I am a meal planner. I wish I wasn't sometimes, because having a meal plan attached to the fridge makes me feel like an obsessive control freak.
Except. It works.
Having this meal plan ensures that I'm not thinking up meal and snack ideas five to six times a day, every day. It also keeps the kids from rummaging through the cupboards multiple times an hour and keeps me from mindlessly snacking my way through a bag of chocolate chips.
I also appreciate how easy it is to stick to a budget when I do all my shopping once a week (or if I'm feeling really spunky, twice a month) instead of wandering the aisles a few times each week to pick up odds and ends. I don't know about you, but I'll often pop into a store only to pick up a bunch of bananas and some orange juice and come out $50 later with an unneeded US Weekly and a bag of potato chips.
Since I use my slow cooker so much, I usually can get away with only cooking dinner 3 to 4 times a week—we eat leftovers on the days in between. If your family refuses to eat leftovers, don't serve the same food two days in a row. Instead, package up half of it and freeze the leftover portion to pull out later in the month.
The most dreaded question at the end of the day will always be "what's for dinner?" If you have a slow cooker plugged in, congratulations! You are already ahead of the game. Slow cooking forces you to plan ahead, because you're not going to be able to rush out to the store at 5 p.m. to pick up ingredients. This is a good thing.
After you get the hang of meal planning for your nightly meals, go a step further and brainstorm with your family to plan out breakfasts, lunches, and snacks. I'm continuously surprised that my children eat what is listed on the schedule simply because it was written down. There's something they don't teach you when you leave the hospital: your child will argue with you, but not with a piece of paper. Go figure.
One of the easiest ways to meal plan with the slow cooker is to make what I call "Slow Cooker TV Dinners." I like to buy my meat in bulk at a warehouse store, then take it home and break it down into meal-sized portions (four chicken breast halves, four to six pork chops, 1 pound of beef stew meat, etc.) in plastic zippered bags. Since I'm already fussing with the zippered bags, I go ahead and load in the spices, vegetables, and sauces needed for my favorite slow cooker recipes. I then freeze it all together in the plastic bag. The night before this meal comes up on my meal plan, I thaw it overnight in the fridge, then plop it in the slow cooker in the morning and cook according to the recipe's instructions.
Some great "TV Dinner" options:
Stephanie O'Dea is a New York Times best-selling author of the Make it Fast, Cook it Slow cookbooks, blogger, slow-cookerer, and shortcut queen.