How to Menu Plan When You’ve Done It a Long Time and You’re Tired of Making All of the Decisions

Personal update at the end, skip to it if you prefer.

Menu planning saves time, energy, and money. You don't have to wait until you are an accomplished cook to start. This is the couch 2 5k of feeding yourself healthy, budget conscious food.

Home Ec 101 has been around a long time, almost 12 years.  I have shared many weekly meal plans, but the ones on the site are by no means the only ones I’ve made. When you’re feeding more than a trio, not having a plan can become expensive or a rut quickly. With now seven members in our household, most of whom are adult-sized, firmer plans are needed as we also enjoy luxuries like clothing and utilities, go figure.

So what to do when you have had an on-going case of I-don’t-want-to-think-about-food-anymore or I’m-tired-of-making-decisions-for-people-who-don’t-seem-to-care?

The Problem: Unspoken Expectations

Each week, when I sat down to meal plan, I would ask, “What would you like for dinner this week?” The responses, to me, felt ludicrous. But really were they? What do teenagers and a non-cook know about time, effort, and budget, if they don’t have the experience to draw from? How do they know that feeding bottom-less pits, teenagers means not choosing shrimp or steak as main courses? When they sit down to a finished product, do they know that a meal had many steps and took a lot of effort? Not unless they were actively involved, and even then kids aren’t always known for their effective time-management skills.

As much as we would like them to be able to, no one can access the information in our heads. No one wants to volunteer ideas when they are likely to get rejected. And it’s far too easy for resentment to build when needs aren’t met. It’s really easy to interpret the lack of suggestions as “They don’t want to help” or the rejection of an idea as, “Mom doesn’t like anything I say.” Who wants that interaction on a weekly basis?

Solution: Make it easier to be helpful

For us, the solution was to get the information out of my head and into a format that made sense for those whose help I want. I mentioned it on Instagram if you want a peek.

I decided to keep the project fairly simple, as I’m just not a craft-oriented person and never will be. I went to Walmart and bought: a single hole punch, a couple packs of multi-colored index cards, and a book ring. I can usually find my favorite pens by raiding my daughter’s room. She has her own but seems to prefer mine. 

Each color got its own guideline/section:

Weeknight – less than an hour of active work, using a slow cooker is fine
Weekend – more time consuming is fine
Company/Complicated/Expensive
Vegetarian just to make sure those stand out, Lent is coming

I made everyone go away for a while, sat down at the table and began to brainstorm as many meals as I could think of. Since it was December, the results were most of which are suitable for winter planning (not a salad in sight), but a more than respectable 45 – 50 meal ideas. 

On the back of each card, I began to put the ingredients we were most likely to need in a weekly shopping trip and side dishes that go well. After cooking for a family for more than 13 years (my oldest is 15), I’ve got stocking our pantry and spice rack down. Those of you still in the building phase may want to include a link to the recipe or write the full list of ingredients. I wouldn’t do this all at once, it’s far too much busy-work.

There’s room on the cards for us to add more notes, things like dollar signs to indicate its general cost or maybe a star rating system so we know what the big hits (and misses) are.  

Now, when I sit down to plan for the week and make the grocery list, when I get stuck or am not in the mood, I can grab a passer-by and say something like,  “I need a meal for Saturday, please pick from the weekday or weekend section,” or “You’re helping with dinner on Thursday, please pick something from the weekday section that you would like to cook.”

The beauty of this system is that it’s not fixed. If we have something too often, I can pull it from the rotation for a while and it’s unlikely anyone else will notice. If I find a recipe to add, that’s as simple as filling out a new card and adding to the appropriate section. 

I plan on keeping a separate ring for side items, but I haven’t quite figured out the parameters yet. Will they be by time, season, carbs? I’ll get there and I will share when I do.

Personal aside:

I will likely be deleting this in a few weeks as it doesn’t add to the above topic of menu planning and won’t matter to many.

The last few years have been seasons of change, divorce, death, grief, recovery, love, marriage, a new baby and all of that on top of the usual tumult of children growing up. I am not the same person I was when I started this site. Then again, I hope none of us are after twelve years. I was in my twenties and pretty sheltered when I wrote some of those opinionated early posts. I knew about being broke, from my early adulthood. I also knew that I had learned a lot through trial and error and I wanted to share. 

I think a lot of the advice on this site is accurate and I think a lot of it can be helpful.

That said, there have been a lot of times over the past five years where I’ve looked at it and thought about deleting it all saying it doesn’t matter. I’ve made quite a few attempts at starting over and each time when that stalled out, I again thought about just deleting. 

I’m glad I didn’t.

A few months ago I had an offer to buy the website. After some thought, I turned it down and I’ve been ruminating on whether or not that was the right choice when I have these thoughts and feelings and when financially it would have been a smart move. I’m glad I waited, partly because the baby’s reflux is finally under better control and I’m getting more sleep and able to make more rational. less negative decisions and partly because I needed to come to terms with these feelings. 

I don’t know that I’ll be able to get into a routine of updating the site quite as regularly as I once did. I don’t want to set that expectation. My day job takes a lot from me and since that feeds the family, it will come first. I do think that I am finding, after so long, the perspective of how to begin again.

Thank you for reading. I wish you and yours all the best in 2019.



12 Comments

  1. Janet on March 1, 2019 at 9:14 am

    Hi Heather!

    I thoroughly enjoy reading these posts! Please don’t stop but please post if and when you can/feel like it! πŸ™‚

  2. Janis on February 3, 2019 at 9:37 pm

    I just found your website! Please don’t shut it down! I have read several articles already and I love your writing style!

  3. Karen L on January 3, 2019 at 2:13 am

    Happy New Year, Heather!

    I’m so happy to have read this post. My kids are a little younger and fewer than yours but thanks for spelling out some the of the relationship traps of (co)meal-planning. I can see some of the those patterns starting to develop around here, too. The kids each got a beginner cookbook in their stocking this year, so hopefully, they’ll start to appreciate some of the less noticeable work involved, like having ingredients on hand, how much of a mess certain dishes create …

    • Heather Solos on January 3, 2019 at 6:57 am

      It’s funny how those things sneak into the most innocuous exchanges. Here’s hoping, but even if not, they’ll have a good start on learning to cook, which is never a bad thing.

  4. Alison R. on January 2, 2019 at 12:41 pm

    Three years and nine months ago we lost our 28 year old daughter. We have adopted her three children who were at her time of death 3 mos., 4, and 7. There were times that if you hadn’t had a recipe or a meal plan I don’t think I would have made it through very many dinnertimes.
    We are all doing much better as it took us about three years to get our balance back.
    Please don’t think that you haven’t made a difference to people Heather, you certainly helped me!
    Thank you from the bottom of my heart!
    Alison R.

  5. Glenda Bossow on January 2, 2019 at 11:01 am

    I’m in a different stage of my life than most of your readers, probably (widowed, live alone) but I always look for your new posts. Thanks for keeping the site and for all of the effort that must go into maintaining it. I’m a fan (and am not your mom!) πŸ™‚

  6. beth on January 2, 2019 at 8:51 am

    Still so thankful for your site. I haven’t been here from the beginning, but a long time. This site really helped me in my early adult years and I have appreciated your personal notes and honesty.

    • Heather Solos on January 2, 2019 at 8:59 am

      You’re very welcome. I’ve always tried not to be fake or saccharine. Obviously wallowing in my own mess wouldn’t be helpful, either so I try to balance it. There were a couple of dark years there, but the trajectory, overall, has been good πŸ™‚

  7. Ruth on January 2, 2019 at 8:51 am

    I’m always delighted to see your posts appear in my feed, even if I find I’m a bit more competent in β€œhome ec” now than when I started following along 7 years ago or so, and not every post is an amazing new bit of information for me. πŸ™‚ When my husband and I were first married, if we disagreed on how to clean something, we let you be the tie-breaker because we both trusted your research. We even went so far as to buy your book to keep it handy for questions. I’ll always be grateful for that.

    • Heather Solos on January 2, 2019 at 8:58 am

      I appreciate that a lot and thank you for buying the book!

  8. Kathleen Schaubhut on January 2, 2019 at 8:39 am

    First, it is reassuring to know that I am not alone with those feelings of just not wanting to deal with thinking about meals. Most days I just want to put my head in the sand and hide from meal planning. Second, congratulations on 12 years of Home Ec 101. An excellent accomplishment in which you should feel a lot of pride. I’m proud for you. Third, I think you have come up with a very good idea on meal planning while trying to simplify life and adjust with a growing family, while at the same time encouraging family members to participate and develop their growth as responsible humans. You are awesome. Again, congratulations on your accomplishments and thoughtful, creative ideas.

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