If you’re anything like me, summer represents the best of times and the worst of times when it comes to meal planning. The good part? Since the kids aren’t in school, I take a break from the rigors of weekly meal planning – because, after all, they don’t need to do too much thinking to swim and ride their bikes all day. So it’s kind of a mental vacation. In the summer, hotdogs or hamburgers two nights in a row is perfectly acceptable. So is cereal for dinner!! The bad side is, by getting out of the routine, getting back into the routine can be torturous.
Over my years of parenting (I have three children ranging from ages 9 to 26), I’ve learned a few things along the way, especially when it comes to meal planning. I didn’t have this amazing knowledge when my oldest son was in school, but by the time I got to the last two I had figured some things out. Be warned, this is not your typical approach to meal planning. I’m not (necessarily) going to tell you to make a master grocery list and set aside three hours every weekend to plan. You may end up doing that, but that’s not the heart of my approach to meal planning. My approach is more practical and big picture, and it’s designed to make meal planning part of your daily routine.
A. Accept your family’s eating preferences.
This is not a white flag of surrender, but, rather, a place to start. As parents, of course we want to expand our kids’ palates, and we want them to eat a (relatively) balanced diet. The truth is, we can’t get them there if we don’t first accept what we’re dealing with. Some of their preferences can be accommodated, some of them can be adjusted and some of them just aren’t changing! The key is recognizing where you and your family are on that spectrum.
I start by not asking anyone to go too far outside of their wheelhouse. For example, my kids don’t like tomatoes. That doesn’t mean they don’t like tomato-based sauces, they just don’t like eating plain tomatoes. I can work with that. My husband, however, likes tomatoes (and they provide a nice pop of color on any plate!). So, when cooking certain dishes that would typically include tomatoes, I make a substitution and use cherry or grape tomatoes. They are easily identified and can be pushed aside by the kiddos without having to pick through the entire plate of food.
B. Have a Backup Plan
Here’s a scenario: You have meals planned for the week. You’ve been to the grocery store and you’ve even planned snacks. And then it happens … you get stuck at work and there’s no way you’ll be home in time to cook. Nothing can feel more disappointing than having a plan and not being able to execute, especially when it comes to caring for our babies. What to do? Always have a backup plan. Backup plans don’t have to be elaborate; they just need to be readily accessible and easily executable.
I have multiple backup plans that allow me to be flexible with the demands of everyday life. One thing to do is keep your family’s favorite frozen meal on hand. I know that as a general rule we try to avoid the high sodium content of frozen foods, but we’re talking about things happening outside of the norm. My family really enjoys frozen fried shrimp. So, I generally have a box (or two) on hand, and when push comes to shove, I’m ready.
There are other scenarios that can require a backup plan as well. Like when everything is going well and according to schedule, but you just don’t feel like cooking. It’s OK, Mom … it happens to the best of us. In those situations, I reach for my favorite backup plan: DoorDash! While it may not be practical to order every night, it’s a nice treat for the family and a nice break for you.
The point is, backup plans don’t have to be limited to the occasions when something goes wrong. Backup plans also work in those moments where everything is going great, but you need to do something different.
C. Make a Commitment.
This seems intuitive, because, seriously, parents are the most committed people on the face of the earth (can I get an amen!). However, when it comes to meal planning, we start strong, but by mid-November we start to run out of steam. The commitment isn’t to prepare a meal plan every week. The commitment is to maintain consciousness of your family’s need for physical nourishment and connection. It’s very easy to get caught up in the mechanics and miss the point. It’s easy to get stuck in the rituals of meal planning and miss the silent communication of love to your family.
In addition to the physical nourishment that comes with meal planning, there is also a nourishment of the soul. When we maintain an awareness of the individual likes and dislikes of our family, we show them that we care. When we take the extra 10 minutes to set aside gravy because one kid doesn’t like it, it shows them how much they mean to us and how important they are. Meal planning is a way to express and share your love and concern for the individuals who make up your family. It’s a way to honor their individuality and invite them to try new things. When we make the commitment to approach meal planning from this angle, the mechanics fade and the meaning arises.