Monday, October 7, 2013

Habit Forming - Day 7 - Menu Planning

One of my friends posted on Facebook recently looking for menu planning ideas. I think she is a pretty typical busy mom of 2 boys who wants to feed her family well, but isn't a professional chef and just isn't sure how to organize and get started with menu planning.

Menu Planning has been on my mind lately. When I am home alone all day for weeks at a time with 2 ex-utero kids and 1 in-utero kid, I spend a lot of time thinking about food, preparing food, cleaning up food, shopping for food, and wishing all these people could just feed themselves. But they can't. At least they can't feed themselves anything that is worth eating.

And I need to eat too. Not just junk food or whatever gorgeous thing happens to be posted on one of my food blogs today (I'm looking at you How Sweet It Is). I inch closer and closer to my 24th week of this pregnancy knowing full well that I am likely to be diagnosed with gestational diabetes again and that I will have to really watch my diet over the remaining 16 weeks (give or take).

Here are some thoughts, tips and tricks I've gathered over the years when it comes to menu planning. I find that at different stages of my life, different plans work for me and my family. For example, now as a SAHM, I need to plan all three meals a day every day, plus snacks - otherwise, CHAOS, whining (Mr. Amen), meltdowns (Junior), tantrums (me) and hunger (Miss A) take over! I never stop searching out ideas because I never know when something will throw a kink into the planning method I've been using, making it no longer workable or manageable.

Figure Out What Your Family Eats
Face palm, right? What does your family like to eat? If your kids can talk, ask them what they like. Ask each person in your house for 5 ideas for breakfast, lunch and dinner (or just dinner if that's your menu planning focus). If you are married with 2 kids, including your own choices...that's 4 weeks worth of menus right there if they don't duplicate one another (leaving space for leftovers, eating out, pizza night, etc.). Ask them again when a new season comes around so you can change up your menu depending on what fresh produce is available at various times of the year. Most people aren't that into stews and soups in the summer as much as we are at this time of year (if it ever cools down, of course).

Think along these lines:
  • What do I/we like to make?
  • What do I/we realistically have time to make? (Take into account your busiest days and your laziest days)
  • What can we afford?
  • What do we need to get more or less of in our diet?
You can also look through your cookbooks or recipes you've cut out or browse some food blogs or get lost in the rabbit hole also known as Pinterest for meal ideas. If you do this however, be warned, you are likely to get overwhelmed. I don't recommend selecting more than one new dish to try every 1-2 weeks unless you have tons of time on your hands. New recipes take longer to make because you are unsure of the procedures to follow. Maybe you can plan to try one new recipe each Thursday evening because you don't have any commitments so you have some extra time. Or you can try a new recipe every 3rd Saturday because, well, you're just crazy like that. Or ask your husband or kids to select one new thing to try each week. Or throw a bunch of new things you'd like to try into a hat or jar and select one to try this week.

At this point, just make a list of recipes. If you cook by recipes most of the time, you can write the cookbook/location of the recipe to make it easier to find. Don't go crazy figuring out how you can cook everything on Sundays or make the most of your leftovers or anything like that at this point. Just make a list.
Salisbury Steak in process
What Kind of Cook Are You?
Not in a "I'm a pretty good cook" or "You'll need a hazmat suit for dinner" type of cook. I'm thinking more of a "What is your cooking philosophy?" Do you prefer to cook each day? Do you like to prep things once a week (or once a month)? Do you use your crock-pot frequently? Does your family eat leftovers? Can you remember to take things out of the freezer ahead of time?

Knowing your cooking style can really help cut down on the stress of meal times.

As an example, when I was working 55 hours a week with a 2 hour daily commute and a baby in the house, I didn't have time to spend an hour or more each day cooking. At that point in our lives we ate things out of the crockpot (dump the ingredients in the crock pot in the morning, plug it into the timer to ensure it would be ready when we were ready to eat). I also used a meal-prep service where I would go once a month and spend 1-2 hours assembling 11 main dishes. When I got home I would throw these main dishes in the freezer and pull them out 2 days before we needed to eat them (to give them time to thaw in the refrigerator). They were typically things that I could pop in the oven for 20 minutes to 1 hour and nuke some veggies in the microwave. These things kept us from eating cereal, sandwiches, and eggs every night.

Now that I'm home during the day, I have more time to prepare dinners. Not that I do every day, but I do have a little more freedom than having to rely on the crock pot every night of the week. But now I have a toddler and a preschooler who tend to hang on my apron strings, literally, while I am cooking dinner, so things that splatter grease all around are not an option.
But I mostly make cupcakes

So if you are the type of person who can remember to get something out of the freezer a day or two ahead of when you'll need it, maybe prepping several dishes ahead of time and freezing them, will work for you. You'll need to remember to keep track of what is in your freezer though, and have suitable containers for storing these meals. And perhaps most importantly, looking at your meal plan to see what you need to take out of the freezer and when so it all works nicely together.

Stock Your Pantry with YOUR basics.
This seems so obvious, doesn't it? But I've struggled for years figuring out what my basics are. Sure, I could use a list I find online about what a well stocked pantry contains. These lists are great places to start, but I have to remember that even though someone might think powdered milk is essential to a well-stocked pantry, we don't use it, so it's a waste of our resources to buy and store it.
Chocolate is a basic at our house
Look at the list of recipes, dishes, meals you and your family just compiled.What are the shelf stable things used in these recipes? Those things are your pantry items. If you use a lot of tortillas or taco shells - stock up on them. If you see a lot recipes with cheddar cheese - stock up on it (it freezes just fine).

So go ahead and try a pantry list, or two or three but whittle it down to what you use on a regular and frequent basis. Add additional items that you do use regularly, but aren't on their list. Shop for pantry items often and watch for sales and use your coupons to stock up on shelf stable items.

Don't limit your pantry items to just your pantry though. Think of what items you need to keep on-hand in your fridge and freezer too.

Get It In Writing
I drive my husband crazy by keeping plans inside my head. I do this mostly to avoid feeling like a complete failure when things don't go according to my plan.

This will not work with meals. Food spoils if you forget to eat it. Crock pots meals don't assemble and cook themselves. Meals get left in the freezer if you don't know when you are supposed to take them out.

It is critical that you commit your meal plan to writing. Maintaining it electronically is just fine as well. One way to keep it in writing is to just write each meal on your regular paper calendar (we use the Fly Lady's paper calendar). Using your calendar is especially helpful in planning meals appropriate to your schedule each day. Doing it like this ensures you don't plan a Chateaubriand roast and gouda souffle on a night when there is a soccer games for three kids at two separate locations on the opposite sides of town, a committee meeting at church and piano lessons.

Sit down and choose one thing from each person's "request" list for each week. Arrange them on your calendar on the days that work according to your schedule. If you need chicken twice in one week, plan on cooking it all on the first chicken day to save yourself time on the next chicken day. That way you could actually do a "better" meal on a day when you might be a little short of time since you already did your mise en place earlier in the week.

* A suggestion that will save you time & money - plan to use any fresh produce items in the first few days after your shopping trip. This ensures you don't have food that's gone bad before you get to use it (saving money) and keeps you from having to make extra trips to the store to pick up green onions or non-blackened bananas at last minute (saving time).

Once you have your dishes selected for each day, get your recipes together to make your shopping list.

If you use a recipe from a cookbook for Monday, put a post-it note on the page in your cookbook on that page that says Monday. Find your Tuesday recipe print-out and put it in a page protector, slap a Tuesday post-it note on it. You know your Wednesday recipe by heart, so make sure you have all the ingredients on-hand. Do this for each day and put the recipes together in a stack in a particular place near your food prep surface so you don't have to hunt for them. Or, if you are a techie, e-organize your recipes and drop them in a file/folder or for the week/month or use an online tool to gather your recipes - then you can just pull them up and cook from your laptop or iPad on your countertop.

Once you have your recipes together, check your pantry, fridge and freezer, then make your shopping list. Hopefully you'll only really need fresh produce, but more realistically, you'll need a few other items as well. Just grab your pantry list and highlight the staples needed, then add this week's items (or the next 2 weeks items) to your list.

* There are all kinds of ways to organize a shopping list: by store, by aisle in the store, by category, by the way you prefer to walk through the store; electronic (we like Cozi because we can both see it all the time and we can both add things to it; we keep birthday lists, grocery lists, Christmas lists and other shopping lists this way), handwritten, typed, templates. It doesn't matter how you do it - do what works for you.

Another big component to getting your plan together will be to set reminders for yourself. If you need to take the ground beef out of the freezer on Tuesday evening so it's ready for Wednesday evening's meal, set a reminder on your electronic calendar (google calendar or Cozi are two that I've used that have worked well for me). There's nothing like an email or text message reminding me to get dinner ready. If you need to remember to get things ready for the crock pot for Tuesday, set a reminder for Monday evening to gather anything you need to prep, then set another reminder on Tuesday morning to set up the crock pot/set the timer before you head out the door in the morning. We all respond to our electronic leashes promptly, so make them work for you for once! If e-reminders won't work for you, put a post-it note where you'll see it (bathroom mirror, coffee mug, car door window, cell phone, on your keys, at eye level as you walk out your door in the morning - wherever you can't miss it).

Execute the Plan
Lastly, you have to execute your plan. Did you decide that you were going to spend your day off prepping meals for your freezer? Then you have to do it. Did you decide that Thursday evening is your grocery shopping night? Then you have to get in the car and go to the grocery store on Thursday evening.

If you don't execute your plan, you may as well have not even made one. I think many people will get excited to do the planning and organizing their particular system, but when it comes to the execution stage...dum, dum, dum, things fall apart. Executing your plan is the most important step to having a plan. Unless your family enjoys eating paper or 0s and 1s for dinner, then feel free to just make a plan. I'm betting they don't, so execute, execute, execute.

OK, so you just executed your plan. And it was a nightmare or just felt off or it was soooo close to working for you.

Change it. Go ahead, you have my permission to change your next plan. What worked? Do it again! What didn't? Scrap it, toss it, burn it (pun intended). Try something different next time. Don't stick to a bad plan just because it is what you wrote down once upon a time. This is real life people!! And this is food we're talking about.

Other Tidbits & Ideas
  • Don't do all the work yourself. If you have older children, teach them to each make 2-3 meals and make them responsible for family dinner once a week. Ask your spouse to commit to making one meal a week, if possible. Even if s/he can only do scrambled's one less meal you have to contend with.
  • Build in a leftover night (call it a buffet to make it sound more palatable). If you make one thing each week from each person's request list, there'll be something there for everyone!
  • Keep a few frozen pizzas in the fridge or the ingredients to make bean & cheese quesadillas on hand (or your go-to, easy-peasy, ready-in-a-flash favorite) for the days that don't go as planned.
  • Know what's in your freezer. Keep a list of any dishes you make and the dates you put them in there - cross each one off when you use it (I keep mine on the side of my fridge).
  • Double a more labor intensive recipe and put the extra portion in the freezer for another day.
  • Consult your calendar or menu plan to see how old those leftovers are before eating or throwing out.
  • Keep your pantry list printed out so you can highlight the items you need and watch for sales/coupons on the items on your list. Tape a copy inside your pantry door so you can quickly look at the list of what should be there to see when you are getting low on something. 
  • Do the same for your fridge (sour cream, ketchup, hot sauce, lemon juice, swiss cheese, etc.)  and freezer (frozen veggies, pizza, chicken nuggets, ice cream, yes, it's a basic at our house). Keep the list on the side of the fridge.
  • Shop 1-2 times per month for non-perishables or items with a longer shelf life. Even better to only shop for these items when they are on sale and you have a coupon. Check the brand website for coupons on the items you use!
  • You don't have to menu plan or grocery shop on Sunday. Do it on a day that works for you. Your family's weekly rhythm may run on a Tuesday-Monday schedule and that's perfectly fine!
  • Shop weekly for fresh produce. Find our when your grocery store re-stocks the fresh produce and go that day!
  • Shop from a list and eat something before you go to the store. Not only will this keep you focused and help you remember everything you need, but you won't waste money on things that sounded good at the moment, but'll never get used.
  • Use a reminder system that works for you.
  • Make it a habit to look at your menu plan each night before bed so you know what the plan is for the next day.
  • Make it a habit to look at your menu plan each morning before you leave the house or get going for the day so you don't forget to start dinner.
  •  If you struggle with ideas, look at other people's menu plans and take what you like, leave what you don't. Here are a few places to start:
  • Get more fruits a veggies in your diet by using raw veggies or fruit as a side dish at your meals. They are very fast to prepare (or you can just buy the pre-made trays at the grocery store) and great for munching on as snacks between meals. I actually don't mind if the family walks past the table and grabs a handful of carrots or broccoli while I finish prepping the meal.
Got any other ideas or tips to share? I'm all ears.

Happy planning and even happier eating!

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