Eating Wisely: Organize Family Meals with a $2 Trick (Bonus! Classic LLL Recipes)

White board with meal plan for a week, surrounded by fresh fruit and veggiesKendra Atkins-Boyce, Portland, Oregon

Editor’s note: Regular contributor Kendra Atkins-Boyce shares an idea for easily and inexpensively organizing meals for any busy family. While you’re contemplating your family’s mealtime, you may wish to try these recipes we pulled from La Leche League publications Feed Yourself, Feed Your Family and Whole Foods for the Whole Family. Enjoy!

I don’t know why, but at our house the weeks that start out with a meal plan seem to run more smoothly. Maybe it’s the fact that having a plan for meals ensures that we buy actual food at the grocery store instead of filling the pantry with snacks. Maybe it’s the illusion of control in the midst of a mostly chaotic world. Or maybe it’s the fact that our brains and bodies function better when we don’t subsist entirely on pizza and takeout.

Whatever the reason, meal planning makes life better for my family, so I decided to set up a system to help make it as quick and easy as possible. At the heart of this system is a menu board that cost me all of two dollars to make. It has spaces to write out the main entrée for dinner as well as a spot for special considerations like evening activities or food from the refrigerator that we need to be sure to eat. You can make your own menu board with just two dollars and five minutes.

Gather your materials: You’ll need a magnetic dry erase board that comes with a marker and a pack of letter stickers. I bought both at the dollar store. The magnets make it easy to hang your board from the front of the refrigerator. You can also use Velcro (often included with the board) or removable adhesive strips to stick it to the front of a kitchen cabinet if refrigerator space is at a premium.

Assemble your board: Measure off your board into eight sections (one for each day of the week and one for the special section). At the top of the board, spell out MENU in stickers. Then use M, T, W, etc. to label the days of the week. I used the extra stickers in the pack to mark off a box around the extra section. You might ask, “Why not just use a dry erase board and write out the days of the week with the marker? That would only cost one dollar.” And I would say, “That’s a great idea, but in my house, any dry erase board that is not clearly and permanently labeled could be turned into a toy at any moment.” If your children aren’t dry-erase board obsessed like mine, more power to you!

Plan your meals: I try to plan meals on Sundays so that we start the week with a plan. I scope out what’s in the refrigerator and use that as a basis for our menu to ensure that we don’t waste food. For example, if we have leftover rice, I usually plan to make stir fry, fried rice, or curry. If we have veggie crumbles left from making tacos, I plan to make chili that week. I also look for fresh vegetables that will spoil if we don’t use them. Then I fill the rest of the calendar with family favorites and make a grocery list to supplement what we already have.

We still eat out sometimes. We are, after all, a twenty-first century family with active children. Sometimes there’s not even time to sit down for dinner, but using my menu planning board has definitely saved us a lot more than the two dollars it took to make.

Sweet Potato Fries – Serves 4
From Feed Yourself, Feed Your Family (published by La Leche League International, 2012)

  • 2 large sweet potatoes (about 1 ½ pounds)
  • ½ teaspoon ground cumin
  • ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 2 tablespoons canola oil
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
2. Peel the sweet potatoes, then cut each in half crosswise. Cut each half into 8 wedges lengthwise.
3. Toss the sweet potatoes with the cumin, cinnamon, oil, and a pinch each of salt and pepper in a large rimmed baking sheet until evenly coated. Spread in an even layer.
4. Bake, stirring once, until browned and tender, about 30 minutes.

Green Spaghetti – Serves 6
From Whole Foods for the Whole Family (published by La Leche League International, 1981)

  • 10 oz. fresh or frozen spinach
  • ¼ cup warm chicken broth
  • ½ cup grated parmesan cheese
  • ½ cup milk
  • 1 lb. spaghetti, cooked, drained
  • ¼ cup butter

Steam fresh spinach just until wilted or frozen spinach until warm. Combine spinach and cooking liquid with warm broth in blender container; process until smooth. Add cheese and milk. Toss spaghetti with butter in serving bowl. Add spinach mixture; toss to mix well. May substitute broccoli for spinach and cream or yogurt for milk.

If you cook the spinach while the spaghetti is cooking, this is about as quick as the commercial brands of macaroni and cheese and far better. Many children who don’t like spinach will eat Green Spaghetti; it is a bright pretty green.

Green Rice: Substitute 3 to 4 cups cooked brown rice for spaghetti.

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