Refresh: Planning the Timeline for Your Meal

Do you ever get to the end of the afternoon and realize with a shock that dinner will be expected shortly and you have no idea what it will be? Well, it happens to all of us, but if it happens regularly, I’d recommend reading two previous blog posts, Planning Your Day and Meal Planning. This post will build on those topics.

Planning ahead involves knowing how your day will go (roughly) and knowing what you plan to make for a meal, but you also need to know how the various steps for your chosen menu will fit into your schedule. When do you need to start preparing? Do you need to figure on 2 hours in the kitchen or 20 minutes?

Many recipes now include prep time and cook time, which is so helpful. But you still need to know what you’ll be doing when.

Note: if you use frozen meat for your meals, remember to add defrosting the meat to your steps or your schedule the day before or early that day.

As you look at your menu, map out the different steps and when you’ll need to do each of them (i.e., 2 hours ahead, 45 minutes ahead, right before serving, etc.). Some recipes or dishes are simple enough that you only need 5 minutes of prep time 2 hours before dinner. Some have a few more steps. Others are all last minute, just before you eat. Write it down in a timeline, if you need to, counting backwards from your target mealtime. You can even mark the time(s) in your planner, if that helps.

Note: if you collect tried-and-true recipes or standard menus for a monthly meal plan, this map (or timeline) will be helpful to keep with the recipe. That way you don’t have to figure it out each time.

For example, you may sketch out a timeline like this:

  • 2 hours prior — prepare meat and put in oven
  • 45 minutes prior — prepare sweet potatoes and put in oven
  • 15 minutes prior — set table and steam vegetables

Make sure the timeline fits into your day, as far as you know. You have less than 30 minutes needed for the meal, but you don’t need to do anything between the 2 hour mark and the 45 minute mark. You can plan on 75 minutes to devote to other tasks.

Is there prep (i.e., cutting up vegetables) that can be done early in the day, especially if your afternoon is tighter than the morning? It may be easier to have meat and vegetables cut up and ready to go when you walk in the kitchen.

You also know that you’ll need to be home 2 hours before the meal, or an important step will be missed. If this doesn’t work,  move to Plan B and save Plan A for another day.

With this planning, you know what you are doing and that your bases are covered. You’re all set!

Refresh: Meal Planning Tips

Have Just a Few Good Cookbooks

As my mother told me, “When I was starting out with family cooking/meal planning, I had just a few cookbooks:  Mom’s loose-leaf of recipes from my past, the MN Meals cookbook, and BH&G. When I was looking for ideas, I mostly was in MN Meals as it was simple and broad.  Surfing the web to find recipes can be daunting; there are so many. [Just] a few good cookbooks gives you a more manageable body of info to peruse.”

I agree, and I tend to rely on my family cookbook (collected recipes we know and love) and two others that cover a lot of ground.

Plan by Time Required

You can keep a cheat sheet of often-used recipes or meals that are listed by how long it takes to prepare them (10 minutes, 30 minutes, 1 hour, etc.). Then when you need a plan for the day and know how much time you have, you’ve already narrowed down your options without having to think it through each time.

Plan in Advance

For pro calendar users, or just those who appreciate charts, one option is to plan meals out a month at a time. You can have a 30-day calendar of meals (1 or 2 or 3 a day) mapped out as a resource. Each month you can reuse the calendar by changing the order of meals.

This allows you to have plenty of options available, know in advance what you are doing, and shop in bulk (if you have the storage space). You will save gas on multiple trips to the grocery store if you have what you need already in the pantry. You still have the flexibility to move things around if you want to or to take advantage of sales or schedule changes.

Keep a Treasure Chest

As you collect tried-and-true recipes, you can collect them on note cards and keep a box in the kitchen. You will know when you pull anything out of the box that it will work.

A variation of this would be to keep meal plans on note cards (recipe included). When you do your meal planning, or before you go to the store, you can pull out what you would like to make and have it ready to go. Once you have made the meal, it goes back in the box until next time.

Know Some Versatile Basics

It is a good idea to include simple recipes in your collection that make filling and tasty meals or that serve as the basis to multiple meals. For instance, a good scratch biscuit can serve for biscuits and gravy or chicken and biscuits.