Part 1 implies there will be a Part 2, right? If my addled brain can remember, there will be such an entity.
I personally cannot live without meal planning. I have to plan, write down, and shop for a week's worth of meals. The two main reasons? I'm a planner. There is great delight in lists and organizing and filing, at least as far as my wiring goes. It's so nice to see a page on the refrigerator showing me (and my sassy kids) what is up next for their endlessly empty bellies.
The second reason is a pretty basic one you can all relate to, no doubt. QUICK, it's 5:00 and your husband will be home soon and your kids are whiny and hungry and fussing with each other - do you know what you're going to feed them in an hour? Is anything simmering, boiling, baking or roasting? Oops. Then, in the increasingly pathetic tradition of most busy Americans, out comes the frozen pizza, chicken nuggets, boxed or frozen this or that. Or a quick call to dad to stop at Chipotle (ok, that's not a bad deal), or a call to the pizza man.
Now I am all for those evenings where you say "hang this, I'm putting frozen pizza in the oven!" And we have those evenings around here. Even when there's something tasty planned for dinner, with all the ingredients sitting in the fridge or pantry. But mama's had one of those days and out comes the chips and salsa. Hey, there's vegetables in there!
You might be thinking - "Easy for her. She's home all day with her kids, she can be cooking and baking during the day, easy as pie." Nuh-uh! Between teaching school, house management, kid management, exercise (not very often), errands and everything else, my plate is pretty full. I do have the luxury of BEING here, which means I can take something out of the freezer, start some bread rising, begin a sauce. Sometimes I get some dinner components going at lunch time - which makes for great chaos.
I must plan. Planning is about saving money, saving time, eating healthy, enjoying variety, and feeling secure. That's not just wistful lingo, it's a real emotion I have when I am planned and organized. And meal planning allows me the great pleasure of cooking interesting and sometimes gourmet foods.
The general approach that works for me is to sit down on Thursday afternoon or evening and plan a week's meals, starting with the next day. Which is also when I grocery shop - Friday afternoon. I have my calendar next to me to see what we have going on in the evenings, or even days. If I'm going to be gone a good part of the afternoon, I'll plan a crock pot meal for that day. If I have a light day of school and am caught up on house things (never), I might take some extra time to do something special. If we're on the run for an evening, or if the man and I have a date, I plan a pizza or scrambled egg or 'enchiladas from the freezer' meal.
I often plan breakfast and lunch, too. It helps to know when I'll have time for pancakes or french toast, or when it's a morning where the kids make their own eggs and toast. That's our standard breakfast around here - eggs and toast. Everyone from age 7 on up can make their own. With lunches, if I write it down, I'll make sure it's on my grocery list or in my pantry, but leftovers are pretty common around here for lunch.
Before I work it all out, I usually have to see what's hanging around the freezer. I don't know about you, but it bugs me when I buy something I already have in the house. After a quick inventory of fridge-freezer-pantry, meals are planned, the grocery list is made, and I'm ready to roll on Friday.
I write down main dish, starch, vegetable and salad. We eat a green salad almost every night. Yes, my kids all eat salad. They have since they could manage tiny chopped lettuce. I could write for hours on picky kids and getting them to eat. In fact, I might do that one day here. But we have salad. Almost always with home made dressing (talk about cheap and gourmet!). There's usually another vegetable with the meal. Sometimes a starch, but not always. Our main part of the meal is meat. Yep, how very un-food-pyramid of us. The bottom of our pyramid is NOT grains, sorry. The kids get the bulk of their carbs at breakfast and lunch.
Enough preaching. You cannot imagine the great feeling you and your husband and kids will have knowing that the whole week is ready to go. And please believe me when I say that this whole deal is FLEXIBLE. Many days I get sidetracked by pesky kids and simply cannot get the chicken roasted. Which is why there is soup and enchiladas and pizza and chili in the freezer. The other great benefit for you is when you clean up your kitchen (or have your kids do it), you can check your plan for the next day's dinner - this is the time to put beans to soak, or transfer the roast from freezer to fridge.
Give it a try this week. Report back. Or tell me how you like to plan your meals. I'm always learning.