Wednesday, July 05, 2006

WFMW - Menu planning for the spontaneous cook

While I am a big advocate for eating meals together, when it comes to planning them, let’s just say, I’m more of a scatterbrained spontaneous cook.

I’ve tried the long-in-advance menu planning thing, and it’s no surprise - I’m a complete failure at it. I could make an awesome spreadsheet, sure, complete with a complicated plan for side dishes and parsley garnish.

But really. I mean, how can I possibly predict what in the world will sound good to me, two weeks from Wednesday? What, with my husband’s work schedule and our kids’ sports schedules, I need more flexibility.

That beautiful spreadsheet, all that parsley, gone to seed. What is a girl to do?

Unfortunately (complicating my free-spirited cooking ways), with a family the size of mine, if I leave things TOO much to chance, the Ever-Hungry-Ones will graze through an entire box of cereal before I can say, “What sounds good for dinner?”

So (as usual) I compromise. Rather than make a week or two of complete menus ahead of time, I just use categories to help spur on my genius in the kitchen.

Here’s what I do:

  1. Depending on the season and sports or church commitments, I decide which days are best for “real cooking. I usually cook something from scratch about three weeknights. Other nights get assigned quick or make-ahead meals. That way I don’t feel guilty if I’m throwing on the Hamburger Helper – hey, I “planned” for this night!

  1. Then, rather than deciding exactly which dish I wanted to make when, I made a list of all our favorite dishes under one of several categories or “themes.” Here's my ubiquitous 4x6 card: Here are my main-dish menu themes:

    1. Oven/Grill
    2. Soup
    3. Make-ahead/kid friendly
    4. Ethnic
    5. Chicken
    6. Breakfast
    7. Hamburger
    8. Some dishes overlap categories, but that’s just so we don’t eat hamburger seven different ways in one week. This is not exhaustive, but helps me when my brain is too tired to think creatively about food.

3. Each night gets a dish from one of these categories. During the school year, I try to assign one category per day of the week, such as Monday Night Soup Night, Tuesday Night Ethnic Night, etc., and repeat that schedule weekly until our family schedule changes. It makes it easier for me to remember from week to week, and easier for the kids/husband to know what to expect.

  1. Of course, there is a tradeoff for this ability to "wing it” when I cook.

That tradeoff is GOOD GROCERY SHOPPING habits.

In other words, a well-stocked pantry. For me, the most important part of preventing Major Cooking Frustration Syndrome is keeping a detailed list going (ours is on the fridge). You can only make that run for bread and milk so many times, and you are out of spontaneity in a hurry.

Every week when we shop, I try to make sure I have ALL the ingredients for one or two main dishes in EACH category (My husband, the incredible man that he is, does our major grocery shopping, so lists are even more important.) Of course, this is within reason - we have chicken and hamburger every week. We rotate things like ham, pork chops or roast, depending on what sounds good/what’s on sale. Obviously there are things that won't keep from week to week. Roll with me here, people.

When we first started, it took a while to figure out what to stock up on. But now, if we use something this week, we put it on the list for next week (and buy two if I have a coupon or it’s on sale) so I never run out.

That way if everyone’s sick of spaghetti on Ethnic night, I can switch it to tacos or enchiladas without having to make a special trip to the store (can you tell I am not a shopper?).

5. I don’t usually plan the side dishes because we keep a stash of frozen vegetables on hand and we just buy whatever fresh veggies are in season (although I am expecting to get at least one squash from my garden). We keep salad stuff on hand for use at least once a week. Other sides for us are rice, potatoes, pasta, rice-a-roni, etc. We try to eat healthy, so we eat a lot of pretty plain food and avoid packaged sides with lots of fat. That actually makes my cooking job easier!

6. I do try to make the dinner decision early in the day, if I can (usually before 3:00), BEFORE everyone’s starving and trying to convince me to make what they want (or to order pizza), instead! Sometimes I just don’t have the inspiration early, but having the ingredients on hand for several choices makes things easier.

So here’s how my week looked last spring, when we ate late after volleyball on Monday afternoons and had to eat early on Wednesday nights to get to youth group:

Monday – Soup (make early in the day and include some nice bread, biscuits or cornbread)
Tuesday – Ethnic
Wednesday – Make ahead/kid friendly
Thursday – Oven/Grill
Friday – Breakfast (this is the one thing we do all year long that has become a fun family tradition)
Saturday – Sandwiches
Sunday – Roast (occasionally), sub sandwiches, or eat out (usually Subway!)

Of course, as with as anything you read here, in the summer, much of this goes to pot, but even now, it does give me a framework for staying one step ahead of my let's-eat-cereal-for-dinner grazers.

It works for me!

Stop in and say hello to Shannon at Rocks in My Dryer for a complete list of this week's tips. Hopefully others will be more brief than mine!


Katrina @ Callapidder Days said...

Great system, Katherine. I keep a list of meals by category (so I don't get into a rut of making the same 5 things every week), but that's as organized as I've gotten. Thanks for sharing your process!

Amy said...

Great idea, Katherine (as always!!) I am a planner, by nature, but have been a bit of a slacker these days. Having a rough idea of what we are going to eat that week would be beneficial for me! Thanks!

Jan/ said...

Now that it is just the two of us, spontaneity really works. Especially since my darling likes to cook, and I don't mind cleaning up. The only scary time is when I ask what's for supper, and he says "stuff"--that means he is cleaning out the refrigerator, and using whatever is in there to make "something". Somoetimes it is great. Sometimes.......
it's edible.

Maggie said...

Great! I do somthing similar: Monday is Ground beef night, Tuesday Chicken, Wednesday is pasta, Thursday is red meat and friday is kid-friendly fare... Or it was. Now it is - Monday - baseball night - Crockpot meal, Tuesday - Baseball - Chicken nuggests, Wed - no baseball- get a nsakc kids 'cuase Mom's cooking when she gets home.... LOL

Michelle- This One's for the Girls said...

Alright, soul sister, we have finally parted ways. I just can't handle that much spontaneity in my life.

But I'm always for "whatever works" and I'm glad it works for you. :)

Beck said...

Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. I suffer with meal planning, too - I love doing it, but sticking to it? What a great post.

Laura said...

This is a really great idea! I've been feeling a little stalled lately in this area! I appreciate that you shared!

TheNormalMiddle said...

Menu planning is STILL hard for me. I always try to plan around the sales...but this time of year we go to the pool, beach, stay outside, etc and by suppertime I am lazy and tired! I laughed like crazy when you made the comment about the kids mowing through a whole box of cereal. I know that feeling TOO well!!!!

Mama Duck said...

Wow. That's way better than anything I do, which is usually "huh, it's dinnertime?? What's in the fridge?"

GiBee said...

Oh, I'm so bad at this. I like to cook, I'd just rather be waited on, served food someone else cooked, have them take the dishes away that someone ELSE will wash, and just go home. So much simpler!

Barb Szyszkiewicz said...

Love the category idea. That will help a lot.

Overwhelmed! said...

I'm actually doing the labor intensive weekly meal planning. It's working so far, but I like your category idea as well!

Every Friday I do a Five Ingredient Friday recipe exchange. I'd love it if you'd participate this Friday! :)

I've just posted my first WFMW. Stop by and take a peek! :)

Glass Half Full said...

Ok -- I am a bit shocked that you failed at a weekly menu planned because your meal's idea rocks!! :)

Unknown said...

You sort of surprised me--I took you for the "weeks in advance" type. Figuring out the make ahead and crock pot nights has really helped me stay on target with the family meals.

Nicole said...

WOW! I am impressed. No way could I be this organized. I can tell that you have 5 kids. That is what I am chalking it up too, because at this point I am feeling a little overwhelmed at just READING this. I am telling myself that if I had one more child I would have to do this too. Great birth control. HA!!

boomama said...

I love this idea. With only one child so far, my problem isn't trying to manage his schedule (he's 3!) :-), but I do like to cook on the fly...I like to cook according to what we're in the mood for. So I very much like your "flexibility within a structure" - the more I think about it, the more I realize what a huge difference it could make with planning and cooking. Wow. Good stuff.

Unknown said...

Awesome planning. I had a similar idea but, well, not really, 'cause it's only me and the boy (that would be my DH).

Hmm, I might have an idea for next week!
Thanks for stopping by my place. I really appreciate it.

Carol said...

Spontaneous? As in I was going to do grilled chicken, and had it all thawed and in the fridge to marinate, but there is a very serious and ominous threat of rain that could come pouring down at any minute, so I'm going with pasta instead so I don't have to stand in the rain to grill? Sponaneous like that?

You are so much more cuisine-organized than I am. Mine goes more like, what did I buy at the grocery store last week? Oh yea! Stuff that sounded good at the time, but I'm not so sure about now. LOL!

Domestic CEO said...

Great system! I do Monday - pizza, Tuesday - chicken, Wednesday - meat, Thursday - pasta, and Saturday - Breakfast type food. Friday we eat at my parents' and Sunday we eat at my in-laws' (I know, very nice!). It makes it so much easier!

Carol said...

Spontaneous? As in I was going to do grilled chicken, and had it all thawed and in the fridge to marinate, but there is a very serious and ominous threat of rain that could come pouring down at any minute, so I'm going with pasta instead so I don't have to stand in the rain to grill? Sponaneous like that?

You are so much more cuisine-organized than I am. Mine goes more like, what did I buy at the grocery store last week? Oh yea! Stuff that sounded good at the time, but I'm not so sure about now. LOL!

Andi @ udandi / Lunch It Punch It said...

My mom used to do a menu and I loved knowing what we were going to have for dinner!

Thanks for stopping by my blog, I'll let you know if I decide to do contract painting ;)

Susanne said...

This is great! Most of the time I'm a fly by the seat of my pants type person for cooking. Love to cook just never got the organization thing going. Thanks for the ideas!

Lola said...

You always have great ideas to share for WFMW. Way to accomodate your busy family's needs and still have a decent, nutritious meal ready to go for them.
Thanks for the comment over at Lifetakeslola as well, it really upped my blogging morale!

Mom2fur said...

I enjoy menu planning, and I love hte idea of your 4 x 6 card. That's the size of my recipe file. And I love your 'breakfast for dinner' idea. My mom sometimes made us pancakes for dinner and we all thought it was the biggest treat. She probably did it because she was broke, LOL!
Oh, and since you like Subway--check and see if there are any coupons in your big phone book. Ours has a big, green-colored coupon section. I was surprised to find a whole page of Subway coupons there, among others!

Christina said...

I thought your plan was great because you can have some flexibility in it. Like ethnic night you can do Mexican, or Italian, or Chinese, etc. Also you can do differnt dishes for each, like spaghetti or ziti for Italian. I may steel this from you. I have 7 kids with 2 grown and out the door, so I use the crockpot a lot. I do occasionally buy the frozen crockpot meal bags and do 2 at a time for days I don't even have the time to throw 5 ingredients in the pot.