What’s for Lunch, Kiddo?
Meal Planning from Infant to School Age and Everything Between
From the get go, feeding kids is one of the most daunting tasks of parenthood. As a newborn you’re stressing about how much breastmilk or formula they’re getting. You obsessively track every ounce they eat in those first few months in notebooks that seem like the most important item in your house at the time. Then, growth spurts happen and their eating habits change and you are once again lost as to how much and how often these small, demanding human beings need food. And then, as if it’s not stressful enough already, we’re supposed to start introducing solid foods! But not too fast, and not all at one time. So many rules! I was so overwhelmed when we were at this stage with my son. Of course, some of this was the symptom of being the first child and I felt like I had to do everything perfect the first time. But some of it was also the stress of having so many people involved with his care and wanting to be sure we were all on the same page about what food he was getting when. So, I decided to take my monthly meal planning process to another level and add a calendar to the back of pantry door in order to track what food was being introduced on what days. I found that there are a few advantages to this approach:
- You can easily track an allergic reaction if there is one because you’ll know the exact days the food was introduced, not just an estimate.
- Everyone who will be involved with feeding your child will be on the same page. My husband and I didn’t have to worry about if one of us wasn’t at home during feeding time to remind the other what food our son had been given because we could just look. Also, you can easily take a picture and send it to grandparents and other caregivers so they also know.
- If you want to take it another step further when your child is eating mostly baby food, you can plan their full meals just the way you plan your family’s meals by listing everything your child will eat in a day. I liked doing this because it kept my son from being fed the same thing every day and it made a grocery list really east to make each week.
- This last step would be especially helpful for those parents who like to make their own baby food. If you make your menu before you cook, you have a clear plan for shopping and cooking ready to go.
So, once you make it past the baby food stage and you get into the stage when your kids can eat just about anything that’s on the table, there’s a fantastic sense of freedom. You feel like you can eat out whenever you want (until you remember that you still have a toddler with you). I remember this sense of freedom. It was so refreshing. And then my son started a new school (that I absolutely LOVED) but it had one set back – we had to provide lunch. And not only did I have to make lunch, there were rules (again with the rules!) about what had to be in that lunch. The requirements were to provide a protein, a grain and two vegetables and/or fruits. I found myself spending way too much time each night trying to be creative while providing something my kid would actually eat and while still providing what was required. And so, the same calendar that had once directed our transition to baby food became the “Lunch Menu” calendar. I set it up in a similar way to our monthly meal plan calendar which you can read about here. To get started you will need a dry erase monthly calendar, a small blank dry erase board, and dry erase markers in 4 colors (I have black, blue, red and green).
- First, I set up a master list of all the options of food in each of the categories (proteins, grains, veges, fruits). It’s important to only list items that you know your child will eat! I color code each category with a color that will also be used on the calendar. Mine are blue for proteins, red for grains, and green for veges and fruit.
- Next, I fill out the calendar with the dates that my child is going to school.
- Then, I look at my family’s monthly meal plan and place any food that would be leftovers that I know my child would eat on the corresponding days on his lunch calendar. For example, if we are going to have BLTs one night for dinner, I’ll write down that he will have bacon (turkey bacon if you want to really know) in his lunch the day after.
- After that I go through and mark all the food that’s on the calendar so far with what categories they fall under. So, the bacon would be marked with a blue dot because it’s a protein. If it’s something like a burrito, it would be marked with a blue dot and a red dot because the meat would be protein and the tortilla would be a grain.
- Then, I fill in the rest of the days using the master list. I keep in mind that if I open a can of carrots that I’ll get 2 or 3 servings out of it, so he’ll have carrots a couple of times in a week.
- Once I’ve filled in all the food, I mark each food with its category. Then, I double check that a blue, red and 2 green dots appear each day so that all the requirements are met.
As your child gets older and starts preparing their own lunches, this is still a great tool to keep them from getting burned out on the same PB&J and chips. It also helps them think ahead and plan so they can learn how to plan “recipes” and grocery lists at an early age.
While this takes about an hour each month to complete (and an extra 30 minutes the first time to set up the master list of food) the amount of time and stress it saves on a nightly basis is worth it! You can go on autopilot, just look at the calendar, make the lunch listed and be done. It also makes grocery shopping easy because all you do as you are making your list for the next week is look at the lunches for the following week and make sure you have all the listed ingredients and items. AND, you should never get a pesky note that your child’s lunch had to be supplemented because you forgot one of the required food categories!