Simplicity – Meal Planning

The dinner hour is like the Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde of family life. It can be a lovely opportunity to come back together as a family after a long day, a time to talk and share, nourish your body and your soul as you unwind into your evening and home life. It can also be a chaotic, rushed and anxiety-filled time, as you hasten to try to feed a hungry family, perhaps shuttle some off to a meeting or event, others off to homework or bedtime routines. A well-planned meal schedule can go a long way toward smoothing the path, keeping you more calm and available to your family, and allowing you to feed your family with home cooking and love. With that in mind, here are my top three tips for a simplified and successful dinner hour.

  1. Create a monthly meal calendar, and then repeat it for a year. I know, that might sound crazy. Eat the same food for the entire year? Plus, won’t it take a long time to create the meal calendar? Yes, it will. But that investment of time will pay off, as night after night you know what you are making, and know what to buy at the store.

    I began creating monthly meal calendars when I had an infant and a toddler at home. I had very little time (and no free hands) to prepare dinner but I didn’t just want to eat frozen meals for the foreseeable future. So, I spent every free moment I had for about two weeks, and slowly filled out a blank monthly calendar. The month time frame allowed me to ensure that, over the long haul, we had a good variety of foods. I sprinkled in several pasta dishes, lots of crockpot meals (great when it is easier to do your cooking at times other than dinner time), easy favorites like tacos, rotisserie chicken, and so on. I looked for simple, quick meals that everyone liked, and even built in “take out” and “cook something new” nights. Lastly, I made a shopping list for each of the 4 weeks, simplifying grocery shopping. I repeated that monthly calendar with only minor alterations for two years. And, no, we really didn’t get tired of it. After all, you probably repeat lots of your recipes already. And who remembers what they ate at the beginning of last month anyway?

  2. Another strategy is to cook ahead. There are a variety of ways to approach this. Some people like the meal prep businesses, where you prep and cook for 2-3 hours and leave with an assortment of dinners ready to quickly finish at home. Other people like to gather with a friend of two and work together to cook freezer-friendly meals. This gives you a ready stash of home cooked meals for busy nights, and makes the prep time fun and social.

    The simplest approach is to always try to cook for 2 meals at a time. When I cook, I always try to stretch that cooking effort into at least 2 meals. For example, tonight I may grill chicken to have with rice and vegetables. If I throw extra chicken on the grill, I can save it and have chicken Caesar salads tomorrow night with very little time and effort. Making a big pot of soup will often serve as 2 dinners, filled out with bread one night and salad another. Be creative and try to stretch your kitchen time.

  3. Finally, a great way to simplify meals and planning is to reevaluate what counts as “dinner.” You don’t need a hot meal, or a main dish and two sides every night. Dinner can be leftovers, sandwiches, pancakes, rotisserie chicken bought at the store, or any number of simple and easy things. More important than the food served is the time when your family can sit together and reconnect. Don’t let the stress of preparing the “right” meal short circuit the greater goal of family dinnertime.

    Family life is a series of phases, and no phase lasts forever. Perhaps right now, your phase means frozen leftover soup and a sandwich, eaten together with laughter and hugs. That phase won’t last forever, and then you can reassess and tackle the dinner hour with new recipes and options. The good feelings and memories you create will keep your family coming back for seconds!

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Conscious Time Management

5 Ways to Use Your Time to Support Your Goals and Values

1. Without even thinking about it, we tend to define time management as figuring out ways to get more done in less time. Rather than accept this idea, let’s start by redefining time management. It is not just about squeezing in more stuff from the “to do” list, but how to make your time work for you and how to create time for what you value most. Change your approach to time management by considering this statement, “My day will feel more complete and joyful because I spent time (fill in the blank).” Now work to create some time and space to make it happen.

But how do you get the errands, laundry, cleaning, and homework done if you are busy feeling joyful, you ask? Good question! You do still need to devote time to the sometimes hum-drum practical needs of life. The key is to not spend all of your time here. Set parameters on your time to ensure time and space is left for those people and activities you value most highly. Some people like to assign a task a day (cleaning on Monday, errands on Tuesday, laundry on Wednesday, etc.) so that there are clear boundaries around how they spend their time in a day. Others prefer setting an amount of time to spend on these types of maintenance tasks (for example, 1 hour each day spent getting one load of laundry done and doing some cleaning).

A final, but very powerful, option is to change the nature of the task. If you highly value time with your children but are rushed squeezing in homework time, head to your favorite coffee shop with your child and help them with homework there. Sometimes a small shift changes a chore into a time to connect and be together.

 

2. Every morning take a few minutes to prioritize your day. Resist getting on the “to do” list treadmill, where you cross off then add new items all day. Instead, sit quietly, just for a moment, and ask yourself some questions.

  • What five things are your highest priorities for today?
  • What is the single most important item, and can you do it right now?
  • What is not very important?
  • What can you simply cross off the list?

High priority items can be things like, “Spend the evening hanging out with my children, fully present and available to them” or “Get caught up on laundry.” There are no automatically right and wrong items, but consciously choosing to spend your time in a certain way is what separates truly great time management from just getting things done.

 

3. During transition times in your day, how can you best manage your time to allow for smooth transitions? For example, during the 30 minutes before I pick up my children from school I am always tempted to run around and get as much done as possible. However, then I rush off to get my kids and am sometimes frazzled, crabby, or still mentally somewhere else. Since one of my highest priorities is to be present for my kids, I need to manage my time better leading up to getting them from school. Maybe I need to take a short walk to clear my head, read my book for a few minutes, or just sit and drink a coffee. Because they consciously support my values, those activities represent good time management, too.

Another key transition time in any family is getting out the door in the morning. Be proactive and consider ways to help smooth the way. Some practical examples are: packing backpacks and lunches before others awake or the night before, setting out clothes the night before, and making sure to wake everyone with enough time to get ready and eat breakfast. Some ways to make this often hurried time of day more pleasant include: eating breakfast by candlelight, having an upbeat song that plays every morning as a cue to get shoes, bags, and head out the door (my daughter currently favors “Roar” by Katy Perry), and a moment for a group hug and a wish for a great day.

 

4. Reflect on your most naturally productive times of the day and try to use those times well. This again helps us be conscious and aware of how we are spending our time. Morning people – get up a little before everyone else in your house, pack lunches, unload the dishwasher, etc. Midday people – take a long lunch hour and run an errand, or make a phone call. Night owls – use the quiet after everyone else is asleep to catch up on laundry, emails, and so on.

I know that outside forces (school and activity schedules, carpool, work demands) are sometimes beyond your control. Yet aspects are sometimes more flexible that you think. Spend some time brainstorming and entertain every idea, no matter how “crazy” it seems. For example, I know a family of early risers who get up every day at 5:30 am. They cook their big meal of the day together then, and sit down to eat as a family. Family mealtime is highly valued by them, and by altering their approach to the day, they have ensured that they always have that time together.

 

5. Earlier, I asked you to spend a few moments in the morning thinking about your highest priorities for the day ahead. Write a realistic to do list each day and when you are done, you are done. Don’t be tempted to sneak in one more thing. Have faith that you have consciously used your time to accomplish your highest priorities, and the other things will wait. The list never ends, and there is always more to do. But the true purpose for the list is to serve you, your family, you goals, values and dreams. Finish today’s list, then enjoy those people and values that you hold dear.

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