In This Household, Meal Planning Is a Family Affair

©. Linnea C. (used with permission)

Kids come up with meal ideas, but the chef, a.k.a. Mom, can move things around to make it more balanced.

Welcome to the latest update in TreeHugger's series, "How to feed a family." Every week we talk to a different person about how they approach the never-ending challenge of feeding themselves and other household members. We get the inside scoop on how they grocery shop, meal plan, and food prep to make it go more smoothly.

Parents work so hard to feed their children and themselves, to put healthy meals on the table, to avoid spending a fortune at the grocery store, and to fit it all around busy work and school schedules. It's a feat worthy of more praise than it commonly gets, which is why we want to highlight it – and hopefully learn from it in the process.

Today's questions are answered by Linnea, a mother of three who describes herself as 'anti-list' when it comes to grocery shopping and whose favorite game is 'shop my pantry.' She also has two interesting food rules for the family. Read on to learn what they are.

Names: Linnea (37), husband Rosanno (40), with their crew, aged 10, 8, and 5

Location: Ontario, Canada

Employment status: Rosanno is employed full-time out of the house and Linnea works 30 hours per week out of a home office.

Weekly food budget: US$150-$265 (CAD$200-$350), which includes the odd convenience meal, household staples, and mid-week grocery run.

Linnea and family

© Linnea C. (used with permission)

1. What are 3 favorite or commonly prepared meals in your house?

Lasagna or other pasta, chicken adobo, soups with sides – and the rice cooker is always on.

2. How would you describe your diet?

Omnivore, with a preference for seasonal eating. We lean on foods from Rosanno’s Filipino cultural background and are working around a serious peanut allergy and mild soy allergy. If I had to give our household eating style a name, I would call it ‘Creatively Deconstructed’ with an emphasis on intuitive eating.

3. How often do you shop for groceries? Is there anything you absolutely have to buy every week?

I shop weekly and usually Rosanno or I will end up running out mid-week for the odd thing that’s run low or for a convenience food to round out a meal. I have a short list of things that I buy so often that I never put them on a list – fruit and veggies, deli meat, bagels and flatbread, yogurt, cheese. Once every week or two I buy a few rotisserie chickens to turn into easy lunches throughout the week. We go through dozens of eggs but have a local person we buy them from usually.

4. What does your grocery shopping routine look like?

I worked in a grocery store while I was in school and it taught me so much. The only things I put on a list are specific ingredients for a certain meal or staples that I've run out of; everything else is picked out as I can see it and assess. I shop produce sales insofar as a good sale actually means that produce is in season somewhere, so your sale produce tends to be better tasting. I don’t stockpile as a general rule, but if there’s a good sale on a particular cut of meat I’ll buy two and work the second into our meal plan later in the month.

My general MO is that if I have a reasonably well-stocked freezer and pantry, I have lots of options throughout the week. Of course, my anti-list method sometimes catches up with me and I buy the same staple three times in a row, but it’s always something we get through eventually.

chicken and rice meal

© Linnea C. (used with permission)

5. Do you meal plan? If so, how often and how strictly do you stick to it?

You know, I keep trying to meal plan and I always rebel against it because I have a love/hate relationship with lists. In January we started this new thing where the rest of the family took over the monthly menu plan with chef’s (my) prerogative to move things around or substitute as I see fit. It’s been a little bit weird and sometimes we end up with some odd items on there, but I’m letting it roll for a while longer because it’s been really good to have meal planning be more of a family affair. Our 8-year-old will add ‘dim sum’ to the menu and I’ll end up rounding that out with a veggie soup or salad so things are more balanced. I do try to have at least a loose plan by the weekend for the following week, so if there are specific things we need I can get them during the grocery run.

On the flip side, though, cooking is really a creative pursuit for me and one of my favorite games is playing 'shop my pantry'. I’ll find a few lonely Italian sausages in the bottom of the freezer, half a bag of spinach and a handful of pasta and suddenly we have Italian wedding soup. Sour cream nearing expiration date? Round out that soup with simple sour cream biscuits.

I think the key is learning what your staples are and keeping them in the house, and also learning how the same ingredients can make 10 completely different meals. Now that the kids are older and we’re all out of the house more, I’m feeling a bit more forced into being organized with the meal planning, but I still try to leave room for a bit of creativity.

meal planning calendar

© Linnea C. (used with permission)

6. How much time do you spend cooking each day?

Maybe an hour, but it depends what’s going on. We have meals that come together in 15 minutes, and meals that I might start at 2 p.m. The benefit of working from home is that I do have some flexibility in that regard.

7. How do you handle leftovers?

We love leftovers here. We plan for leftovers for lunches the next day, at least for the grown ups. One of the kids in particular often gets into leftovers for breakfast. We also do a lot of creative deconstruction of leftovers, so a bit of chicken gets added to soup or turned into wraps for lunches, leftover taco meat might get added to nachos, salmon goes into a really decadent omelette. If it’s a big batch of something I know we’ll get tired of (like chili), I’ll tuck a container in the freezer for lunches down the road. Culturally, Filipino meals are often a bit of this and that – having little portions of different leftovers all in one meal is a favourite occurrence with this crew. Our biggest challenge right now is that all the kids seem to be going through a growth spurt and now I never have enough leftovers!

8. How many dinners per week do you cook at home vs. eat out or take out?

We eat out or take out maybe once every week or two, which is either ordering pizza or eating out if we’re away from town for the day. What we do more often for fast meals instead of takeout are semi-convenience foods – frozen dim sum, chicken wings or burgers, pizza shells or packaged tortellini, that kind of thing. Convenience food is often tricky with allergies so we stick with a small rotation of favorites that are safe.

veggie soup

© Linnea C. (used with permission)

9. What are the biggest challenges in feeding yourself and/or your family?

Three days a week at least one kid is at an activity between 5-6 p.m. On those days we have to be really organized in terms of meal prep, which forces me to stick to our plan. It has also overall pushed our mealtime earlier. It’s not uncommon to be eating dinner by 5 and then the kids might have a snack later on before bed.

It’s also really hard to figure out meals that everyone likes and that keep our groceries on budget! We eat a large variety of things, but there are 5 of us and inevitably whatever is being served isn’t someone’s favourite. That’s where our deconstructed approach comes in – if someone wants to take the ingredients in a meal and configure them into something they enjoy, go for it. So those are probably our logistical challenges.

On another level, we want to raise kids who are intuitive eaters, who are curious about and love food, and who trust their own bodies enough to self-regulate. This is definitely a learning process, but I am often surprised at how good they are at it with just a few reminders. It’s important to us that we can bring our kids to just about any kind of restaurant and find things that they will enjoy. We only have two food rules in the house:

1) There is no fighting about food, i.e. no forcing people to eat things, no getting mad at people over what they are or aren’t eating.

2) You can’t be rude to the chef. I think as parents it’s our job to make sure there are diverse food options and cooked meals, but everyone needs to be responsible for regulating their own eating.

Linnea's salmon dinner

© Linnea C. (used with permission)

10. Any other information you’d like to add?

I’ve always been an avid baker, but in the last year or so my 10-year-old has really gotten into it as well. She’s passionate about cake decorating and all things fancy, whereas my style is a bit more lazy and ‘rustic’. All the fancy cakes are strictly her domain now! There are always entirely too many baked goods around here. Somehow "it’s Tuesday" has become a perfect reason to make banana upside-down cake. And at the same time, because so many outside treats are off-limits because of allergies, we’re all really happy to be able to make these things in-house instead. We’re definitely not a ‘no sugar’ family but on the positive side, because home baking is always around, the family is pretty good at being moderate and only eating what they really enjoy.

Aside from dinner prep, we do a lot of hearty breakfast foods. When I met Rosanno it became clear that breakfast is really important in Filipino culture. That usually looks like rice, eggs, and either longanisa, tosino or milkfish (Filipino dishes) or sausage or bacon and maybe fruit. A weekday breakfast might be some version of a breakfast sandwich. We also make things like waffles, pancakes or oatmeal on occasion, but not nearly as often. It adds another layer of budgeting and planning for sure.

To see all stories in this series, visit How to feed a family.