The Six-Meal Shuffle: Extremely Simplified Meal Planning

six meal shuffleThe key to sane menu planning: make it as brainless as possible.

Yesterday I announced that November’s topic here at The Happiest Mom is food. As I looked at the comments that followed the post, I realized that four factors go into mastering the art of feeding a family well, and they are:

  • Planning
  • Preparation
  • Know-How
  • Time

We all have different strengths (and weaknesses.) Some of us are great planners but can never seem to find time to execute said plans. Others know how to cook but constantly find themselves missing some crucial ingredient or other. So this month we’re going to talk about all four factors, one at a time.

Today’s post is going to be specially geared toward those who need help with planning, though I think even those people with a plan can always benefit from taking a closer look at it.

If you’re overwhelmed by all the choices, spices, recipes, and suggested meal plans you see on TV, in magazines and on the Internet from day to day, I want you to first embrace this idea: there’s nothing wrong with repetition. Yes, variety can be a great thing. I love cookbooks and cooking shows. But when you’re already struggling to make a meal plan and stock your fridge and pantry with enough basics to keep your fingers off the pizza-delivery speed dial button, choices aren’t always your friend. And if your cooking skills are shaky, too many recipes–equalling too much to learn–can be overwhelming. Look at it this way: Even if you make the exact same meals over and over, it’s a lot better than resorting to fast food or over-salted, preservative-laden boxed and frozen meals.

After all, it’s well and good to dream of whipping up imaginative, creative menus each week, but it’s only too easy to give up and turn to the ubiquitous blue box when life with kids gets in the way of you living up to your culinary fantasy.As with anything else, in meal planning it’s only too easy to let the perfect be the enemy of the good-enough.

This is the idea behind the Six-Meal Shuffle. Six basic meal categories, with a day off for leftovers, take-out or those busy “everybody fend for yourself” nights. The beauty is that you can adapt it to match your family’s lifestyle and your own skills, preferences and confidence levels. Insecure cooks or those who need to keep things really simple can literally make the same six meals over and over. Those who want a bit more variety can create broader categories and then experiment within those categories. The structure is actually freeing, because you can say to yourself, “Okay, Tuesday is pasta night. I’m sick of spaghetti. What can I do that’s more exciting?”

If you’re coming from no-cooking-whatsoever land, you might say “My kids love canned chicken-noodle soup. Wednesday is soup night. Maybe I’ll plan to make my own.”

There’s nothing that revolutionary about the idea of planning your week’s meals ahead of time. But I’m asking you to put a lot of thought into how you map out your Shuffle so that it makes everything easier down the road–and so you’ll actually stick to it. If you make a plan that really takes your family’s schedule and preferences into account you’ll find after a while that everything becomes simpler. You can get in and out of the grocery store in a half hour because you know exactly what you need. Your pantry becomes neater because you always know exactly how much of each item you’ll need to have on hand. (By the way, if you’re starting this project with a disaster area of a pantry or cupboards, it may help to tackle that issue first. Read my Pantry Makeover post if you want inspiration.)

For example, my Six-Meal Shuffle looks like this:

  • Monday: Traditional meat-starch-veg meal–chicken, rice, and broccoli, for example, or salmon, green beans and quinoa. Knowing this meal is on my list, I can make a quick decision on shopping day based on sales at the meat counter and which produce is in season.
  • Tuesday: Ethnic food (on a rushed day, this could be as simple as black-bean tacos. When I’ve got more time, I might try an Indian recipe or something more adventurous. But I’ll always have black beans and tortillas on hand, just in case!)
  • Wednesday: Soup night. Wednesdays are busy because two of our boys go to a church youth group for most of the evening; soup can easily be slurped down before they go or re-heated and served when they get home. Or both.
  • Thursday: Pasta Night. By Thursday, I’m feeling week-weary. Pasta is easy, familiar, comfortable, and adaptable to my mood and energy levels.
  • Friday: Homemade pizza. Dad makes this in our house, usually with the boys’ help. Sometimes it’s plain ol’ cheese and pepperoni; other times we get more adventurous–especially if we’re having company over.
  • Saturday: Free Day. We tend to do a lot of housework and/or running around in the early part of Saturday, then spend the rest of the day lying around like sloths. A perfect day for Jimmy John’s, takeout, frozen nuggets & fries, or that old standby, breakfast-for-dinner.
  • Sunday: Slow meals. Sunday is our most laid-back day so it fits naturally here. It took me a long time to learn it’s not always feasible to start a pot roast at 3 PM on a Tuesday!

The great thing about the Shuffle is that on those weeks when I’m tired, overwhelmed and cranky, I can do a no-brainer recipe on every single one of these. I can also adapt the meals quickly to suit the kid and adult preferences in the house–for example, on Mondays, I might make plain chicken legs for the kids but a special sauce for Jon and I. Knowing in advance how the week is going to go makes it so much simpler to make decisions on the fly.

And while a food schedule seems a little rigid and potentially boring on the surface, it actually forces me to break out of a rut and cook those things I would otherwise always mean to, but rarely get around to. For example, I love preparing soup, I love eating soup…but I have to remind myself to actually make soup. It doesn’t require skill or complicated equipment, but it does require preparation (getting the ingredients) and time. My Six-Meal Shuffle will also vary depending on the season. For example, we do a lot of grilling during the summer. Pot roasts, not so much.

Your Shuffle might look quite different than mine. Maybe you’ll have a salad night in there. An egg-based dish night. Or more meat or rice and beans. Every meal doesn’t have to be perfectly balanced–think of your diet as something you balance over the course of a whole day or even a week, not from hour to hour. Again, don’t overlook good enough on a quest for perfection! The goal is to avoid last-minute drive-thru runs and dinner-time stress, not to blow anyone away with a perfect menu.

Even if you already meal plan, I’d love you to spend some time thinking about your typical week and where certain types of meals might fit best. Have you been trying to fit a square meal into a round hole on occasion? Is there a way to simplify your planning in order to streamline your life?

The Six-Meal Shuffle is only one piece of the pie when it comes to getting your act together in the kitchen: the planning portion. You still need preparation, know-how, and time. But one thing at a time!

I’ll be back tomorrow with a recipe for delicious and in-season squash soup. In the meantime, I want to know–what meals or categories would go in your Six-Meal Shuffle?

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