How Jen Plans Meals
A few years ago, I found that between school, sports, and music lessons, I was not spending much time with my kids in the kitchen. Then I realized, I have seven kids, and there are seven days in the week. Perfect.
Soon we had a regular rotation going. Each child picks the menu for their night and does an age-appropriate amount of the cooking, which is surprisingly a lot. I am their sous chef, but they are in charge.
I'm a dietitian, so of course my goal is to help my kids develop healthy eating habits that will last their entire lives. But in reality, some days life just happens, and I'm just happy to get something in their bellies that doesn't make me cringe.
We have some busy weeks where we don't plan ahead and I fall back into the 5 p.m. panic of "What's for dinner?!" But when we're on top of things, this is how it goes:
1. Once a week, I sit down with the kids to plan their meals and figure out which day each one has time to cook. We try to take into account what deals are going on in the stores we frequent, and what we already have on hand. We look through cookbooks, websites, or just come up with some of our tried and true favorites. This is the hardest part—just making the time to plan without interruptions, in time for me to make it to the store.
Sometimes their choices are interesting, but I try to honor them. For example, one son requested "Roman noddles" and I got all excited thinking we were going to have some fun new ethnic meal. As I started searching online for recipes, he just kept saying, "No, mom, ROMAN noodles!" After looking all over the store with him, I finally realized, 'Oh no...he wouldn't.... he couldn't possibly mean...RAMEN noodles??!" Sure enough, when I showed him the packed of the pre-fried-over-salted-over-prepared Ramen noodles, he got all excited and said, "YES!! that's it, that's what I want to cook for my dinner night."
2. I framed some fun paper backgrounds behind glass for our menu boards. The kids write their menu choices with dry erase markers for each day, once the kids pick their meals. This can get entertaining, like the time one of my sons picked fish tacos for his night. (Not a favorite for many of my children.)
3. Each child also adds the ingredients they need to my shopping list. My biggest shopping challenge was when one child chose to make ratatouille. Have you ever tried to find fresh eggplant, in minnesota, in January?! It was quite the adventure. We found it, he cooked it, and we ate it—pretty fun!
4. On his or her night, the child in charge is really in charge. I just help when necessary, based on the age of the child. It's fun to see how much ownership they take on their night. I'm able to teach them great cooking skills and they're very proud to make something for the family.
5. When we love a recipe, I print it off and add it to a binder. I have two binders, and right now I'm in the process of typing and organizing them to be able to send cookbooks with my kids when they leave for college, so they can have all of the recipes they remember from home in one place.
For school lunches, I let the kids pick what they want—cold lunch or hot lunch. I have two who opt for cold lunch almost every day, and others who like mostly school lunch. By the time my oldest was in middle school, she made her own lunch every day, and has taken cold lunch consistently over the past five years.
When we eat lunch at home, I will usually put someone in charge of doing a sandwich assembly line and then have everyone just grab whatever sides they want. Other times, I grab out all the left overs from the fridge and it's a "first come, first choice" lunch. Some of our quick go-to's are: chicken salad sandwiches (or wraps), bean and cheese quesadillas, grilled cheese, or pita and hummus.
Breakfast is where I feel like a short-order cook. Since we have kids in every type of school, high school down to preschool, we eat breakfast in shifts. The olders grab whatever they can get quick on their way out the door at 5:50 a.m. (sometimes I barely get some egg sandwiches in their hands as they were jetting out). Other mornings we bake some muffins, warm up left overs from previous breakfasts, or just grab old-reliable (cereal and milk).
My middle schooler prefers cereal (easy peasy!), but will eat a muffin or two if they are available. For the youngers, since I have extra time, I will usually cook something like eggs, pancakes, muffins, or french toast dippers. Many days, they will also opt for cereal as well, so I usually keep that well stocked.
We typically have our hot chocolate machine running 24/7 especially in the freakishly cold Minnesota winters.
I'm not a hard core snack mom on either end of the spectrum. I usually have fruit on the counter all day, and let them have whatever they want from there. We also do a lot of fruit in a cup, as well as applesauce and cottage cheese or yogurt. If i'm feeling really ambitious, I'll get out some carrots and dip.
But most of the time, they just grab chips, popcorn, brownies (if there are any on the counter), cookies (again, if there are any on the counter), etc. We don't have "forbidden" foods by any means. We talk about what foods are healthy for their bodies and what foods are a treat food. They are pretty good about asking if they can have some of the 'treat food'... except when they aren't and I find a three-year-old with chipmunk cheeks full of fudge. Or when the younger kids wanted to play hide and seek, which turned out to be a ploy for them to go hide in the pantry and eat as many oreo cookies as they could until I finished counting and found them!
Tips and Tricks
- When you buy produce, the last place you want it to end up is still in the plastic, at the bottom of the fridge. This is where produce goes to perish. Right when you get home, prep the produce (except for those you are planning to use in a recipe) so its really easy for you and your kids to grab a healthy snack. Cut the fruit or veggies, then put them in single-serving sizes right at eye level. Then when you open the fridge, you will see those first and tend to grab those to munch on.
- If something goes on sale and you know it's a family staple, don't be shy - load up! Get some shelves in a storage room somewhere and fill it up with shelf-stable items. Pasta, sauces, anything that you can use in a pinch.
- Dehydrated veggies are a great way to boost your vitamin and mineral consumption, especially during the dreaded winter months. If you have them on hand, you can easily drop a handful into a stew, or hide some in a casserole.
- We always make meatloaf in muffin tins. It cuts the cooking time in half, and produces single portions that you can easily freeze (although I never seem to have leftovers of this one) for a quick meal or snack later.
- We make our own mixes so we can do quick meals without compromising the kids health. For example, whole wheat pancake mix, and wheat muffins to which you can add fruit additions when baking.
- I also do a ton of cooking with powdered milk. Then I can save the good stuff for drinking (and I don't have to run to the store just to buy milk), and save money and time on the baking. Same with powdered eggs - I do a fair amount of cooking with powdered eggs, so I don't run out of the fresh so fast. (Seriously, we can easily go through 1 1/2 dozen in one sitting with our teenagers!)
About This Mom
Jen Brewer is a nourisher of bodies and souls, including her own seven children (15, 15, 12, 10, 8, 5, 3). She writes, speaks, and feeds the world, one child at a time. Her family frequently travels to Guatemala where they work to end malnutrition for children through nutrition and gardening projects.