and serve up all the leftovers. Do this the night before your trash is taken out, and you will be able to clean the fridge, avoid wasting food, and let everyone have their favorite meal over again all at once.

Think Health

Planning what you eat is a great time to start being more mindful about your health too. Create the menu around the food pyramid, making sure that you include vegetables, fruits, grains, and protein at each meal. If you plan out portion sizes, shopping will get easier as you know how much of each thing to purchase.

Once you start writing it down, you might realize you are eating the same few meals most of the time. Variety is one of the best ways to ensure that you are getting all the nutrients you need from your diet, so don’t be afraid to try new things. Browse cookbooks for ideas, or surf around some recipe websites for inspiration. Even adapting some of your restaurant favorites can be a fun way to spice up the menu. In my menu planning, I try to pick one new recipe from a cookbook every week or so. In the process we have discovered some new family favorites, and certainly expanded our palette.

Test It Out

As you begin your menu planning adventures, inevitably you will discover ways to do things better. Forgot to add side dishes? Too many things that you like but no one else in the family does? Need some new ways to get more veggies into the diet?

Solicit feedback from the other members of the house as well.

Build Over Time

Whatever you do, make sure you keep notes about what works and what doesn’t. Hole-punch these sheets, and keep in a 3-ring binder. Over time you will build up a menu that takes into consideration the local produce available in each growing season, what you are producing in your home garden, and seasonal foods and parties. This is also a great place to store your shopping lists, and food storage goals and plans. If you can do this consistently for one year, you will have a full year of menus, and then you can stop planning altogether – your menu is set for life unless you want to change it just for fun, or to make adjustments for changes in your family.

Taking a little time up front can save you lots of time and waste in the long run. Just try it for one week, and feel free to leave comments with the results!

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