Please help me welcome Leah Eisenberg Polikoff as a contributing guest post writer to Kosher on a Budget. Leah is a menu planning whiz, and I feel very lucky that she has agreed to share her know-how with all of us. Look for her posts once or twice a month here on KOAB.
Ahhh, the dreaded meal planning. We already do so much in one day but to have to come home and figure out what to eat…sometimes it’s just too much.
As a working mother of three children under the age of 12 and a husband who travels most of the week, there is nothing worse than walking in the door at 4 o’clock and starting to play the game of “What is For Dinner?”
The backpacks are strewn about the house, there’s homework covering every surface, snacks being doled out…now is not the time to try and scrape together a meal to feed four hungry people. Lucky for me, tonight’s dinner is ready and waiting.
Dinner was not always so easy. It has been a continuous process for me over the last 13 years that even pre-dates the kids. When it was just the two of us and we both walked in the door after 5:30, we played the dinner dance game. We all know it…”What do you want for dinner? I don’t care, what do you want?”
After 10 minutes of this losing battle, we’d order take-out or run to the grocery store. By the end of the month, we would look at our bank statement in total wonder where all of the money had gone…and this is when the planning started.
Now that we are a family of five, everyone participates in the meal planning. Each child gets to pick a meal for the week. It is not only a great way to have them take ownership in the meal planning process but I find that it even helps with their eating. While one night’s dinner might not be their favorite, they know that their night is coming up and somehow they “power through” eating a meal they might not love.
Are you ready to save money, time and stress over feeding your family? Here are my top five tips for making meal planning easy:
#1. Take inventory of what you already have with both time and food.
Perishables take priority in the meal plan. I then go through the calendar for any night meetings, dance classes, swim practice or anything else that would limit the amount time we have to eat or the number of people eating.
#2. Write it all down and keep it with you at all times!
I use a soft cover Moleskine notebook. Any kind will work, but I find that these work best for me. I use the left side of the book for the weekly menu and the right side for the shopping list.
Keeping everything in a notebook means I don’t have a ton of lose paper all over the place and I can go back and access previous menus and lists. It is always in my purse — just in case I forget what I need at the store or I want to get a jump start on planning for the following week.
(Note from Mara: If you prefer to go paper-free, I think Evernote would be perfect for this.)
#3. Have an extra freezer to make your life easier.
Having an extra freezer isn’t a must, but I have found that as our family grows, the need for more freezer space increases, too. I often double many of my recipes to freeze for later. I also freeze any leftovers we have that won’t make it past Thursday’s Leftover Night (we’ll come back to that).
Since saving money is a top priority for me, I try never to let food go to waste. If I have bananas going brown, I either freeze them on their own or bake a banana bread and throw it in the freezer. You never know when you’ll be entertaining last minute or going to someone’s house and need a quick dessert. (I never show up at anyone’s house empty handed…my grandmother z”l would be mortified if I did!)
#4. Leftover night is a MUST.
By Wednesday night, I couldn’t possible cook one more meal before I have to start preparing for Shabbat — not to mention that my fridge is usually still full. On Thursday night, all of the leftovers get lined up on the counter hoping to be chosen. Most weeks I do need to add a vegetable to the table, but it’s a great way to get the fridge empty and make everybody happy.
#5. And the best piece of advice I can give you…COOK THE NIGHT BEFORE.
For me, 5 o’clock is not the time to start cooking. The fact that I drive home from work almost every day knowing that dinner is sitting and waiting for me in the fridge, oven or crock-pot makes that crazy time between school ending and bedtime bearable.
And no, I am not up until midnight cooking. Sometimes I do start on the next night’s meal while the kids are doing their homework, but most nights I start the minute they go to bed. There is something very calming to me about cooking in a quiet kitchen when the house is asleep.
I hope that these tips are helpful and I look forward to sharing my weekly meals, recipes and ideas with you in the months to come. Happy planning!
Leah Eisenberg Polikoff was born in Cleveland, Ohio and studied Political Science and Jewish Studies at Indiana University, in Bloomington. Shortly after college, she moved to Boston to work for Combined Jewish Philanthropies and eventually met her husband. They thought it would be fun to pair moving a lot with having a family, which took them to Cherry Hill, New Jersey; Las Vegas, Nevada; Houston, Texas and then back to Cleveland. Leah is the Systems Specialist for the College Financial Aid Program at Jewish Family Service Association and the Cleveland Recruiter for Camp Ramah in Canada. She is also the mother of three beautiful children ages 11, 9 and 5. In her spare time, Leah enjoys cooking, entertaining and spending time with her family and friends.