Friday, January 18, 2013

Meal planning - Making a Plan

Now that you have your supplies gathered (see my last post for a list), we are ready to jump in and begin meal planning.  I use this same method each month.  I'll be honest...some months are easier than others.  But having a plan saves us from eating out all the time, and saves me the headache of having to figure out what's for dinner each night.  It may not work for everyone, but this is my method.

The Template

Take a look at your template.  (Here's the template for February 2013.)  A few things you'll notice right off the top:
  1. I only plan dinners.  For now.  Eventually I would love to have lunch plans as well, but at this point,  lunch is pretty free form at our house.  It's just me and the preschooler, so we tend to do simple things like sandwiches, soup, homemade "lunchables", and once in a while frozen pizza or mac and cheese.  The big kids usually eat school lunch.  We're lucky to have a pretty decent school lunch program with a lot less "junk" than some of my friends' schools.  Breakfasts are an on-your-own deal here: cereal, toast, bagels, yogurt, fruit.  The kids are pretty independent with breakfast.

  2. Themes!!  Yes, I love cheesy themes.  The truth is...IT WORKS.  My daughter (5 years old) knows that Tuesday in our house is "Tuscan Tuesday".  It makes it so much easier to stick to the menu if the 5 year old says, "We're having spaghetti because it's Tuscan Tuesday."  Having a set theme for each day also makes it easier to come up with ideas when I get stuck.  I know what kind of meal I'm looking for.  Finally, it helps keep us from eating the same thing every night.  I am a pasta FREAK, so if I could schedule spaghetti, lasagna, ravioli back to back, it would not phase me at all.  Everyone else gets bored.  This spreads it out.
    • Mexican/Mandarin Monday - We go back and forth between Mexican and Chinese (well, Asian) dishes on Mondays.  Not always every other week, but pretty much a rotation.
    • Tuscan Tuesday - Italian.  Pasta.  Carbs.  
    • Worshipful Wednesday - Our church has a community meal on Wednesday nights most of the year before band rehearsal and AWANA.  So, I don't cook on Wednesdays for the most part.  However, when the Wednesday meal isn't happening because of breaks, summer, etc., this will be replaced by Wishful Wednesday, where I take requests from the kids.  This means a lot of pancakes if the youngest has his way.
    • Thawed Out Thursday - Slow Cooker meals, called "thawed out" because these almost always come from co-op and are freezer meals.
    • Fix-It-Up Friday - This "catch all" name sums it's a catch all day.  Meals on this day can be basically anything that doesn't fit another category.  Typically it's a baked or grilled meat with sides. 
    • Simple Saturday - Weekend meals are my nemesis.  We just get too busy (or too lazy) to think about cooking.  So if dinner isn't something simple, we end up with pizza or chinese take-out.  Saturday nights I try to focus on something quick and easy to fix.  It shouldn't take more than 30 minutes, and should definitely be kid-friendly or I will give in to the whining and call for delivery.
    • Soup/Salad/Sandwich Sunday - Sundays we usually go out for lunch after church, so for supper something light is appropriate.  Sandwiches are my go-to, but occasionally a soup or salad will pop up.

When to Plan

When you do your meal planning is a personal choice.  I typically do mine middle of the month, when I have time.  Which means, when the big kids are at school, the youngest is napping, and I don't have 10 billion other things needing my attention.  But, yes, it does get done.

Why the middle of the month?  For me, that's what makes sense.  Mainly because of co-op.  We meet the first Monday of the month.  That night is when we pick our meals for the next month.  Once I have that information, I can plan the next month's meals.  However, I'm currently the one who makes the grocery list and finalizes recipes for our group, so my planning time for the next week or so is devoted to that.  Once the file is submitted to the grocery store, I have time to work on my meal plan.  So, usually about the second Monday of the month is when I get it done.

Getting Started

So, you've got your template.  You understand the themes.  You are ready to begin.

Step 1:

Pull out your calendar.  Go through and find any nights where you will be gone or where eating at home is just not possible.  You can write what's going on that night in the space on your calendar, or just put an X through it.  For our family, this only takes out two nights in February - one night when we have other plans, and the night of my oldest's Blue and Gold Banquet for Cub Scouts.  All other nights we can eat at home.

Step 2:

I now go through and fill out nights with known meals.  In particular, Wednesdays.  Each of these gets filled in with "Church Dinner".  It can also included special holiday meals (Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter) or nights we eat out for special occasions like birthdays.

Step 3:

This is where I pull out the list of meals I'll be bringing home from my co-op in February.  (I PROMISE I will post about co-op soon!)

I have a few meals left in the freezer from the last few months that need to be used: 
  • French Roast Beef Cheese Dip - sandwiches
  • Sweet and Sour Pork Roast - slow cooker meal
  • Balsamic Brown Sugar Pork Loin - slow cooker meal
  • Sticky Roast Chicken - fill in meal
This month I'm bringing home 7 meals:
  • Jambasta - pasta.  It's not very Italian, but we'll put it on a Tuesday anyway. :)
  • Italian Meatloaf - fill in meal
  • Asian Beef Stirfry - this could be used on Mandarin Monday, but it's also a quick meal, so it will be a Saturday dish
  • Taco Tater Tot Bake - Mexican
  • Grilled Salmon with Hazelnut Butter - fill in meal (same night as Sticky Roast Chicken to make up for allergies in our house)
  • Apple Glazed Roast Pork - slow cooker meal
  • Corned Beef and Cabbage - I'm saving this for St. Patrick's Day in March
Once these have taken their place on the calendar, I can begin filling in the rest.

Step 4:

I typically do main dishes and go back and fill out sides.  I pull out the magazines and check out the dog-earred pages.  I flip through SousChef and find recipes that fit the category I'm looking for.  I do this until everything is filled in, or until I can't find something I want to put down.  When that happens (and it always does), I go to the internet.  I have a few go-to websites, but most of the time I'll have some sort of idea of what I want.  When that happens, I just google it.  Like this month.  I had one spot open on a Tuesday, and had seen a commercial on tv for a restaurant featuring cannelloni.  It sounded so good.  So I found a recipe for cannelloni.  It's really not that hard to fill in the blanks once you know what you are looking for. 

Once the main dishes are done, it's time to add the sides.  I don't get overly elaborate on side dishes most of the time.  With stir fry, it's usually rice and (depending on the dish) veggies.  Pasta? A salad, and maybe some bread.  But, sometimes I like to have a little fun.  Once those are all filled in, we're done!  

The Finished Product:

So, this is my menu for February.  I'll start sharing recipes once February gets here.  I'll try to work a week ahead, posting recipes on Friday or Saturday for the next week.  Of course, life sometimes gets in the way, so I can only promise to try! :)

Meal Plans Made Easy (well...easier, anyway)

It's that time again.  Time to sit down and plan a menu and grocery list for the week.  Does your head start to pound?  Your palms get all sweaty?  You just dread this time?  I've been there.  I know how you feel.  So, take a deep breath...I'm here to help!  I've come up with a way to plan menus that works for me, and with maybe a few changes, you can make it work for you, too!  So, grab your supplies, and pull up a chair, because here we go!!!

Wait!!!  Did you say supplies???  What supplies????  Here is what I gather up to work on my menu plan:

1.  My menu template and a pen.  The menu template is basically a calendar for the month.  Yes, I plan for the whole month at a time.  Usually middle of the month before (I'll explain why later).  You can do it weekly if that works better for you.  Here is my basic template, or you can make your own.  I "fancy" it up a bit for the month because I display it on my fridge.  Do whatever you want.

2.  My calendar.  I can't keep everyone's schedules in my head, can you?

3.  My recipe files.  I use a program on the computer called SousChef to store my recipes.  If you have a Mac, I highly recommend it.  I've used it for years and it does everything I need - stores my recipes with a photo, communicates with the iPad which I use in the kitchen, emails recipes.  I also don't use paper cookbooks much, but I do have some magazines (Taste of Home is my favorite) and I use the internet to find others.  So, my laptop and a stack of magazines is all I need for this part.

4.  My cooking co-op meal picks for the next month.  I'll write more about co-op another day, but this is a great way to get freezer meals each month.  I typically have 7-10 meals per month.  If you don't have a co-op, you can do a freezer cooking day on your own, or just skip this part.

5.  Paper or an app for your grocery list.  I'm an app-girl.  I personally like Shopper on my phone for grocery lists.  I can even sync it with my husband so he has the list and can stop on the way home if I need him to.   That way I don't forget my list when I go to the store - I always have my phone!

OK.  So take some time and go find all of your supplies.  My next post, we'll start planning for February!!! :)

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Starting Over..

So, last year got away from me!  I've made my New Year's Resolutions and am hoping to actually stick with them this year!

1.  Exercise.  Isn't this everyone's NYR?  I think I start this every year and fail.  The truth is, I HATE WORKING OUT.  I have some friends who practically live at the gym.  Not me.  I prefer to workout in my basement, where no one can see me.  And then, only when I feel like it.  So far, this system is not working for me.  I won't be blogging about my progress on this goal, because, well, no one wants to hear about it.  But, I'll try.

2.  Eating at home more.  We have a bad habit of eating out.  I like to cook, so it's not that.  It's more a time thing.  I get so busy during the day, I forget to start dinner or go to the grocery store.  This year, we will eat at home more.  I've re-discovered my love for baking (I made an AMAZING Rosemary Potato Bread from the other day...OMG!!).  I've also found a new way of doing meal planning that I'm hoping will keep me interested.  I'm still doing my cooking coop, and that definitely makes things easier.

Another reason for eating at home more - money.  I've been reading a lot the last few days on facebook and some discussion boards about how upset people are with the decrease in their paychecks this month because of the payroll tax.  I'm not a political person, so I'm not going to get into that.  BUT, I've been thinking about where we could cut back in our budget as a result of all of these discussions, and the biggest money drain in our budget is food.  We could save a lot of money just by eating at home.  So my goal (for now) is to cut back to once a week - Sunday lunch.  Right now I'm struggling to figure out how to do meals for Sunday noon when church is from 9:45-12 (including Sunday school).  So, I'll give in and we can eat out then.  My next post I'll talk about my new menu planning plan.  I think it will be a good thing for our family.

3.  Get organized.  Before Christmas, we had one of "those" days.  In literally the coarse of 10 minutes I had a world-class tantrum from G because she couldn't find her shoes, followed by a screaming fit from C because the book he wanted to read was missing.  That was the last straw.  We couldn't find anything because the house was a mess.  The house was a mess because nothing was in it's place.  Nothing was in it's place because nothing had a place - we have too much stuff!!  Over the next two weeks, my husband and I went through the entire house - every cabinet, closet, drawer, etc.  We cleaned, sorted, and weeded out.  We ended up taking 12 large garbage bags plus a pack-and-play and 3 ride-on toys and a baby gate to a donation center.  We threw out 9 large garbage bags of "stuff" that was not donate-able.  We purchased tubs for toys and gave everything a home.  It was a start.  So, I'm off and running to restart the Organized Home Challenge.  I'll start it full in February (lots going on before then), but I'll get as much of January done as I can.

4.  Kid-Time.  This is the most important to me.  Yes, I spend time with my kids, but it's not been very "structured" lately, and there are things I could do better.  Especially with J - after all, he's home more.  So, I'll work on that, too.

These are the things you'll be hearing about from me this year.  I promise to do better at blogging (maybe that should be number 5).  And maybe with your help I can keep these resolutions!