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 to 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!
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.
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 30 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!
I wrote this post back in 2009 as part of a series.
And guess what? I'm still just as wordy as ever. Wink.