How to Avoid Getting Fat and Wasting Money With Weekly Dinner Menu Planning

This Sunday before I went grocery shopping, I peeked into the fridge to see what I needed to add to my shopping list. Much to my annoyance, I wound up throwing away a rotting five-pound bag of lettuce and last week’s splurge of some pricey stuffed pork chops from the butcher. I also had to freeze chicken breasts that I was convinced would next see the light of day once they were good and frostbitten and on their way to the trash.

Dinner Blundering: A Big Fat Waste of Money
So what the heck did we eat instead last week? Impulsive choices of pizza and pasta on nights we simply didn’t feel like cooking, or didn’t feel like eating something healthier. These reckless decisions weren’t the greatest for my waistline or my rear, and I’d rather not head into the holiday season facing a losing battle on the diet front.

We had selective memory when it came to our dinner plans, even though I had the best intentions when I grocery shopped. Aside from the fact that this scenario is fattening, it’s not an option for us financially to toss food in the trash while we spend money on takeout.

I hate to admit it, but while this week’s dinner blundering is an extreme example, it’s not the first time something like this has happened. And I’ve spun my wheels when it comes to solving the problem.

The Solution Search
Time and again, I’ve researched different meal planning tools that are already out there.  Unclutterer has a nice, clean chart you can download.

In fact, if you search Google Images for meal planner, you will see a glorious sea of creative ways of laying out your meals for the week.

But for all my searching and fiddling, I’ve never been able to settle on a solution that would actually work for us. Without x-ray vision into the depths of the meat drawer combined with photographic memory, I’ve been at a loss.

My Own Dinner Planning Chart: Download the dinner planner as an Excel spreadsheet template
So today I decided to create my own dinner menu planner that I can display in plain view so we’ll never again have to wonder, “What’s for dinner?”

Now, I don’t know if this sort of thing is widely useful. However, for the first time in my color-coded chart-making history, my husband didn’t imply that this chart was my wacky OCD shining through, and in fact, he said it seems like it’s going to help us with easy planning and follow through.

I put the menu planner in a plastic sheet protector that I can write on with a dry-erase marker. If I don’t need to print out a new planner each week, I’m way more likely to use it to write down our menu and follow it.

Let’s take a tour, shall we?

Theme Nights
I broke the days of the week into themes. Beneath each day and corresponding theme, I put a list of dinner ideas so that when we’re choosing meals in the planning stages, we don’t have to think too hard to come up with something.

This planner serves as guidance, but we’re allowed to veer from the themes. You can see that this week I put “fajitas” on Tuesday, which will usually be our Asian-themed night. The key is following what I write in the blanks, since that’s what came home from the grocery store.

The themes are as follows:

Sunday: Big Batch or Traditional. We’re talking meals like stews or roasts, since those tend to take more time than we’re willing to spare on a weeknight.

Monday: Leftovers from Sunday night’s big batch, or if there are no leftovers, then we’ll wing it. Winging it basically means we’ll forage in the pantry or freezer. This can mean eggs and waffles, chicken patties, grilled cheese and tomato soup – whatever sounds good.

The themes for the other nights of the week are ethnic in nature for variety.

Tuesday: Asian. This means quick, few-ingredient dishes like chicken stir fries with veggies.

Wednesday: Mexican. Again we’re looking at fast and easy fare such as tacos or quesadillas.

Thursday: Italian. Thursday is one of the toughest nights of the week to hold the course on planned meals, since we’re getting tired from the work week by then. Seeing as pizza and pasta are our weaknesses, I might as well purposely designate that day for it. We have a delicious pizza recipe we rely on now that saves us both calories and money.

Friday: Comfort Food. I’m thinking hamburgers, macaroni and cheese, BBQ and the like.

Saturday: Fish or a New Recipe. If I hit the store Saturday we’ll be eating fresh fresh. Or we can try a new recipe that night, since I’ll have the time and energy to create something new.

Keep it Simple
If I make a dinner planner full of elaborate weeknight meals, then the task of making dinner would either consume me or I’m likely to abandon the planner altogether. So instead I made this planner with the attitude that I’m still a working mom.

I’ve made the planning such that I won’t have to change course once I do get a job, and so that currently I’m still free to pursue job leads, blog and take good care of Alex.

In Plain Sight
I placed the planner in a prominent place on the wall next to my desk so that I can always see what’s for dinner that day. Just now, I took that chicken out of the freezer for tomorrow’s fajitas! You have no idea what a victory that is. The effort of using my planner is already paying off.

Download the dinner planner as an Excel spreadsheet template

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Snap Out of It! 3 Steps to Pull Yourself Back Together When Things Fall Apart

The day before my daughter was born, I sat in the delivery room waiting for my contractions to get a little more exciting while I used my Blackberry to do some work. That day a colleague emailed to tell me that I was INSANE and that I needed to put my Blackberry down and go have the baby.

I did put the Blackberry down, but that exchange didn’t get the point across that maybe I was doing something unhealthy. Maybe I was compulsive. Maybe I was a workaholic.

When I came home from the hospital, I spent many loving moments with my beautiful new baby daughter. Common wisdom says, “Sleep when the baby sleeps.” While the baby slept, I kept up with my work email.

Wishing I Were Blogging
In the first two months after Alexandra was born, I also felt a lot of internal pressure to blog. I felt I should announce where I had gone, to show photos of the baby and say that mom and baby are doing okay. But I was exhausted and consumed with sleeplessness, taking care of the baby and checking work email.

I obsessed about blogging almost every day – what photo I would use, what to write – but I was running on fumes, I was irritable and I wasn’t thinking clearly. I eventually drove myself to new heights of lunacy due to sleep deprivation.

Losing It
Yes, motherhood is beautiful, blah blah blah, but you hear enough women proclaiming how beautiful it is. I’m here to be honest – it’s also messy and demanding and fraught with emotional peril. There are highs that come with the love and the satisfaction of soothing a crying baby, and there are the lows that come with the stress when nothing seems to soothe the baby (or mom), the lack of sleep and the wacky hormonal mood swings.

I couldn’t control everything, but at least I knew that my job wasn’t spiraling out of control while I was off smelling the roses. Hence, checking work email when I should have been sleeping or blogging.

I guess I was hanging onto the structure and productivity of my old life, because my new life was frenzied and chaotic. I was lost in the lack of organization of my days and activities, constantly reacting to what the baby required and struggling to meet my own basic needs.

Father Time was abusive, paying no mind to the nuances of a.m. and p.m., let alone to the days, weeks or months that swept past me with little sleep. I would remark to my husband that prisoners of war are tortured with sleep deprivation, and that now I knew why. It was physically and emotionally excruciating.

The “Aha” Moment
Then I read an article in the September issue of Oprah Magazine called “Lying Low.” The tagline reads, “When things fall apart, your urge is to do something – anything – to put them back together. But what if you can’t do that right now? Martha Beck on the hidden blessings of life’s little low points.”

Martha Beck made some excellent points for those times when we suffer a break up, a job loss, or maybe you’re stuck in the slow lane at the grocery store and you are totally losing your mind:

1.       Do Nothing: When nothing seems to work, do nothing. Stop resisting, stop struggling and stop planning. Just be in the moment and chill out.

I stopped checking work email. I also stopped obsessing about blogging and told myself that it’s okay to let the web site lie fallow while I adapted to this huge life change of having my first child. I scaled down my expectations to be kinder to myself, and my daily task list included things like “shower” and “empty the dishwasher” – and if I failed at completing my to do list, I didn’t beat myself up.

2.       Focus on Hope: Rather than being focused on just how difficult everything is, instead make a list of all the things you appreciate. Think of everything that offers comfort, support and hope. When you lose your cool, repeat the exercise as often as necessary.

It was easy for me to put things in perspective using this exercise. I have a healthy, happy baby girl, a loving husband and a comfortable home. The newborn stage doesn’t last forever, and I began to appreciate those unique new-baby moments like sniffing her delicious little head while she sleeps peacefully in my lap.

3.       Rest Like You Mean it: Ms. Beck learned the practice of intentional resting from Dan Howard’s web site, Intentional Resting.

To loosely sum up the steps of how to rest:

  • Focus on where you’re feeling discomfort or tension, whether that’s in your body or your mind.
  • Think the word “relax. Take some moments to enjoy the new sensation.
  • Think the word “rest.” Breathe rest into the spaces of your body that are holding onto tension. Encourage each anxious space of your body and mind to rest.

Following these steps helped me fall asleep at night on more than one occasion when I was feeling overwhelmed and panicked about taking care of a tiny, helpless new person. I will still occasionally think to myself, “Relax … rest” and I will immediately feel calmer and more collected.

Things Fall Apart
Then I went back to work, and the game changed again. New baby exhaustion combined with getting up early for the daily commute, plus all the added tasks of packing up both myself and the baby every day made me feel new levels of panic and fatigue.

My days went something like this: Get up at the crack of dawn, get myself and Alex out of the house, work, then endure the long commute home, usually while the baby screamed the whole time. Then I would eat dinner and fall into bed, until Alex would wake to be fed in the middle of the night.

My nerves were shot. I kept thinking, “People actually do this? This is supposed to be normal?” In short, I felt trapped on a treadmill set at a ridiculous pace with no way to hop off.

Things Fall Apart Again, but for Real This Time
Suddenly, I was shoved off that treadmill when I was laid off from my job last week. The first sensation to wash over me was despair. The next was indignation. How could they terminate a new mom?

For the first few days, I was in shock; I continued to robotically haul myself out of bed soon after sunrise. But then the lessons I had learned came back to me, and I felt an emotion akin to relief. I went through the exercises once more.

1.       Do Nothing: It would be crazy not to take advantage of an event like unemployment to catch up on zzz’s. Yet my innate inclination is to continue to punish myself and start the day early for no apparent reason other than some vague sense of guilt or wish for productivity that can’t be fulfilled while I’m chronically sleep deprived.

I’m making it a priority to sleep during Alex’s first nap of the morning instead of hopping up and showering and eating breakfast. It’s less than an extra hour of sleep, but it makes a major difference in how I feel physically and emotionally.

2.       Focus on Hope: I’m gaining three priceless experiences out of losing my job. The first I already mentioned: the chance to rest and get more sleep for the sake of my wellbeing. The second is the opportunity to blog again, which is extremely important to me.

As for the third benefit of unemployment … It’s only natural to think that getting laid off with all the expenses of a brand new baby make it the worst timing possible. But what a great point in our lives to spend more time with my baby before heading back to an office and leaving her in daycare. She’s still tiny and fragile and so entirely dependent; it feels good that I’ll get to care for her myself for a little while longer.

Lastly, I know I’m employable, even in this job market. I have a broad set of skills that are in high demand. My worst case scenario is that I wind up in a job that’s a step back in my career for less pay than I want. No big whoop.

3.       Rest Like You Mean it: So I’m resting. But I’m also blogging and taking care of my baby while I begin the hunt for a new job. Life is pretty sweet.

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