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I don’t relate to some of the television shows from the 60’s and 70’s.  Someone like June Cleaver is standing in the kitchen – in a freshly pressed dress, classy heels, spotless make-up, with every hair in place – cooking dinner.  Her husband walks in from work and finds a tidy kitchen, is greeted with a cold drink and encouraged to sit in the living room while she finishes up.  He repairs to the living room and peruses the newspaper while carrying on conversations with the kids.  The kids quietly play jacks in the floor or diligently finish their homework.  They might talk about how to serve the man painting their house or discuss a meaningful book to read for an upcoming book report.

When my husband walks in the door from work, he will more likely find someone at the end of the hall looking for their happy heart, another couple of children tearfully trying to reconcile their relationship, and a mama wearing jeans, barefoot, with a ponytail that has seen better days in the kitchen chasing the toddler out of the cabinets,.  There might be a clean glass in the cabinet for a drink if he’s thirsty, but “cooking class” will have to finish before there is any hope of dinner.  Instead of being encouraged to unwind and chat with the kids, he is asked to take the whirling toddler from the cookie decorating cabinet and tend to the aroma issuing from the accident simmering in said toddler’s pants.

I affectionately refer to this time of day as the witching hour.

Eternity Clock

It’s this hour, late in the afternoon, when the sun begins its slow descent to the horizon and rumblings and groanings are heard in tummies throughout my house.  The noisy tummies turn into noisy children clamoring for attention and bickering as their lunchtime calories are depleted.  It starts like clockwork with one simple question:

“What’s for dinner?”

Can you relate?

Having a plan for dinner is helpful not only during the witching hour, but also for minimizing our food expenses.  By planning ahead, we save money on sales, bulk purchases, and time.

I’m sure you are sold on the concept and benefits of meal planning, so that’s all I want to say about that.  What I really want to talk about is a little trick I learned to make meal planning easier.

A lot of the time our family operates from freezer meals (a topic for another day), but we have phases where I am primarily planning freshly made meals.  I am in one of those phases right now.

The problem is, for me, meal planning is cumbersome and boring.  And if you read my post on Monday, you know I need red meat or things in the Quillen house can get really ugly really fast.  If we are going to eat well, I have to have a plan.

I knew one family who solved this problem by having seven daily menus that they repeated weekly.  There was a Monday plan, a Tuesday plan, and so on.  It doesn’t work for me because, I love efficiency, but I don’t like that much repetition.

Another friend simply wrote down their menus for an entire year – documenting shopping lists as well – and repeated it every year thereafter.  She allowed for a lot more variety, but I’m not patient enough to wait a whole year to get to the pre-planned, easy phase of the program.  Fifty-two unique weeks of menu plans is beyond me.

So, being the syncretist I sometimes am, I sort of married the two ideas.

I repeat breakfasts and lunches on a two week rotation, allowing for some variation.  This means I only have to have 14 days of lunch and breakfast ideas.  Thirteen, actually, because we have bagels every Sunday morning, and we have sandwiches when we come home from church on Sunday afternoons.  If I am repeating meals every two weeks, I am able to purchase items on sale or in bulk which reduces our grocery bill.

And my breakfast rotation is a little bit vague, too.  I might schedule muffins and cheese for a breakfast, but any given week we might make pumpkin muffins, blueberry muffins, banana muffins, zucchini muffins, donut muffins, snicker doodle muffins… you name it!  So it’s not exactly the same thing every other week, even though the menu plan looks fairly repetitive.

I am not very creative with lunches – they are my downfall.  We may eat ravioli every Friday until Jesus returns simply because I am short on ideas… but at least we are eating, right?

With dinners I’m a little more varied.  We operate on a 10 week rotation for dinners.  I chose 10 weeks because my rising chef’s pick 10 meals for their cookbook when they turn nine.  If they cook once per week for 10 weeks, we can get through all of their menus several times per year without growing tired of the things they prepare.

For a long time I managed this meal rotation on paper.  A little over a year ago I got the brilliant idea to use some of my digital calendar features to simplify things even more.

  • I set up google calendars for each meal of the day.
  • On each calendar I create an All-Day event for each menu.  This keeps all the meal plans at the top of my agenda view rather than at scheduled times throughout the day.
  • I set the Recurrence to the amount of time I want between repeating the menu – for breakfasts it’s every two weeks (except the Sunday breakfast is set to repeat weekly).  Lunch is the same as breakfast.  And then dinners are set for every 10 weeks.
  • When it is time to make a grocery list, I open my calendar and the meals are pretty much decided for me.
  • Since I can view the meal calendars simultaneously with my appointment calendar, I can make changes on the fly based upon what is happening in life in the current week.
  • Sometimes I simply shift meals around within the week because of soccer practice or an orthodontist appointment that will interfere with the timing required for meal preparation.
  • Other times I delete the meal and add something else in it’s place.  Maybe it’s somebody’s birthday – we celebrate birthdays with lots of special foods.  Maybe we are having company one evening – I may need to account for food allergies or dietary restrictions.  Sometimes we are surprised by a meal from someone else, have a date night, or the oven breaks and we need to order pizza.

I find editing much easier than creating, so having the creation part accomplished makes the whole process easier for me.

I will say that I like to try new things.  Sometimes I interrupt the schedule simply because I found a new recipe for Chicken Tikka Masala I really want to try and chicken is on sale, so it’s the perfect opportunity.

Maybe a two-week breakfast and lunch rotation is too frequent for you.  Maybe you don’t have 70 dinner recipes to make before you start repeating…

There is nothing special about the timing I chose – it’s what works for us.  But I will say, the repeating calendar option is wonderful and I think anyone who struggles with creating menu plans could benefit from that little idea.

I created menu plans for 10 weeks – just one week at a time – setting the recurrence for every dinner to repeat every 10 weeks.  Somewhere along the way, I lost count of how far I’d gotten into the plan, and I can tell you it was simply delightful when I opened the calendar on the 11th week and saw my work was already done!

I also started posting the menu plan on a dry erase board on our refrigerator and the spell of the witching hour was broken.  I even have kids who will start meals I’m scheduled to cook if they see I’m running behind.

Maybe someday I’ll greet my husband with a cold drink after all…

A girl can dream, right?

Eternity Clock by Robbert van der Steeg (originally posted to Flickr as Eternal clock) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons