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Local mom helps others get dinner on the table

I’m not the most organized person in the world, but the one habit I’ve forced on myself in the past few years that has made the biggest difference in my daily life has got to be meal-planning.

There may be utter chaos going on in my house, but the one question I can always answer is, “What’s for dinner?”

So I was really excited recently to get to correspond with Mary Ann Kelley, a Stafford resident and mother who runs a subscription-based meal-planning website called Menus4Moms.

Kelley (whose other website, TheHomeSchoolMom, we wrote abouthere) feels about the same way I do about the prospect of going to the grocery store without having planned meals for the week and made a list.

“I would have this insane idea that ‘This time it will be different — I’ll go to the store and plan menus on the fly and I won’t waste any money,’” she wrote in an e-mail exchange. “Afterward, I feel remorseful when I realize that once again, I’ve given in to a flight of fancy that resulted in wasted time and money.”

Menus4Moms offers “Busy Mom” and “Frugal Mom” menus delivered via e-mail for $5 to $7.95 a month, along with a $30, one-time menu and resource package for those following a gluten- and casein-free diet.

The menu plans, published weekly, include shopping lists and tips on things like prepping and freezing ingredients ahead of time and planning leftovers into later meals to save time and money.

Kelley started the site in 2005 by posting her personal meal plans.

“I realized that moms were reinventing the wheel, each in their own homes, as they planned meals each week (IF they planned meals),” Kelley wrote. “So I started offering my personal meal plans online.”

She now works with two other moms who write the meal plans, while she edits the site. Over the years, her meal plans have been used by tens of thousands of subscribers across the United States, including a few in Canada.

But for those who want to plan their own menus, the site also offers a lot of free content, including recipes and tips on bulk cooking and household budgeting.

“Menu planning is an investment, not an expense,” she said. “It’s time that pays back in multiples of what is invested.”

Before I started doing my own planning, my vegetable bins ended up as a resting place for produce without a purpose, my pantry shelves slowly filled with canned goods that looked like a good idea at the store, but never made it into a dish. Now, I can look at my grocery receipt and see a clear destination for everything I’ve brought home.

But with everything that wants a piece of our time these days, it’s never easy to find a quiet moment to sit down and plan out meals.

So I asked Kelley what advice she’d give to someone who’s trying to force this habit into their routine. Here are some of her suggestions:

  • Start with baby steps. Don’t sit down and plan a whole month of meals. Plan a week’s worth, or three days’ worth. When you’ve successfully completed that much, do it again. It becomes habit and you can extend the planning to however far in advance you think you can stick with.
  • Have your calendar in front of you when you plan. Crockpot meals are good for nights when you are out later. Plan meals with more extensive preparation on nights when you are home for a couple of hours at dinner time.
  • Think of meals as related to each other and integrate prep for one meal into prep for other meals. Bulk cook ingredients ahead of time for the freezer. Plan to use your leftovers in later meals. For example, if you are having roast chicken, plan a chicken soup or a chicken cheese quesadilla for later in the week.
  • Write down five easy to prepare meals that your family likes that don’t have perishable ingredients. Always stock these ingredients in your pantry. That way, these meals will be an alternative to ordering pizza even on nights when you don’t have a plan.

Personally, I’ve found that writing your meal plans down somewhere, like a notebook or a Word file, and saving them will gradually make your planning easier. Whenever I draw a blank, I flip back a few weeks to help me remember meals we’ve liked. When I’m stuck in a rut, I’ll flip way back to see what we were eating a year or so ago that we haven’t had in a while.

Of course, planning the meal is sometimes only half the battle. With schedules these days filled with late nights at work, sports practices and other activities, getting that magical family dinner hour to happen is often easier said than done.

Kelley urges busy families to make family dinners a priority while staying flexible. Since one of her children has gymnastics practice until 8 p.m. on most weeknights, her family eats dinner at 8:15 p.m. so they can make sure to sit down together.

“That means heavy snacks at 4 – 5 p.m., but it is important to me that the family come together for dinner several times a week,” she said. “The time of the meal isn’t as important as the togetherness.”

She points to a recent report from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University that said “parental engagement fostered around the dinner table is one of the most potent tools to help parents raise healthy, drug-free children.”

“When family dinners are viewed as a priority,” Kelley says, “The benefits resulting from those meals together are far-reaching.”


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