Menu Planning Basics

Menu planningFeeding a family… it’s part of the territory, but sometimes it feels like painting the Golden Gate Bridge (a huge job that truly never ends). We gather recipe ideas, make a list of meals, check the kitchen for ingredients, make a list, check sales and coupons (maybe), go buy groceries, bring them home and put them away (or at least the cold stuff…), and there’s still nothing to eat because we haven’t even started with the cooking part. At that point, we want to just order pizza or something else that takes almost no effort, but even if we manage to cook supper, we’re really wiped out by the time we need to the kitchen. Does this sound familiar?

I would love to use the wonderful preplanned menus with accompanying shopping guides planned around this week’s sales at our local store, but between food allergies, sensitivities, and picky eaters, they just haven’t work for us. I’ve attempted to use some and just adjust the ingredients and recipes, but my family longs for their favorite dishes repeatedly instead. Also, I’ve probably spent hours walking through the grocery store checking labels in case any ingredients have changed, and I frequently find myself walking all over the grocery store gathering ingredients for an alternative meal because something was no longer possible to make with what’s available. I have, however, learned a few things from buying preplanned menus that could put our meals on the closest thing to autopilot.

There are two different ways I’ve done this.  The first way I will describe works best if you’re making a menu around ingredients, which works particularly well when you’re shopping sales or trying to use up what you have, and it comes in really handy when you’re working with a tight grocery budget for the month.  The second way I will describe is a little more ideal, putting together enough meal ideas to make a lot of this process close to being on autopilot.

Let’s start with the frugal, busted budget, clean-out-the-pantries method. First, take an inventory of everything you have in the kitchen.  It helps to group the ingredients in some way that makes sense to you.  Maybe that’s how it’s stored (freezer, refrigerator, pantry) or something else that makes sense to you.  Personally, I group proteins and other foods that are typically part of entrees, veggies that are typically sides, pastas and rice (because they could be either an entrée or a side), and basic ingredients that could be used for just about anything (flours, oils, herbs, vinegar, cheese, sauces, etc.). Next, I look over the inventory and “find” as many complete or nearly complete meals as I can, and I cross off ingredients as I assign them to a meal. Because I have such picky eaters (including myself), I’m mostly listing favorite dishes and I rarely need to look up recipes, but sometimes I do searches to find ways to use the last few ingredients in new ways. This method also works if you’re trying to plan around what’s on sale or what you can use really good coupons to buy. In my experience, I will always spend a little more time when saving money or a little more money when saving time, so I often “shop at home” (aka using what we already have), then look for sales to fill in the missing ingredients.

If you decide to start with recipes instead, you pull a month’s worth of recipes, allowing for a few favorites to be repeated.  You’ll make a reusable list of ingredients, and just print off a copy each month.  You can choose to divide the whole list into weekly or bi-weekly shopping lists if that’s best for your budget, or you can just put the perishables on a separate part of the list for weekly grocery runs. If you’re really determined to cut back on time, you can even make your monthly bulk purchases through a shopping subscription program like Amazon, truly limiting your time shopping after the first month. This is my ideal method, the one I aim to use the most.  I get a little closer to this each time I shop, but it seems there are always at least a few meals we didn’t cook from the previous plan, because I’m all starry-eyed when planning and lazy when cooking or because there are always a few more nights than I’d planned that the only solution to fit our crazy schedule is the dreaded drive-thru.

Most meal planning charts I’ve seen have a nice neat calendar format, assigning a meal to a day. If assigning a day works best for you, then by all means, put a date down! I’m a bit of a rebel, though; I don’t really like anyone “telling” me what to cook each day (even me!), so I make notes about times required for preparing and cooking the food, and I have special codes to help me see if it’s hours in a crock-pot or minutes on a stove top or shove-it-in-an-oven… I choose a meal each day and check it off as no longer being an option. Obviously, I cannot choose a slow cooker meal at 4 pm, nor can I choose something that takes an hour to bake if we have an afternoon activity that puts all of us away from home when it needs cooked. Conversely, if there’s no exact time we’re all home that evening, keeping a meal warm in a slow cooker is perfect for serving people whenever they can eat. Part of the benefit I’ve found in planning this way is that my husband or teens will volunteer to cook, partly because they like to help, but also because the cook chooses what we eat for supper.  It’s amazing how often they’ll help in exchange for eating what they want that day!

Also, when you’re planning all this out, you can even assign who has what meal-related duties each day. There’s preparing the ingredients, cooking the meal, setting and clearing the table, putting the food away, and washing the dishes or loading the dishwasher. It won’t be the same as if you did it all, but that’s okay; an important part of raising our children is teaching them the skills they will need as adults, and many teens leave home unable to even cook ramen. Even if you cannot bring yourself to let go of the cooking, they can learn from assisting you and watching what you do.

If you have any additional tips from experience or recipes you’d love to share, feel free to list them in the comments!

Homeschool Lesson Planning: a Simple Approach

Lesson PlannerI’ve been asked to share how to plan lessons for homeschool, and here are so many ways to plan lessons that this is just the first of many approaches I will post on this topic.

Let’s start with the simplest possible approach.  For demonstration purposes, I am going to use Math U See’s Primer level, which I will be using this fall with my youngest, so these are my actual plans. I’ve used MUS (Math U See) many times over the years, and most levels of MUS are organized into 30 “Lessons” which resemble chapters. Within each Lesson, there are a few things that typically happen: taking time to teach the concept, 6 pages of practice (pages A, B, and C on just this Lesson and pages D, E, and F with this Lesson and reviewing previous Lessons), and (at higher levels) a test.

We have 175-180 school days (35-36 weeks) a year. (That may be different for you.) We also do field trips and activities away from home fairly often, so I never plan on math taking place from our curriculum every day. Even if we stayed home every day, I’d want to break the monotony with some hands-on activities to explore math concepts without limiting it to book work, so I only plan on 4 days a week working from the curriculum. Simple math says that I will have approximately 140-144 days to cover the 30 Lessons in MUS.

Each “normal” week, my goal will be to spend the first day introducing the topic and doing page A for that Lesson. On the 2nd-4th days, we will go over pages B-F, doing about 2 pages a day, spending as much time as we need to review anything that didn’t “stick.” On a good week, that leaves us a day for a field trip, baking (a.k.a. applied math), or whatever awesome idea I saw this week on Pinterest. I love having a plan, but I never want the checklist to be more important than the child, so I love the built-in day of flexibility!

If you’ve followed my logic so far, you’ll probably notice that there are only 30 “Lessons,” we cover about one Lesson each week, and I plan on 35-36 weeks of school. This, too, is part of my planned flexibility! When we get to the concepts that stump my child, we slow down. We re-teach the concept daily and take time to find multiple ways to talk about it, especially with manipulatives. If there’s a song or cartoon on the concept, we YouTube it too! (Schoolhouse Rock is one of my favorites, but I find new resources every time I look.) Our access to information is so vast that there is no reason we cannot find at least a dozen ways to explore a new concept if our first explanation didn’t “click” with our child.

In less than half an hour, I have planned math for one of my kids for a school year. If you use a computer program for your lessons, you can go ahead and enter the lessons in and move them to shift your flexible days as needed. If you love putting things on paper, a simple note in a composition book about the pacing of the lessons or jotting them on a spreadsheet might be more your style. Personally, I love charts, so I make an Excel spreadsheet that has most of the information preprinted, knowing that I can still make adjustments closer to when we do the lesson.  (The blank column is for recording grades and other notes I want stored here.) Here’s a peek at mine for one semester of this subject:

School year subject planner

Either Friday afternoon or sometime over the weekend each week, I will finalize the lessons for the following week and transfer it to our assignment sheet for the week. In a computer program, this would be when you shift assignments to the correct days based on what your calendar says you have this week. If you’re frugal and want it all kept in a spiral planner, the cheap planners that are in dollar stores, Target, Wal-Mart, and teacher supply stores will work. There are also many awesome planners designed for homeschoolers out there, and I’ve used many of them, but I am lazy about writing the same thing over and over unnecessarily, so I tend to make my own Excel spreadsheet per student and then pencil in the assignments for that week sometime before we start each week.

When I’m transferring lessons to the assignment sheet each week is also when I evaluate whether we need to slow down, spend a couple of days on related enrichment to reinforce the lesson, take a day to do something away from home during the coming week, or anything else that affects our school week. For example, the week of Thanksgiving, we won’t even open the books, opting to do math together in the kitchen instead. I can check my Pinterest board to choose something I saved for “one day” and insert it for a fun change of pace, and I can put it any day of the week (not just Friday as the schedule shows). Or we may have had so many recent sick days that I need to review for a week before introducing anything new. Or maybe we have dental cleanings, eye exams, orthodontist appointments, clubs, activities, or classes away from home that we need to plan around.  If I have a basic plan, I can adjust it for all those things that deviate from the plan!

Curriculum that has a nearly planned structure like Math U See makes planning extremely quick and easy. One of the best things about homeschooling is flexibility, but we also need to have a goal of what to cover each year, adjusting it for interests and abilities. The years that I have done this, either at the beginning of the year or once a semester, have been far easier and more successful than the years we began without a plan, and we ended up having so much more time for the fun extras.

Soon, I’ll write lessons for something a little less straight-forward to show you how to estimate lesson plans when the pattern is less obvious.

-Tina Kaye