I have a lot going on. A lot, a lot. There’s Ninja Writers. And managing a new business. And working on my next book.
Plus, I have three kids. We’re deep into soccer season. My parents-in-law live in my basement apartment.
I’m super busy. Like non-stop from 5 a.m. until I fall into bed at night busy. And I have a feeling that you’re reading this (I almost wrote ‘sitting there,’ but chances are pretty good you haven’t sat since lunch), you’re crazy busy, too.
So here’s what happens when I’m this busy. Especially on soccer nights, when Ruby and I don’t get home until after seven.
Me: I’m hungry.
Ruby: Me, too. Let’s call Dad.
Kevin (on the first ring): Don’t even say it. I already picked up pizza.
It’s so easy to fall into a pizza-run or drive-through habit when you’re insanely busy and time just slips away from you. Alternatively, it’s just as easy to spend your writing time cooking. Because your family needs to occasionally eat something that isn’t pizza or a five-dollar foot long.
There is literally no way to be as right-brained as I am, as busy as I am right now, and successfully have a home-cooked meal most nights if the first time I think about it is on the way to soccer practice or as I’m finally coming up for air in the afternoon. It’s just not going to happen.
I’ve tried every single meal plan out there. I’ve ordered eMeals, which was fabulous, but not flexible enough for me. I’ve at least considered a fairly complicated system I read about on a blog that involves an online calendar and a lot of looking up recipes to load it up on the front end. (There is no way. No. Way.) I’ve tried just writing down a meal plan once a week like a normal person. I’ve tried winging it.
Just like with everything else in my life, I need something that’s both flexible and structured enough to help me get out of my own way. And something that leaves me room for writing, somewhere in the day. So, way, way less than someone else telling me what to eat every day or (shudder) using a computer program to track Pinterest recipes. And more than me scribbling something in a notebook and keeping my fingers crossed that I’ll stick with it.
After months of thinking on this and trying things, I’ve finally hit on a system that works so well it’s almost like magic.
Meal-planning Family Calendar
I picked up a full-size monthly calendar for about $5. It’s made by Mead. It doesn’t have any weekly pages–it’s basically a wall calendar in book form, with some space in the back for notes, future planning, passwords, and contacts.
Take a few minutes and fill in your family’s schedule for the month and maybe next month. I wouldn’t go further ahead than that. I used pencil, because things change. I know myself well enough to know that being faced with a permanent entry in a calendar that’s wrong can completely derail me. In my Family Calendar Meal Planner I wrote in my work schedule, Kevin’s work schedule, Ruby’s soccer schedule, any appointments or events, the day every week when Nick needs a ride home, Bountiful Basket pickup day–whatever regularly scheduled stuff we have going on, goes on the calendar.
This is a true family calendar. Any appointments or events that come up go into the calendar. We scored tickets to see America play at a local casino super cheap–that went in. We’re all going with friends to see Batman Vs. Superman next week. That went in. Spring break went in. Ruby’s choir concert. Kevin’s hair cut. You get the idea.
Putting the family schedule on the meal planning calendar makes perfect sense and it was what really made this whole thing gel for me. Because I can look at the week and see where I need a slow cooker meal or a dinner that Kevin can/will make, and where I can indulge in making a more complicated dinner.
The other thing that really made a huge difference was sticky notes. Remember what I said about writing in pencil, because messing up permanently is the fastest way for me to become completely derailed? I’m not kidding. I’ll make a meal plan. It’ll go well on Sunday and Monday and Tuesday, then Wednesday after soccer we have that pizza conversation I mentioned–and I don’t make whatever was planned. And then it all goes down the tubes from there until I make the next week’s meal plan and it all starts again.
Sticky notes are my friend. I knew that already, because I use them like a mad woman on my plot boards. I love that if something comes up, I can pop the sticky note off, move things around, and voila. I’m still on track.
Basically, I write the meal on a sticky note and put it on the calendar on the day that we’re going to eat it. I only write the entree and maybe a side dish if we ALWAYS have the same side dish with that entree (pork and sauerkraut, for instance.) That way we can make seasonal choices or add in what’s on sale that week for the rest of the meal. The flexibility of this part of the plan really speaks to the right-brained part of me that bristles against both having to do something just because it’s written down AND against not doing what I’ve written down.
Then, after you’ve made a meal, move the sticky note to the next day that you want to serve it. That’s bolded, because it’s THAT important. And awesome. If you aren’t sure which day you want to serve the meal again, just move it to the month that you want to serve it. We had turkey Reuben sandwiches last week, and I moved that sticky note to May. We also had spaghetti, which got moved to a specific day about two weeks away. My calendar has a little notes section on the right side. That’s where I stick my meals when I’m done with them, if I’m not sure which day I want to serve it yet.
What happens, then, is that instead of staring at a blank page wondering what we should have for dinner several nights from now, I have some meals already set for the next week, and others that I know I want to make that month. Can you imagine how much easier that makes the whole process?
Here’s a sample of one of my calendar pages, to give you an idea of what I’m talking about.
If you go back to the first picture, you’ll see a bigger sticky note with a list of meal preparations. The other thing that has really helped me is spending some time on Sundays pre-preparing for that week’s meals. For instance, I can see that we’re having chicken and broccoli Alfredo, a chicken Caesar salad, and tacos next week. On Sunday I can cook all the chicken and prepare the taco meat. Throwing that taco meat into the slow cooker Wednesday afternoon is going to make it actually easier to have homemade tacos after soccer practice than it would be to stop for pizza.
Okay, the last phase of this system is simple. At the back of the calendar, on the ‘notes’ pages, I write down our favorite meals as I make them. Only the ones that I’m definitely, someday, going to make again.
So, that’s it. The meal-planning system that has not only completely done away with the soccer-night take-out runs, but made it actually easier for me to make dinner at home than run through a drive-through. It’s 100 percent flexible, completely intuitive, analog (which means it can go anywhere, there isn’t a program or app you have to figure out, and our right-brained brains can see the whole thing in one shot), and gets better over time as you use it and fill it up.