how to make the perfect meal plan

I titled this post ironically, because I definitely don't have the perfect formula, and even if I do plan a "perfect" set of meals for the week, that's not how it goes down. Some days I enjoy cooking and some days I don't and some days I can't because my wild animals kids are being crazy. So peanut butter and jelly it is. Or a quick salad with oranges, almonds, and chicken. Or the third banana of the day. Or pancakes for dinner, because yum.

In the post before this, I shared a really loose idea of a meal plan. I rarely, if ever, follow our meal plans to a T, and often change the recipes to be cheaper and use what we have on hand. For instance, a can of coconut milk is way more expensive that a half-gallon of coconut milk; of course, the fat content is different and canned full-fat coconut milk is WAY yummier -- but the half-gallon goes further and does the same job. And sometimes, I may not ever get around to making some of the meals. And that's okay. I stopped feeling guilty about lazy dinner nights. That's reality!

You see, I have come to accept three things...

First, lunch doesn't have to look like lunch, and the same goes for every meal. As long as the kids are getting their vegetable & protein requirement for the day, and everything else is balanced (they would live off carbs & fruit if I let them), I try not to sweat it. Today I was planning on making pasta & peas for lunch, but we filled up on apples & plain peanut butter. SO good, and such a simple, nutritionally-dense snack... or lunch! Sometimes we'll have eggs for lunch, and sometimes we'll have a hodgepodge of food items. Last night for dinner, we had ants-on-a-long (classic celery, peanut butter, & raisins - high in iron, protein, and vitamin k), an entire bunch of kale baked crispy in the oven (vitamins K, A, & C, iron), and small helpings of chicken salad (protein, calcium, zinc, iron, niacin, potassium). Not exactly a hardy, warm, home-cooked meal, but satisfying and meeting many of our nutritional needs nonetheless, not to mention pretty tasty.

Second, as long as the foods I choose for my family are what their bodies need, it's okay to repeat, repeat, repeat. Those healthy meals your favorite blogger posts may look amazing, but if you're anything like me, you can't make a pot pie crust to save your life and you haven't heard of broccoli rabe until now and where the heck can you find hemp hearts? So, easy answer: stick with the basics. Kids generally like simple food, anyway. Your meals can be quick and easy, and just as healthy and delicious. Some favorites of my kids are hot cereal (either oatmeal, quinoa, or farina, simply flavored with molasses  coconut oil, cinnamon, vanilla, & fruit), scrambled eggs, peas, kale chips, nut butter, carrots, and practically any kind of fruit. As long as they like them, and they are healthy, I serve it. River got tired of scrambled eggs, but then we discovered that he loves hard-boiled eggs. And as long as he's eating them, you'd better believe he gets an egg seven days a week! And when you venture into the unknown and try a new recipe and everyone loves it, make it again! Add it to your list and don't worry about repeating it often if you love it.

And third, repeating the same monthly meal plan, well, monthly, is fine too. Start by making one week's worth of dinner plans you feel good about: it's balanced, there's variety, and it's familiar. That should be easy. I don't even really worry about lunch and breakfast -- we never end up eating what's planned! Then, start working on week two. Look at blogs and recipe sites. If there's an ingredient you want to cook with and there's an idea you have in your head, there's probably a recipe for it floating around somewhere in Internet land. I'm just going to pull some stuff out of my butt here, but ever wondered how to make dairy-free Alfredo sauce? How about, um... spinach & carrot muffins? Or uh... got a lot of leftover Parmesan cheese that you need to use quickly, and want to know if you can make chips with it? Seriously, I just looked all of these up. There are actual recipes! If you make something and it was just too much of a hassle, don't feel the pressure to make it again because it's fancy or super healthy. Find another recipe to add to your monthly meal plan. Repeat your two week's worth of meals until you have come up with an entire month's worth. Then, start working on another month. And repeat. Of course, you don't have to stick to it, but if you are craving order, convenience, and something you can rely on, it helps!

The main deciding factors for me when creating meal plans are:
  • The cost
  • The vegetable content
  • The flexibility of the recipe 

Sometimes I feel I lack creativity in the meal-planning department. Most of the time, I don't have the money to create lavish meals! I went grocery shopping last night and spent $130, and still didn't get everything we needed. When River was younger, we were living below the poverty line. Some days, John & I would eat Raman noodles and tuna or from the dollar menu at McDonald's, because we couldn't afford anything else. But I always made sure River ate healthy, mostly-organic, whole foods. So that meant he ate lots and lots of organic yogurt, fruit, eggs scrambled with chopped spinach, beans, peas, peanut butter, and oatmeal sweetened with black strap molasses. Those foods were cheap and he loved them, and I knew by eating at least a few of these each a day, he was getting everything his little body required to keep him thriving. Did he care, at the age of 20 months, that he was eating almost the same thing day in and day out? Nope. And I felt good about feeding my son healthy food. 

What are some of your kids' favorite foods? If the only vegetable your kid will eat are peas and carrots, feed them peas and carrots. If you're sick of peas and carrots, make a side salad for yourself, and let them eat peas and carrots, and feel good about it! They are eating veggies! Remember, if it's not in your house, they can't eat it. If it's all that's available, well then, they have no choice. Make the foods that are available the healthy foods, and the treats... either keep them out, and allow expectations as to what they can eat and when. (For us, during the holidays, River is allowed one treat a day, such as one cookie, or one candy, etc., unless it is a special night and we are just all hopped up on junk. Gotta have those days every now and then!)

When planning meals, I try not to stress too much about repeating favorites, especially if they are healthy. I swear, the three most beautiful words out of River's mouth are, "More kale chips!" If this means we are eating kale chips daily, so be it! If it means we are eating ground turkey with peppers weekly, I let it happen! 

Do you have any tips for planning meals? Do you tend to stick to the plan, or get lazy about it like me?

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