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The Meals Don’t Plan Themselves

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As I mentioned last week, my husband and I have a pretty solid routine in place for planning our dinners. People ask me about it sometimes, curious perhaps about how a dietitian feeds her family. So today, a quick description for you and a semi-regular feature I’m calling The Meals Don’t Plan Themselves, where I’ll share my weekly menus from time to time.

The short version of the meal planning story is this: visit farmers market on Saturday, develop the menu on Saturday/Sunday, order groceries online on Sunday, groceries arrive on Monday morning, make the meals all week, repeat.

The long version is this: My town has a wonderful farmers market each Saturday and we buy much of our fresh fruit, vegetables, meats, eggs, and fish there. After our visit to the market we inventory the haul and then survey the contents of the fridge, freezer and pantry, taking note of any items that must be used before they go bad. We also take a quick peek at the family calendar to see if there are nights when we need on-the-go meals or when one of us won’t be at home. And then it’s a matter of coming up with the menu, guided by a few basic principles:

  1. Everyone in the family gets the same dinner. It’s hard enough to get one good dinner on the table. I’m sure as heck not making one for kids, one for husband or any such arrangement.
  2. Caveat to #1: Nobody wants to fight over Brussels sprouts after a long day of work (i.e., I always plan something kid-friendlier like green beans to serve alongside a “gross” vegetable).
  3. Plan with freshness in mind. Vegetables are eaten in the order in which they go bad, e.g.,leafy greens go on Monday or Tuesday, heartier veggies like broccoli, squash, beans can be served up later. Meats can be frozen to be used late in the week if need be.
  4. Meatless meals are healthy and cheap-ish and are usually included at least once a week.
  5. Use what we have. It sometimes requires creativity and flexibility to incorporate random ingredients and leftovers into the meal plan, but we are fanatical about not wasting food.
  6. Try to make things from scratch, but there’s no shame in short cuts. I’ll get marinara sauce from the Italian deli across the street, for example, or buy a semi-prepped piece of meat to save time. (This week’s menu includes an example of this.)

After the meals are decided, we jot down ingredients that we need to buy, add breakfast and lunch foods and anything else we need to the list, and then I open up the FreshDirect app on my phone and place my grocery order online. Usually this happens in the car on the way to or from a weekend activity. Sometimes I shop from my front porch, wine in hand.

Online grocery shopping is a whole other topic for another time, but for purposes of this discussion, I’ll just say that I LOVE IT. I’ve been a weekly online grocery shopper with FreshDirect (a NYC-based independent online grocer) since 2003. That said, most weeks I do still have to run into the grocery store at some point to get something. But picking up two or three things only takes 5 minutes and I almost never have to drag kids with me. The most common reason I hear for not wanting to try online grocery shopping is because people like to choose their own produce. I’ve never had a problem. So yes, I don’t always get to squeeze my own melons (mind out of the gutter!) but I do miss out on the experience of having kids trailing behind the cart whining for junk that I refuse to buy. So there’s that.

Though we try to plan for Monday through Friday, sometimes, like this week, we run out of steam and Friday is left blank. We’ll just have leftovers or grab something from a local market that night. And, we rarely plan Saturday and Sunday nights so far in advance, preferring instead to figure those nights out on the fly. Weekend nights are for fun cooking – making elaborate feasts for friends, trying new recipes. Unlike, as you’ll see, the basic (some of them downright mundane) weeknight meals that are easiest to get on the table.

[Side comment: I must give a shout out to my husband for his contribution to the above. I do all of the weeknight food prep because I’m home from work earlier than he is, but he often handles the farmers market shopping himself and he comes up with at least half of the menu ideas, and almost all of the good ones. I’m so lucky to have such a willing and capable partner when it comes to nourishing this family because – and perhaps you’ve noticed this too – these little people want to eat EVERY. SINGLE. DAY.]

Bottom line: Meal planning helps me get balanced and healthy dinners on the table and make efficient use of our food resources. And friends, I’m always looking for new dinner ideas. I’ll show you mine if you show me yours. 🙂

And so I present this week’s The Meals Don’t Plan Themselves:

  • Monday – Eggs (made to order), whole wheat toast with butter or jam, sliced carrots/peppers/cucumbers served with optional hummus
  • Tuesday – Oven fried chicken legs (adapted from this recipe), garden zucchini sautéed with onion, roasted fingerling potatoes
  • Wednesday – Little League team BBQ for dinner – I’m bringing a pasta salad
  • Thursday – Korean Sesame Pork Tenderloin (marinated and prepped by Fresh Direct, ready to go in the oven), steamed green beans, Israeli couscous

Back to it

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We still have almost a month before our kids go back to school here in New York, but already vacations are giving way to back-to-school shopping. Classroom assignments are about to arrive in the mail, sending all of the moms in my small town into a collective tizzy. Talk has turned from beaches and barbecues to things like signing up for Brownies and determining when flag football practices will be.

For me, the summer is not so different, routine-wise, from the school year. At least not on the surface. I work full-time and my older kids are in daycamps. There is a morning rush out the door, lunches to pack, after-work dinners to create, workouts to squeeze in. BUT. Getting out of the house by 9 instead of 8 doesn’t really compare. Summer weeknights are devoid of homework and extracurricular activities. On the weekends we’re not rushing to religious school and sports. Even birthday parties happen with less frequency. And all of that is soon coming to an end.

Knowing that the daily grind is about to get grindier is a bit unsettling. So, I’ve been handling that stress in my typical way – formulating checklists, making sure I have supplies, making plans, developing a strategy. I’m not in panic mode by any means, but I’ve pinned a silly number of “Easy Weeknight Crockpot Dinners”, let’s just say that.

I tend to organize the things that are under my control (staying on top of our calendars, the clutter in my kitchen, etc.) so that it’s easier to manage when things come up that are out of my control (babysitter calls in sick, late night at work, etc.). And, while I’d say I’m a pretty effective household manager, there’s always room for improvement, especially as the school year ramps up. My new-school-year resolutions are below. Most are food-focused, unsurprisingly – it’s in my dietitian DNA to obsess over how I’m feeding the fam. Time-management improvements are also topping the list this year:

  • I will resurrect my routine chart – Last year I made a chart to hang in the kitchen to keep us on track in the morning and before bed. I started with a great free printable from one of my favorite blogs, IHeart Organizing. We haven’t even looked at that thing in months. Time to dust it off.
  • I will be disciplined about night-before tasks – I will pack lunches the night before, and I will lay out A’s clothes and hair things, too. This is not rocket science, but for some reason I have never embraced this way of life. I guess I really enjoy spending my mornings yelling at my kids that they’re late as I scramble to throw lunch into a bag and shove it at them (lovingly, of course) as they trip out the door. Yes, that must be it.
  • I will enforce weekday policies – Confession: We have been lame about video games. Our 8yo N can’t play for hours on end, but we have few limits. This has not served us well. Last year, he and I often argued about getting his homework done, because as a human child he preferred to play his favorite game rather than sit at the table and do work. Go figure. Now that third grade is here, and I’m told the homework actually requires concentration, on school days there will be a no video games policy and we will have a set homework time each afternoon/evening. Everyone will benefit. (Cue whining.)
  • I will stock my freezer – Recently, we fulfilled a dream and bought a chest freezer. (I know, dream big.) Now I need to get in make-and-freeze mode. I resolve to store up basic daily items like breakfast foods (pancakes, breakfast quesadillas), homemade snacks and treats (chocolate chip cookies, granola), meal builders (shredded chicken for tacos and soups), and full-on meals (chili, chicken sautés, soups, etc). Weekday meal scramble be gone.
  • I will plan more than just dinner – Each weekend JR and I plan our dinners for the week and then I place a grocery order to be delivered by FreshDirect at 6:30am on Monday. We have that routine down pat. But I struggle so much with lunch. Instead of just buying a bunch of lunch-type items and figuring it out on the fly (which never seems to work) I resolve to plan out the lunches for each child at the start of the week. I’ve tried this in the past (in fact, I wrote about it once here) but honestly, I didn’t stick with it. Well, I’m trying again! Heck, maybe if I get good at it, I’ll plan some breakfasts too!

How are you getting organized for the school year? Any great tips or recipes? Do share. And, happy back-to-school everyone!

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