Meal Plan Monday: Meal Planning for Beginners

Good post-Easter Monday!  I come to you (not live) this week to talk about something very near and dear to my heart:  meal planning.

For many people, I might be preaching to the choir or giving you information that you already know.  I am going to try to trace the most up-to-date way that I meal plan with the hope that any meal planning newbies who are reading this will find needed tidbits of knowledge to lead to meal plan success.

I have had successes and failures with meal planning.  It has not always been smooth sailing.  There have been stumbles as well as fits and starts along the way.

As we are a family whose big “restaurant-spending risk” is at supper, I mostly plan only the evening meals.  My lunches are usually leftovers or a can of Aldi-brand Chef Boyardee at work, Muffin’s school lunches are an interesting blend of leftovers, sandwiches, homemade (or even, horrors, store-bought) Lunchables, or snacky lunches.  Josh tends to do the sandwich or leftover thing although sometimes he grabs stuff at Walmart or Target.

In the summer, I try to plan a bit more (breakfasts and lunches), and, if we have company, I plan all possible meals (dessert and beverage included).

Tip #1:  Meal planning is not optional.  It is a necessity if you live under any kind of budget constraints (and I haven’t met a person yet who doesn’t).

Tip #2:  Gather recipes.  Some people meal plan around a rotational schedule and have recipes that they repeat over and over and over.  There are pros and cons to this.  The pros are that you always buy the same thing at the grocery store and know which ingredients to stock up on when they go on sale.  The cons, for us, would outweigh the pros.  Josh and I like trying new things.  A rotational meal plan would not allow us the freedom to do so.

I gather recipes everywhere.  My bookmarks/favorites in Chrome are mostly recipes.  My Dropbox is at capacity (and beyond) for recipes.  My computer has recipes.  I have pictures of recipes that I have taken with my phone that are in my photo roll.  I collect the special interest (and regular) food and cooking magazines that have recipes.  I look at blogs and ingredient provider websites for recipes.  And, finally, that great recipe glut:  Pinterest.

I have thousands upon thousands of recipe pins.  Seriously.  Thousands.  Morning, noon, and night, I contemplate recipes or even simply ingredient combinations.

Even if you go old school and gather recipes that you use in a binder, do so.

Tip #3:  From my available recipes, I make a meal plan.  I do not rely on pay-by-month apps or websites to plan my meals.  Part of the purpose of meal planning is to save money and time.  Spending money for a meal plan?  Ummm, no.  Another issue I have with these is that the ones that are completely pre-made tend to be recipes that use ingredients that one (or more) of us don’t like.  Curry powder, for instance.  Or anchovies.  Or, in some really sick why-would-you-ever-do-this-to-anyone-recipe-idea, curry powder with anchovies.

Note that I said from my available recipes, I make a meal plan.  Some people build their plans around the loss leaders in grocery circulars.  I went through a stage where I did that.  For me, a person who intrepidly treks to Aldi every two weeks (67 miles one-way), this isn’t really feasible.  I will buy the loss leaders at Kroger or Albertson’s if they are a fantastic deal.  Most loss leaders are either proteins that freeze well (and can have a meal plan built around later) or processed items that keep well (canned, jarred, or boxed items).  Produce loss leaders would usually end up being part of a side dish, and those items can be quickly swapped out.

Tip #4:  Find the day you know you are most likely to fudge on the meal plan and make it a leftover day (or something really easy that you don’t mind eating every week).  For us, that day is Thursday.  And the alternate meal is hot dogs.  Very rarely do we resort to hot dogs.  Usually, we eat leftovers.

Tip #5:  If you theme-meal plan, pencil stuff in.  Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday are the easiest days of my meal plan.  Tuesday is usually taco or Tex-Mex related.  Thursday is leftovers (Thrifty Thursday).  For Fridays, I usually list pizza.  This could be grabbing a pizza at Little Caesars, grabbing a slice at Sam’s, making mini pizzas (with English muffins or Texas Toast or French bread), or making a full-blown pizza.

Tip #6:  If you have holidays or special occasions, pencil those in as well.  Nights when you are out of town, holidays, nights when you have to work late, etc. easy to plan because you probably are going to (gasp!) eat out.  As long as it is part of your meal plan, you will not have already purchased food to eat out on that date.

Tip #6:  Plan around the week you know you will have (activity and weather-wise).  Longtime readers know that I drag the slow cooker, grilling, and chilled recipes out in the summer.  I refuse to heat up my kitchen (and, therefore, the rest of the house) if I can help it.  Also, if my weekend is busy (or we are out of town) and the work week is busy, no-brainer meals, such as hot dogs, hamburgers, salads, tacos, something pulled from the freezer, or sandwiches.

Tip #7:  Make a shopping list of everything that you will need for those recipes (and the essentials to get you through your shopping period) arranged by the location of the items in the store.  Remove/leave off any items that you already have, of course.  Sometimes I will make my meal plan around items we already have around the house.  It is incredibly frugal to do so.

Tip #8:  Follow the shopping list.  (And don’t go shopping without, at least, a mental list.)  This should be the ultimate no-brainer.  However, there are reports of people who walk the aisles of grocery stores, adding items to carts willy-nilly with nary a meal plan or a list in mind.  Scandalous! I tell you!  Absolutely scandalous!  These people have no intention of meal planning or cooking their own meals.  They like the appearance of doing so but will not back it up with the “goods,” as it were.

I’m sorry.  But when people do that it really “frosts my cookies.”

Tip #9:  When you get home, organize your groceries in their respective locations by recipes.  This is just a thrown-out-there tip.  If the first time I use the corn flakes, I also use the cream of mushroom soup, those items are going to be together.

Tip #10:  (The Big Kahuna)  Follow the meal plan.  Again, I think I hear a chorus of “Duh!” in the background.  But there are weeks where I falter here.  I get sick.  Muffin gets sick.  Josh gets sick.  Work hits me over the head with a brick a few (dozen) times to the point that microwaving a bag of popcorn takes more effort than I have.  How do I do a preemptive strike around this?

I prep on the weekends.  Remember in Tip #6 where I talk about busy weekends?  Yes, that is where things have to be orchestrated carefully.  For the last few meal plans, if it hasn’t gotten done on the weekend?  It hasn’t gotten done.  So, I prep as much as possible on the weekends (to the point of completely oven-readying casseroles, putting protein in marinade, chopping up toppings for tacos, precooking taco and/or sloppy joe meat, and even making meals so that all we have to do is microwave individual portion sizes for the weekday).  Meals that cannot be prepped ahead that require a lot of work are designated non-busy day meals only (weekends, summer, school holidays).

Why did I feel the need to write this post?  1)  I believe passionately in the importance of meal planning.  It soothes me.  It feeds my soul (literally and figuratively).  It provides structure to my often chaotic and fragmented life.  2)  The people who “frost my cookies” from Tip #8?  Heard about some of them.  I am literally contemplating tying my fingers together to keep from being more insulting towards them.  3) In researching budget recipes on Pillsbury’s website, I was overjoyed to find a five-day meal plan (in an article that stressed the importance of meal planning)…until I looked at the shopping list.

The shopping list included ingredients that were super expensive.  In a meal-planning article on the budget portion of a recipe website, should you ever include recipes in a meal plan that have super-expensive ingredients?

Personally, as a huge corporation, that company should know better.  Sure, in many cases, the more expensive ingredients could be substituted (and I would), but, in my mind, you put people off meal planning with such a counterproductive meal plan.  (For those who are dying of curiosity, the ingredients included honeycrisp apple–one of the more expensive ones unless they are on an extreme sale, rotisserie chicken–wouldn’t it be cheaper to buy and roast a chicken, pumpernickel bread, organic canned tomatoes, and organic Thousand Island dressing.  Whoever heard of organic Thousand Island dressing?)

So, what is on my meal plan this week?

Saturday:  Caramelized Black Pepper Chicken (Just a Taste), rice, eggroll

Sunday:  Easter dinner

Monday:  red beans and rice, bread, salad (freeze leftover red beans for June)

Tuesday:  Fajita Rice (Lynn’s Kitchen Adventures), beans, chips and salsa

Wednesday:  Baked Chicken Croquettes (Life in the Lofthouse), broccoli, rice, and gravy

Thursday:  leftovers or hot dogs

Friday:  pizza

Saturday:  I am chaperoning a school event, and Muffin has a Cub Scout thing with Josh.

Sunday:  Southern Buttermilk Fried Chicken (A Bountiful Kitchen), macaroni and cheese, green beans (freeze half of the macaroni and cheese for June)

What is on your meal plan this week?  How do you meal plan?

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We Plan Wednesday: Upcoming Main Dishes to Try Part 1 (with Codes!)

We Plan Wednesday

If you checked out the Tip Tuesday post from yesterday, you know that I’m working to organize recipes to break up that meal plan monotony.  When I made the plan this past weekend, it was oh so easy to consider falling back down that slippery slope of the meal plan monotony rut.

But I knew I couldn’t let that happen.  Plus, I had several recipes that I had originally planned for the previous week that really needed to see the light of day.

I decided I needed to really make it easy for myself and form a list from the recipes that I had already started investigating on various blogs, to organize that list using the parameters I mentioned yesterday:  main protein, preparation, type, and website.

Here is my first (of hopefully many) of those organized, coded lists.  The code is found on the Tip Tuesday post.

Crock Pot Chicken Cheesesteak Sandwiches (LitL) CP/U, PWE, chicken

Taco Potatoes (LitL) M, PWE (Thursday meal), ground meat

Spaghetti Pie (LitL) I, PWE/WE, ground meat

Ranch Chicken Enchiladas (LitL) M, PWE, chicken

Taco Lettuce Wraps (LitL) M, WN/PWE, ground meat

Loaded Chicken and Potato Casserole (LitL) U, WE, chicken

Chicken Cheesesteak Baked Potatoes (LitL) U, PWE, chicken

Grilled Cheeseburger Wraps (LitL) U/F, PWE, ground meat

Bowtie Skillet Lasagna (LitL) I, WN, ground meat

Chicken Parmesan Bake (LitL) I, WE, chicken

Sloppy Joe Squares (LitL) U, PWE, ground meat

Fuji Chicken (MRB) A, WE, chicken

Cabbage Roll Casserole (MRB), U/E, WE, ground meat

Cheesy BBQ Chicken and Rice (MRB) U, PWE, chicken

Spaghetti, Chicken, and Bacon Dish (MRB), U/I, PWE, chicken

Enchirritos (MRB) M, PWE, ground meat (sausage)

Tater Tot Nachos (Buns in My Oven) M, WN, ground meat

King Ranch Mac and Cheese (LitL) F/M/U, PWE (possibly with spaghetti), chicken

Mexican Pizza (LitL) F/M/U, PWE, ground beef

Bean and Cheese Enchiladas (try refried beans) (T+T) M, PWE, meatless

Beef and Scallion Stir Fry (T+T) A, PWE, steak

Cashew Chicken (T+T) A, PWE, chicken

French Onion Soup (T+T) E, WE, meatless

Texas Cheese Fries (T47) U, PWE, pork

Potato Pizzas (WB) P, PWE, pepperoni

Loaded Potato and Chorizo Casserole (WB) U/M, PWE, pork

Potato and Chicken Croquettes (WB) U, WE, chicken

Marmalade-Glazed Pork Chops (WB) U, WE, pork

Pulled Pork Nachos (FFM) U/F/M, PWE, pork

Waffle Pizza Dippers (FFM) P, PWE, pepperoni

Crockpot Thai Peanut Chicken (FFM) CP/A, PWE, chicken

This is only the tip of the iceberg.  I foresee three more We Plan Wednesday or Meal Plan Monday posts on the recipes that I’ve categorized and organized so far.  And those are by far not the end of them.

What recipes are your go-to prep ahead, weeknight, or weekend-only meals?

 

Tip Tuesday: Organizing Recipes

Tip Tuesday

This could probably be called a pre-cursor to tomorrow’s We Plan Wednesday post.  I’ve been working on ending the meal plan monotony by listing, by blog or website, recipes that I would be interested in trying out on the LFam.  I’ve now decided to break it down further.  I’m going to make a card for each recipe with source (in code…so it looks like something top secret and special) and type (also in code).  So, today, I bring you the code (thus far).

In addition, as you will see in tomorrow’s post, I’m going to note the recipes that can be prepared start to finish on “I’m too tired to do anything but push start on the microwave” weeknights, weekend prep that can be served on a weeknight, and weekend meals only (those meals that probably would not reheat well and taste fresh but that would still be okay as leftovers).  I also will divide them by main ingredient/protein type.

My ultimate goal is to include on the cards page number in a recipe book that I will again try to start compiling as well as suggested sides, desserts, and variations.

So, without further ado, the code:

Website Codes (thus far):

LitL (Life in the Lofthouse)

MKC (Mel’s Kitchen Cafe)

MRB (Mandy’s Recipe Box)

T+T (Tide & Thyme)

MRJ (My Recipe Journey)

ITC (I Thee Cook)

S+B (Syrup and Biscuits)

SWP (Spend with Pennies)

TGW (The Girl Who Ate Everything)

LBGC (Love Bakes Good Cakes)

BA (Blue Apron)

CBK (Cutting Back Kitchen)

LWCO (Life with the Crust Off)

KC (Kleinworth & Co.)

B2 (Budget Bytes)

FC (Forkful of Comfort)

IDP (I Dig Pinterest)

T47 (Table for Seven)

WB (With a Blast)

FFM (Family Fresh Meals)

There will probably be more added later.

Type:

A (Asian)

M (Mexican, including Tex-Mex and Mexicali)

P (Pizza in all forms and derivations)

I (Italian, non-pizza)

CP (slow cooker)

U (American)

S (Southern)

F (Fusion of two or more types)

E (European–also Canadian)

R (Restaurant Copycat)

*Note:  Some recipes are classified into more than one type.

Preparation:

WE (Weekend Only)

WN (complete weeknight prep)

PWE (Prep on Weekends for Weeknights)

*Note:  The WE designation only holds true on work days.

Funny Muffin Friday: Muffin’s Grocery Plan

Funny Muffin Friday

We had our second meal/grocery planning family meeting yesterday (while enjoying the fourth bad weather day of the winter…unprecedented).  And Muffin insisted on writing his own grocery list.  Among the items on the grocery list were:  apple juice, pork chops, Dr. Pepper, milk, orange juice, onions (as a nod to me since he does not like them), toys, and a cup.

What I loved is that he was so passionate about making his list!  He kept adding things that I mentioned to the list.  And when he finished, he shoved his pen into the spiral and informed that’s how you know if he’s finished with his list…if he puts the pen up.

Have a funny Friday, everyone!

We Plan Wednesday: Which Comes First?

We Plan Wednesday

Which does come first?  Planning the grocery list from ads and staples or planning the week’s meals?  It depends what your weekly grocery shopping entails, if you are stockpiling a loss leader (something the stores sell at a price so low that they lose money on it) or simply purchasing the items to get you through the week.

There have been weeks where I’ve been known to purchase 20 or so packages of dry pasta below 30 cents each or canned tomatoes at rock bottom prices (a case at a time).  Or last year at this time (hint, Albertson’s…it’s time to do this again) when I purchased bottles of ketchup for 29 cents a bottle.  I bought 40 of them.  I wanted a year’s supply.

(We tend to go through a lot of ketchup.  I have the gentlemen who put ketchup on their ketchup, after all.)

And then there are weeks, when Josh is working and on call, when I don’t want to be at the grocery store for very long with Muffin by myself.  And when I don’t want to have to lug groceries into the house.  For those weeks, I tend to buy only the necessities to make it through the week, the staples.  Eggs.  Milk.  Juice.  Bread.  Produce.

Regardless, my planning begins at the end of the previous month for meal planning.  I try to have a rough draft of the meal plan for the month ready in the days following the announcement of Josh’s schedule for the month.

I can count on no fingers the number of times that what is planned in that rough draft is 100% followed through the month.  Life happens.  Sales happen.  Tastes change.  Schedules (other than work) change.

On Wednesday mornings when the Big 4 circulars hit the websites (Brookshire’s, Albertson’s, Kroger, and Super 1), I make a preliminary grocery list based on the sales.  I usually don’t meld that with a more refined weekly meal plan schedule until closer to Saturday.  Just in time for shopping on Saturday and the planning for the week ahead.  By Saturday, the meal plan for the week is pretty much set.

On weeks when I’m only buying the necessities and staples (and perishables), I tend to keep meals pretty basic to ingredients I pretty much keep on hand.  (Usually with lots of leftovers)  This is usually not a week when I introduce a new recipe.

So, that’s how the planning goes, meal and shopping wise.

How do you handle it?

Tip Tuesday: Prepping the Week’s Meals on the Weekend (or Your Day Off)

Tip Tuesday

If you are like me, and you work outside the home, the weekend (or your days off) is really the only time you have to take a breather, reassess, and tackle that meal plan!  Several people have told me this is a waste of time or that it doesn’t fit into their schedule, but this seems to be the only way I can hold true to the meal plan.

As I said in the post from yesterday about meal planning, I tend to focus on leftovers and planned overs to appear several times throughout a week.  Let’s look at this week, for example:

Monday:  Chicken Enchiladas:  I did all preparation for these on the weekend, wrapped the casserole in foil, and placed it in the fridge to bake last night.  Prep time for dinner on cooking day–not counting the actual cooking time–as long as it takes to pull the casserole out of the oven, place it in the oven, pull it out, set the table, grab a bag of tortilla chips and a jar of salsa, and pour the salsa into a bowl–roughly five minutes.

Getting ready to dig in to the enchiladas!

Getting ready to dig in to the enchiladas!

Tuesday:  Subs:  I sliced most vegetables except for the lettuce, tomato, and olives, so that will add a bit more prep time to dinner tonight.  Then, I have to put the meat, cheese, and sauce on the subs and bake them in the oven.  I have to gather all of the toppings.  Estimated prep time for dinner on cooking day:  15-20 minutes.

Wednesday Leftovers:  (I will probably take stuff out of the freezer tonight and place in the fridge to thaw for tomorrow):  For cooking day:  pull items out of fridge.  Put on plate.  Microwave.  Estimated cooking time:  10 minutes.

Thursday:  Frito pies:  After supper on Tuesday, I will chop up the remaining veggies for the haystacks (dice the half moons of onion that remain as well as the green pepper).  Lay out some chips.  Open and heat a can of chili in the microwave.  Top with toppings.  Cooking day time:   roughly 10 minutes.

Friday:  pizza Friday.  The only prep for this one is seasoning some tomato sauce with Italian seasonings.  Cooking day:  prep tomato sauce, slice sub rolls and bake them at 400 for a few minutes to get crispy while gathering the rest of the toppings, top with slather with sauce, top with cheese followed by pepperoni and any other toppings.  Bake at 400 for ten minutes until cheese melts and pepperoni gets slightly crispy.  Estimated time:  20 minutes.

This actually saves a LOT of time and frustration because the last thing I want to worry about after a long day of work is cooking a meal from scratch.

Join me tomorrow for We Plan Wednesday where I will begin the conscious planning for Muffin’s birthday party.