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Sunday, January 12, 2014

meal planning 101

Curious about meal planning
You have probably seen the mouth-watering dishes the awesome moms featured in the blog posts yesterday, with their tips and ideas on how to start meal planning. I hope they made you hungry enough to want to start a process like that in your own home. 

I've been interested in meal planning since the fall when I would see moms posting about it in the discussion group. I was curious, wondering if it would help me manage the crazy mid-week meal messes I was feeling buried under. I work full time out of the house. I have an easier schedule than most moms, home by 4:30 typically at the latest after we run errands after work. So I should be able to prepare meals... but it doesn't happen every night. 

My children are almost 4 and 20 months... so they are under my feet, wanting to play, talking to me, throwing things - like tantrums and balls - and not sharing so I have to step in all the time. They also want to eat ASAP at home, 5:30 latest, because they get up at 5 in the morning for our early commute work schedule... so they are hungry early in the evening. So my cooking in the kitchen have to be completed with a mad dash sprint it feels like. 

I had plenty of cookbooks and recipes from my bridal shower a zillion years ago, as well as many delicious looking recipes I had found on Pinterest. It was not for lack of trying that I was struggling. 

Need a game plan
I was stuck, annoyed, feeling frustrated. We're also on a tight budget, so preparing many of the amazing looking dishes I see on Pinterest wasn't going to work for us.

So, I decided two months ago to start small. I plan to make two real yummy homemade meals a week. We eat a lot of leftovers in our home, so we don't need tons of big meals. We're also a busy family, often visiting family mid-week, so that ends up that I don't need one of those nights of meals.

I make something in the Crockpot most Sundays (some Sundays I can't because we're off to a party or visiting family or something, but most I try to). That's been amazing! It's so helpful to just start something at 9 in the morning and then not eat it until the evening. Then I prepare something else again on a Sunday that we have ready for a mid-week meal. 

I've been trying to work through my cookbooks and recipes that I've collected. I have a binder (shown below, bottom) of recipes that I collect from magazines. I get Parents and Oprah's magazines, both have tons of awesome recipes every month. I also find recipes from other moms or Pinterest, so I print them off and put them in the binder, by category (appetizers, breakfast, dessert, meals, soups, salads, etc.). 

I write on the top of the recipe the date we first tried it if we liked it. If we don't like it, I toss it in the trash. It's a good system for us and helps me try new things in the kitchen so we aren't making the same thing every week.

Meal Planning 101
I have found that everyone meal plans differently... just like everything else we do as a mother. That is awesome, in my book. You have to make it work for you, not just copy what someone else is doing. And after reading Shelby Davis' post, it sounds like it's a work in progress, you may try something and it doesn't work, so you mix it up the following month. Do what works.

Here is what I've been trying lately with meal planning. I'm new at this, too, so still working out the kinks. 

  • WHITE BOARD -I have a big white board in my kitchen where we put all the events we have coming up each month - parties, birthdays, work events, etc. As a day goes by, I erase it from the board, which leaves room. At the top of the date I write diagonally what we'll have that day for dinner. 
  • BIG GROCERY TRIPS - My husband and I go BIG grocery shopping about 2-3 times a year, where we spend several hundred dollars and two carts full of food and stock the house. We buy 20+ bags of frozen steam veggies, lots of boxes of cereal and oatmeal, tons of chicken and burger from a meat market where we get a discount for buying in bulk, etc. By buying these staples in bulk, we ensure we have fewer random trips to the grocery store - which saves money and time- but we also always have something in the house we can go to. We always have pasta and pancake mix, for in a pinch. They are easy to make, the kids love them, and not terrible for you. Those are our standbys. Having standbys in the house ensures that if I could not do the whole meal plan ahead thing because we had a tough night, we still have something healthy to eat.
  • THEMED NIGHTS - With the specific meals each week, for me we've started slowly... so on Sundays it's typically a bigger meal I've made that took longer to whip up or that was in the Crockpot.  Crockpot meals are typically something with chicken and barbecue sauce, or beef stew or some type of delicious soup recipe I found. We always have one night that's breakfast for dinner - pancakes, eggs, toast, whatever we have. We always have a pasta night - raviolis, lasagna, pasta and meatballs, etc. We always have a leftover night, sometimes two of those a week, depending on how much food there was left from the other meals. These few nights make it MUCH easier for me to plan... because if you see, there are maybe 2-3 nights left I need to focus on. For me, working out of the home all day, that's do-able for me.  I always have Tuesday nights either be leftover night or something simple like grilled cheese, fruit and veggies, because I'm on my own those nights as my husband has a work meeting. I've just found when I try to plan something bigger those nights it ends up with yelling or kids fighting or me losing my mind cleaning up the mess after bed and bath duty solo. Other nights we have chicken a lot, tacos, stir fry with veggies and rice, and a variety of recipes from Pinterest. 
  • KID-FRIENDLY - We make sure we have tons of frozen veggies in the house at all times, because I serve one of those every single night, regardless of what we're making for dinner. We also always have apple sauce, bananas, oranges, etc. so that every meal has a fruit also. I make sure there is something the kids will eat with every single meal, which I've found encourages them to try the new things I've put on their plate, and it makes me not stress about if they are eating... I at least know they are eating the fruits, veggies, etc. I also have my son help cook in the kitchen a few recipes, that makes him more interested in what we're eating.
  • RECIPES - I had tons of cookbooks given to me at my bridal shower and then randomly through the years I collected some. They were taking up space, so I went through them, found if I actually would cook any of these recipes. If not, I gave them away. Put post-its on the pages or copy the recipes you want to keep, then get rid of it. I think that a big cookbook is overwhelming, makes some people shy away from using them. Make it easier on yourself. 
  • PINTEREST - Do I need to say more?! TONS of amazing meal planning worksheets, tips, ideas, pictures, how-tos, as well as recipes. You can type anything in there "breakfast" or "kids lunch ideas" and come up with way too many suggestions. Maybe some new ideas would get your motivation up to try this meal planning? Check it out! I have just recently added tons of ideas to the Mommy Stories Pinterest site, check out the "get organized, mama" board and the "what's cookin'?" boards.
  • MAKE A LIST - Keep a grocery list handy where anyone can add to it. I keep mine on the fridge, it's a visual reminder to add to it when we run out of something. This way both my husband and I will know what we're in need of, so whoever goes shopping can pick something up.
  • INGREDIENTS- I only make recipes that have few ingredients or that I know are things I'll end up using again. I oftentimes find recipes that sound awesome or look delicious, but I don't make them because they have something weird in them that I'll never use in another recipe. This saves money in the long run. It also saves time. 

Other tips I found when researching meal planning:
  • Have it in your phone, list of food items you need to pick up. I've heard there are apps that do this, link a list from your phone to your partner's phone. That would probably be helpful for parents who are busy, coming and going. 
  • Plan weekly or monthly, depending on what works for your family.
  • Keep a running list of past meals so that you don't make the same thing. 
  • Make sure you are flexible... let it go if you don't end up planning all of those meals. 
  • Set a time limit - only pick recipes that you know you can finish without your family going crazy. 
  • Cook tomorrow's dinner tonight. When kids go to bed and all is quiet, then make your meal for tomorrow. 
  • Chop up veggies when you get home from grocery shopping so it makes it easier throughout the week to use them. 
  • Start simply: Pick one night a week that you plan for... make it your busiest night. Prep the night before if you have to. 

For me, even just doing this about two months now, it is working! Meals are one less thing I need to worry, think or stress about during the busy work week. Knowing that it's all laid out for me ahead of time is the best thing. I walk in the door, check the board and go, "oh yeah, no problem." Instead of staring at the cupboards and fridge wondering what on earth we can make tonight. It's easier. 

It's more fun... I end up playing more during dinner time than I did before meal planning. For us, even doing it a few nights a week has really helped things be calmer that hour before dinner... which is really important to me, because I get to see my kids only a couple of hours on mid-week nights since I work out of the home, so ensuring we have the most time together that we can AND we're eating healthier - that's a WIN-WIN for all of us!

GOOD LUCK! I'd love to hear from you if you begin meal planning and want to share your mishaps and successes! Email me at 

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