I’m Laura Visioni – a Doctor Yum Project board member and guest blogger today, writing about how I get healthy home-cooked dinner on the table for my family of six, most nights of the week.  Hint — weekly meal planning is the answer. Around my house and among those that have known me a long time, my approach to meal-planning is called “The System.”

I abide by “The System” pretty religiously and have for at least 15 years.  In fact, my mother was planning this way before me, which is why I was surprised when friends of mine first commented on my meal planning process; named it “The System;” and adopted it themselves.   Until then, I had not thought twice. It was how things are done as far as I knew. For me, the effort of meal planning beats going to the grocery store more than once a week; hitting fast food or take out because I’m out of time to come up with dinner; or staring blankly into my fridge and pantry hoping inspiration will strike (although Doctor Yum’s Meal Maker Machine DOES make that happen!)  Check it out here.

Over the years, I have recruited more than a few converts to The System.  Maybe you will be next. Maybe you have a better system. Let us know!


The System

Step 1: Drink and Dream about Food

Once a week, usually early Saturday morning with my coffee, I thumb through my recipe files, the Doctor Yum recipe archives, or one of my cookbooks, and I flag a few recipes that get me excited to cook.  Sometimes I get jazzed about trying something new but mostly I look forward to making family favorites that I know my kids are going to cheer for. This first step can take as little as five minutes when I need it to, but it often takes longer because I enjoy it.

Keeping a personal recipe binder has made The System more fun for me over the years, not to mention efficient.  Mine was a homemade gift from two friends and fellow cooks. They set it up with sections for desserts, main dishes, appetizers, etc. and seeded it with a few of their favorite recipes.  I added my own family’s favorites and whenever I cook something new we decide if the recipe is a keeper or not. If it is, I add it to the binder. As time passes, flipping through this homemade recipe collection has come to feel like reading a journal. Many of the recipes have a story or memory attached from the first time I made it or the person who gave it to me.  A few, inherited from my parents and grandparents, evoke fond childhood memories.


Step 2: Review the Upcoming Week’s Schedule

Next I look at the week ahead and make notes about which nights are busiest and which afford a little more time for cooking and food prep.  Some nights are too busy for cooking so I will plan on ordering pizza or packing dinners that we can all eat on the go in the car moving from one kid’s activity to another’s.


Step 3: Set the Week’s Menu and Write it Down

Based on our week and who in my household is available to prep and/or cook each evening; I decide what we will eat for dinner each night of the week and I write it down.  (The Doctor Yum Project website has a tool for menu planning too which even helps to create your shopping list. Check it out here.) When I was working full time with young children at home my weekly menus were simple, with maybe one ambitious cooking adventure a week,  and usually at least one meal of ready-to-serve items like raw fruit, raw veggies and hummus, crackers, cheese, and hard boiled eggs. These days, I have more time and a few older kids who know their way around the kitchen, but I still rely on a handful of easy staples that work for my family.  When inspiration strikes I mix in something new to keep things interesting.


Step 4: Write the Grocery List

The nearly final step is making the grocery list.  First I write down all of our weekly staples (milk, eggs, fruit, sandwich bread, yogurt, and so on).  Then, referring to the recipes I’ve chosen for the week, I write down the ingredients that I have to buy for each dish on the menu.  To make this step go faster, I used to keep a stack of photocopies of my standard weekly shopping list as my starting point. Then I would just cross off the of things that I didn’t need and add the new things.  Now I use my phone to make the list. Wegmans has a great app for list making that I love because it orders your shopping list by store aisle, which means that I can shop one end of the store to the other with no backtracking or time wasted hunting for things I don’t buy very often.  I also like it because everyone in my family who is old enough to have a phone has the app, which means that whoever first notices that we are out of something is responsible for adding that item to the next week’s shopping list.


Step 5: Print the Recipes

I like to print my recipes so that I have a hard copy at the ready during the week when it’s time to cook.  I feel bad about wasting the paper, but I do it anyway.


Step 6: Post the Menu

I have a large chalkboard on the wall in my kitchen where I write out the week’s menu.  My kids love it when the menu goes up and I love their reactions when they see things they love.  I’m even amused by their groans when I plan to make things that they are still “learning to appreciate.”


Step 7: Shop Once for the Whole Week

It’s a painful trip to the store, but then it’s done.   Then I am set for the week. After work on a weeknight all I have to do is consult my menu, grab my ingredients (all right there in the pantry and fridge), and start cooking.  They system also lets me lean on other members of the family to do the cooking or at least help out. It’s as easy as grabbing the recipe (already printed) and getting started. Everything needed is there on hand…because I planned it that way!

That’s it!  Seven Steps to homemade dinner every night.  During your best of weeks, how do you manage to eat real food?


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