5 Principles of Meal Planning

Jamie Sumner
Special needs mom and author
12/29/22  11:35 AM PST

5 Principles of Meal Planning I Learned in College that I Still Use to Feel My Family

When I was in college, I served as the hospitality chair for my sorority. This job was not, as I had anticipated, passing out teacakes on doilies and arranging flowers by a fountain. Instead, it consisted of making house dinner every Monday night for two hundred girls in various emotional states with DEFCON 1 level eating proclivities. There was a fountain though.

I learned a few things during the two years I cooked those meals before I quit Greek life altogether in favor of the chiller vibe of the nerds who laid on the lawn reading fat paperbacks and listening to Dave Matthews on portable CD players. And so, in honor of my brief stint in hospitality, here are five tricks I picked up when cooking for a crowd that I still use today when it’s time to feed my family.

  1. Don’t plan your meals, plan your budget

Because every girl in the house paid dues, I had a very limited and unwavering amount to spend on these Monday night meals. That meant shopping at Super Walmart on Sunday night, buying in bulk, and getting whatever was on sale. Frozen chicken was cheaper than fresh. Frozen vegetables lasted longer and tasted the same (or better). Everybody loves rice and rice is cheap. These are the tricks of the trade that I stand by today. I don’t go to the grocery store with a recipe for “Roasted Salmon in Dill Sauce”, I go with the general idea of “Whatever Protein is on Sale Paired with Whatever Sauce Goes with Beef/Poultry/Fish/Beans.” This way, I still cover all my bases, but at lower cost. Don’t get attached to a recipe. Get attached to a formula: protein plus veggie or fruit plus carb.

  1. Self-serve

After cooking for two hundred people, I wasn’t about to plate it for them. Everything was self-serve and everything is still self-serve in my house. That way, even the pickiest eaters can get more of what they want and less of what they don’t and I’m not standing over them shaking a soup ladle in admonishment. It takes the pressure off all of us, because as long as everybody can find something they like, even if it is a giant plate of macaroni with one solitary broccoli crown on top, we can all eat stress-free.

  1. Ignore complaints

Let this be your mantra: You are never going to please everyone. When you are feeding a crowd, somebody is always going to have something to say. You have different people bringing their day’s emotional highs and lows to the table and inevitably that comes out in comments about the food. But you know what? After doing this every Monday for so many people with so many days’ worth of emotional baggage, I learned to tune it out. It’s the equivalent of white noise now. It takes a bit of armor building, but it does get easier to ignore the kid who thinks “salad is death” or the one who decides “pears are too slimy.”

  1. Repurpose leftovers

That leftover grilled chicken tenders from chicken and macaroni night? Toss them in a little soy and hoisin with the almost wilted vegetables and they will rise again as stir fry. Tada! It’s the magic of creative cooking. I’ve turned leftover dried up mashed potatoes into fried potato cakes served with scrambled eggs for breakfast for dinner. I’ve shredded up the last bits of pork tenderloin and made barbecue tacos. It’s the best kind of science experiment and usually means you get a meal you never would have thought up yourself.

  1. Splurge on the good takeout

Sometimes the best action is inaction. When I could not be bothered to cook, I would use the little bits of dues I scrimped and saved from shopping on sale and order takeout from the sorority’s favorite southern restaurant. They had fancy salads and homemade poppy seed chicken casserole and yeasty rolls. No one complained on takeout night. This still holds true for my family. Because we don’t go out that often, every now and then when the cooking is too much, I will order all our favorite things from our favorite local restaurant and everyone cheers, including me.

If you’re in a family dinner rut, I hope this helps. If all else fails, put on some Dave Matthews, practice your Zen face, ignore everyone’s opinion but your own, and remember, the cook rules the kitchen.


child with special needs
Jamie Sumner is a special needs mom and author.

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