Monday, January 12, 2009

Meal Planning Part II

Again, let me say that I feel kinda silly sharing this because it's probably stuff that most of you already do anyway. I am NO expert. I am, however, a big believer in doing what works best for your family. What works for me might not work for you, so keep that in mind as you read this.

1. Sit down with the family calendar.
I plan meals two weeks at a time and do my shopping accordingly. 

I find it helpful to sit down with our calendar and look at everything that we have going on in the two-week period I'm planning for. After-school activities mean that I need to plan easy meals, preferably crock-pot meals, on those nights. 

Parties/Get-togethers (like Bunco)? Do I need to bring a dish? We used to get together with our small group for dinner and that was something I needed to factor into my meal planning. Classroom parties? Do I have cookies to make or a snack to bring? Are we having guests for dinner? That usually means I plan dessert. Is John out of town? If so, we have easy, easy meals.

Eating out? We usually plan at least once a month to eat out. Sometimes more, sometimes less. My favorite times of the week to eat out are Friday nights and Sundays after church.

Everything on the calendar gets incorporated into my planning. 

2. Plan meals.
I gather all the grocery store ads and flip through them to see what's on sale. If chicken breasts are .99/lb, you can bet we're having lots of meals with chicken. If roast is on sale, I'll plan to have that too.

I also take a quick inventory of my pantry/freezer and plan around what I have an excess of.

Variety is key. I try to vary meats (chicken/beef/pork/fish) in each two week rotation as well as including some meatless meals (lentils/eggs/potatoes/pancakes).

When I lack inspiration, I ask my family for ideas. They're usually quick to suggest some favorites.

I also like to peruse cookbooks and cooking blogs for ideas. If I find a recipe I want to try, I make a note of the page number and cookbook it was in, or bookmark the website so that I can find it quickly when it's time to prepare the meal.

I also plan the sides to have with our meals. Usually this is a salad, bread, and/or veggie. It seems like we eat lots and lots of salad in the summer and more frozen veggies in the winter. 

3. Make grocery shopping list from meal plan.
I go through the meals I've planned one by one and write down all the ingredients I need to buy. I like to do this a day or two before I go to the store so that I have time to think of other things I need and gives me time to gather my coupons. My list is very specific. If I think of something I know I need as I'm planning menus, then I jot it down at that time. I've been known to forget important things if I don't write them down immediately!

4. Write menu plan in list form and stick on fridge.
I bought this magnetic note pad at the dollar store and I keep a list of all the meals on my menu plan written down on it. Once I prepare a meal, I cross it off the list.

5. Check the menu daily and decide what's for dinner.
I've gotten in the habit over the years of looking at my list each morning and deciding what we're having for dinner that evening. This allows me to think about my day and be flexible when I need to. I don't assign a meal to each day because my schedule isn't always predictable.

After I decide what we're having (I often ask John or one of the kids to choose) I set the meat for that meal down to thaw.

If I'm going to be at home all day, I'll choose make something that requires a little more time and effort. If we have somewhere to go that night, I'll do something easy like tacos or spaghetti. On days that I have a Brownie meeting and get home at dinner time, I make sure I use my crock-pot. 

I also try to be thinking ahead when I select meals each day. For example, I do not like coming home after church on Sundays (starving) and trying to figure out what we're having for lunch, so I try to make something on Saturday night that will ensure we have leftovers the next day. 

My Best Tip

After I got into a regular routine of planning meals and sticking to my plan, I began to look for ways to simplify the process. While I can't tell you that I've found a way to make planning easier or faster, I have found a way to make meal preparation easier.

I buy meat in bulk when it's on sale. When I get home from the store, I "process" it all at the same time. With chicken, I look at my chicken meals and figure out how much I need to cook, then cook it and freeze in meal-sized portions in a labeled ziploc bag (quart size). If the recipe calls for raw chicken, I go ahead and slice/dice it before freezing, saving me a step later.Yes, that's a pumpkin in the background because I took these pictures in October--back before I talked myself out of doing this post!
I've found that freezing meat in ziploc bags works well because they stack nicely (taking up less room in freezer) and they thaw quickly. 

These are all pictures of chicken, but I do the same thing with ground beef. I just cook it all at once and freeze in meal-sized portions. In the summer, we eat lots of burgers, so I make the patties and freeze between sheets of waxed paper. 

In the mornings, I just pull the package out for whatever meal I've decided on and let it thaw. 

This saves time each evening because you've eliminated one cooking step.

It saves clean up too because you make the mess once and you're done.

It has saved us money because it allows me to throw a meal together really quickly. One day not too ago, I forgot to put the meat down to thaw. I was planning on having chili and I didn't realize until 5:00pm that the meat was still frozen. 

It was kids eat free night at our favorite restaurant and we had almost talked ourselves into going, but I realized that by the time we drove to the restaurant, ordered and received our food, I could have the pre-cooked meat thawed (thank goodness for microwaves) and simmering along with everything else in the pot. I got our meal from freezer to table in about 40 minutes. If I'd had to start from scratch that night we would have spent $30+ on dinner.

I also do the same thing with cheese. I buy a 2lb block (Tillamook!) every two weeks, and come home, shred it in my food processor, and store in a gallon sized ziploc bag in the fridge. Saves tons of time when you're throwing a meal together, plus it's cheaper to buy in a block than pre-shredded.

So................there you go.

I'm sure that I'm forgetting things, so I'm going to do a Part III later this week. If you have any questions, feel free to leave them in the comments and I'll try to answer them in that next post. If you have ideas or suggestions, add those too. I'd love for this to be a dialogue! 


Trish said...

Loving this!! I am so glad you are doing this. I was laid off from my part time job last fall, and in an effort to not have to find work outside of my home, I have committed to being more disciplined about our family meals. I am loving it!

I do have a question though.....

What method do you use for cooking up all that chicken? I do cook up our ground beef in a large batch, but have not found a way to do the chicken.

yay for tillamook cheese!! it is truly the best. and did you know that most pre-shredded cheese is treated with antibiotics to prevent molding? That's not good!!

If you ever make it here to my neck of the woods, you must go to the Tillamook Cheese Factory. It is very fun!

Diane@Diane's Place said...

I do the same thing with my meats.

A couple of things that work for me but may not suit you:

Many times I double or even triple the amounts of food I'm making. It' doesn't take any longer to make 2 casseroles, a double batch of chili, etc. than it does to make one. I make extra and freeze the rest for quick meals later on.

Beans: It's much more economical to buy dry beans and cook them than it is to buy canned. I always cook more than I need and freeze them for chili or other dishes. If you make the same dishes a lot that call for beans, you can freeze them in measured portions tailored for your recipes.

Just beans and cornbread, maybe with a little meat cooked in the beans for flavoring, makes a hearty, healthy, very economical meal.

Carry on, my friend. I'm enjoying this series of posts. :o)

Love and hugs,


Amy said...

I too am enjoying these posts. Something that we "home managers" share and can learn from each other! I too use the family calendar to plan accordingly and process my meats when I get home, storing them in ziploc bags! It works so great for our family! Cheaper and less clean-up! I'm all for it!

Casey said...

This is so helpful! I have been refining my meal planning/shopping routine as I seem to be going over budget every week. I think it's mostly just b/c I am lazy about adding it up as I go.... anyway....

You are giving me inspiration to try some new ideas- and to try harder!! :)


Mama Voss said...

This is one area that I've struggled in. It had become routine that when asked, "What's for dinner?" I would get upset and frustrated (because I didn't know). Not a good thing with three kids and a husband who works very hard. So... I have committed to planning and being prepared. I try to have my idea ready the night before or at least by breakfast. Now, I need to try the two week plan. I think that it would benefit our family greatly. Thanks for taking the time to write it out. What seems simple to some, is an area of frustration for many.

Moriah @ Please Pass the Salt said...

I love number 5. I think that would REALLY help me; not actually assigning a meal to a particular day, just have the options and everything necessary for any one of them.

Unknown said...

I use my calendar to plan, but usually assing specifics to certain days...I like the idea of just planning for 2 weeks and deciding exacts the day of...

Also, I've never tried cooking up meat/meals ahead of time...may try this soon!

His Girl said...

many, many thoughts about this post.

first, the shallowest (in order to get it out of the way)- YOUR HANDWRITING! OH MY GOLLY, AWESOME!!!! SO PRETTY!!!

second, I can testify that the mere act of having a menu plan saves money. every time I deviate we do a lot of "can you pick something up (pizza, fast food) something on the way home?) Also, my family loves looking at the fridge and seeing what we are having each day. I do a two week menu- not a list like yours, which I do like though. and when I am really on my game I will menu plan for a month. It only takes me like 15 minutes more and then I feel like it's a treat when I don't have to do it again for a month. Of course, I've been stuck doing a week at a time lately. Need to snap out of it.... this post is inspiring!

and third, in what could only be called a novel instead of a mere comment- I love the idea of not just cooking up the meat, but labeling it for the meal. BRILLIANT! And I agree, I would love to know your chicken methods.

enough of my words- thanks for sharing your wisdom! I am inspired, chica!

Gretchen said...

Printing out this whole kit and caboodle. And I agree with HG: your handwriting makes me green with envy. I write like a criminal.

Elizabeth said...

I'm so glad you talked yourself into posting this, it's helpful. I've gotten in a rut and I needed a little kick in the rear to get going with meal planning, etc. I could also use some help with a house cleaning schedule, is that next?

I've never heard of Tillamook cheese, but I do always buy a block and shred it myself b/c I've heard the pre-shredded is coated with silicon.

JJ Kimmel said...

Good stuff here, Mer. I will use this for sure. I hate to admit how many days 5 o'clock rolls around and I have NOTHING for dinner. Can't we just eat out every night?

I would love to get some of your crock pot recipes. Mine sits in the garage collecting dust and I know it would help to actually plug it in and use it.

Thanks for putting this post together! I think you have a lot of great ideas here, Martha!!

leigh said...

These are great ideas! You make me want to be more organized. Thanks.

Melissa said...

Menu planning is great for us, too. As is shopping by sale papers. I hadn't thought about pre-cooking the meat, though. That would help me so much if I spent some Saturday time cooking meat...that would eliminate my mad dash to cook when I get home from work.

I need to clean out my freezers this weekend & get them more organized. Thanks for the inspiration!

Brenda said...

Love reading about this stuff, even tho' I do a lot of what you're saying it's nice to get a few more tips that help me tweak my own system.
You're right up there with Robin Miller (Food Network) in my book!

Rae said...

I sooooo struggle with making dinner!! I must utilize some of your tips. BTW, I LOVE your handwriting!!

Jacquie said...

The first thing I noticed was your beautiful handwriting!! I bet you were a teacher's favorite!

I'm very impressed with your planning. Makes me want to stay home... although my kids are grown, so that probably wouldn't go over well.

I do a lot of prep after I get home from the grocery store, too, just because I'd rather get it over with all at one time.

Very helpful information - especially for busy moms.

*carrie* said...

Loved this post, Mer. I still have the e-mails you sent on this subject from over a year ago!

I'm still figuring out what works for us in this regard. One of my biggest problems, though it sounds silly, is remembering to check for EVERY ingredient in a recipe when making my list. I should re-read through your post again about how you make your grocery list. I am notorious for starting to prepare a meal, and realizing I'm out of a key ingredient. Boo!

We have a lot of meals in our regular rotation, so I'm considering making up a monthly schedule that would just repeat itself (nights would be included for new recipes, eating out, etc.)

I buy pre-shredded cheese, but I agree that cooking meat in bulk saves a lot of time!

Anonymous said...

I too LOVED your handwriting! I always notice nice handwriting because my handwriting is so messy! Thanks for all these wonderful tips!

~ I had never thought of precooking meat then freezing it! :) What a great idea! Okay, for novices like do I get my chicken to look all yummy and shredded like that. Did you bake the chicken breast? How long? Please explain a little more on how to do this for each type of meat! I'm so impressed! Can't believe you thought about not sharing all these wonderful tips! I've never heard of doing this before...but, it makes a lot of sense! I'm so excited to try and I've never been so excited about trying to cook!

~ What is the cheese (tilla...?) you buy then grate yourself? I've only bought grated cheese in the pack? How do you freeze the cheese? Do you put it into 2 cups freezer bags like the meat? I didn't realize you could freeze cheese? You said you put the cheese block in your food processor? What type food processor should I buy? Can you show a picture on your blog of your different useful appliances and what size or brand I should consider purchasing?

~ I wrote down two of your recipes that seem easier to try this week. I'm trying your chicken broccoli fettuccine and your imperial chicken.

~ I went grocery shopping today and I'm excited to start trying!

~ Since I'm just starting I only bought for 7 meals and I have my meal list on my fridge already! :)

Thanks so much!

~ Ali

Heather said...

Mer- Thanks so much for doing this. I do my meal planning similar to you...but I don't do some of the extra steps that seem to make things go so much easier for you! I am QUICK to say "let's just go out" even when I have I need this motivation to help me!
Thanks so much....this was GREAT!

Heather said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Heather said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Okay, I just googled, Tillamook cheese and found out they sell it in Texas at lots of different stores even Walmart!

What flavors of this cheese do you buy?

But, why do you prefer it?

Better taste? Healthier? Cheaper?

Just curious since I have never heard of it!

~ Ali

Christen said...

yay i love this stuff!! i was so thrilled to see your pad on the fridge with a list of meals...i thought i was the only one! if i knew how to post pics i would (but not as pretty as yours!) great idea about cooking the meat first, i'll be doing that now. i just started the bean freezing that someone mentioned. and we love tillamook sharp and jalapeno jack.. yay for no antibiotics! i currently have a ratatouille in the oven, very yummy meal. i noticed you mentioned you blogged about your laundry schedule. i'll need to find that. i have a recipe for laundry's wonderful and about 3 cents a load..yay for cheap and natural.

Amber said...

I love the idea of cooking all the meat and then freezing it. That is so smart! I'm going to try that for sure! Thanks for this. You may think that it is silly to post this kind of stuff...I LOVE IT!!! So, just do it for me!! :)

Holly said...

What do you do with the broth to save for meals? Do you save it or do you use bouillon cubes?

Jennifer said...

Hey Mer! Gosh, I don't know where to begin! Love your handwriting! Beautiful!

I use the menu route but I assign a meal to a day but am flexible to move something within the week. I have all the goodies for the week, sometimes for two.

I would love to see more menu's from your readers. Maybe do a mr. linky for it?? LOL

I have never thought of precooking the meat when I buy it. What a great idea! Do you do that with just beef and chicken? I am going to try that one for sure.

I'm a bit lost on the cheese in a food processor. I think I have one of those gadgets here somewhere. LOL Does it stay fresh when thawed out? What a great idea. Does 2 pounds work for a week or two for you?

I like Diane's idea of making two casserole's at a time and then freezing one. My concern is the proper way to freeze. I don't want frost burn.

Oh, another thing. Do you have a way to get out of the rut of making the same things all the time? And I, too, would love to see some of your crock pot recipes.

Great ideas!!! Thanks so much~

Michelle@Life with Three said...

I'm a menu planner -- because nothing is worse for me than ending up at the grocery store at 5 p.m. with three kids in tow, wondering what to make for dinner. But, I do need to get better about "processing" the meant when I get home, like you do. That would be a huge time saver -- a little work on the front end would save a ton of time on the back end! ;)

Robin said...

This is fantastic!!! I am putting this into use immediately. I have tried to plan before, but I soon grow bored (ugly but true), but you have convicted me that I should pray for this desire to serve my family.

Thanks Meredith! I love your blog! Blessings!


Tiffani said...

Girl! What a great response you've gotten here!!!

I do menu planning (one week at a time) my hardest thing is VARIETY!! I need to do some more research on your site and others!

I LOVE LOVE that you cook the meat ahead and label about a timesaver!!

I'm proud of you for posting something you'd put off and thought you didn't wanna do! It was very helpful! AND--by the way, I LOVE your handwriting!!

Becca~CapturingSimpleJoys said...

Such a good post! I keep a notepad such as yours on my fridge at all times to jot downs things I see in the kitchen and around the house that we are out of. If it isn't written down I will forget it! I like the fact that you don't have meals assigned but rather you have meals to choose from. I think if I limited myself to a certain meal on a certain night but we didn't want that and it would throw off the other meals planned I wouldn't stick with it. This is doable!! Thank-you! ALWAYS post such helpful things and NEVER think you shouldn't!!

the voice of melody said...

Now that's what I call organization! Thanks for all the tips/advice. :)

Jackie said...

Mer, you're a genius! I know some of this stuff seems like common sense, but it is so helpful to see it all laid out like this. I was doing really well with making my list in advance and knowing what was going on but lately I've let it slide....conviction...ouch. :)
I especially love that that do up all of your meat at one mom has always done that and I know it's such a huge timesaver later on. Thanks so much!!!

Julie said...

You are amazing....

I used to be organized and then I got tired....burned out with EVERYTHING.....

I do buy ahead. I rarely if ever pay full price for meat..

I am amazed at what you do and maybe who knows, it will all come back to me.

Loved this!

Brandy said...

This is really good, thanks for sharing. I do a lot of the planning stuff very similarly, but the execution part - not as well. I only have me, hubby and one little guy to feed right now, so I guess I still have some time to perfect my skills. Your post is encouraging to me to keep working on it!

Unknown said...

Hi there! I stumbled across your blog through a friend of a friend of a friend's blog. :-) Awesome ideas...I'm going to definately give them a wurl. Thanks for publishing your thoughts!

Tanya said...

wow, I didn't know so many people sought out their answers through blogs. I thought to myself, i am going to be unconventional and use the internet to find my answer. How funny!
Thank you so much for your time in writing that post. It has been very very helpful. I am 28yr old who is very domestically challenged. Good thing, I do not have a family yet because I need help. I didn't know how much you rely on the teaching of your parents when you are thinking about having a family. THANK YOU SO MUCH yours and stephaniesmommybrain has helped me feel much better about my tendency to be unorganized. I do have one question though. My husband has a culinary tongue. Does cooking the meat beforehand change the quality of the recipes or am I just preparing very complex meals?

Janet Lea said...

I really liked this post (and yes, I realize it's old ha). I do the 'post the list of meals on the fridge and cross them off as you cook them'. I really like the cooking all the meat before hand. I will have to try that! Thanks!