Wednesday, May 18, 2011

How To Make a Monthly Meal Plan, part 5

Yesterday I wrote about the first three problems I thought of that can interfere with successful meal planning, today I follow up with the last three.

-I don’t like cooking or I don’t have time for it and with this plan I’m finding myself chained to the kitchen all the time and I can’t take it!

So plan differently.  No one said you have to make a gourmet meal every night, or even that you have to make a from scratch meal every night.  You are the one who is deciding what kind of meals your are making and how complicated they are, and how often you need to make them.  One woman I know cooks three nights a week and makes enough for two meals each time.  After eating those three meals once, they eat them a second time and then either go out or order pizza on Saturdays.  This works wonderfully for their family and might be something that would work for yours. 

If your family (or you!) don’t care for leftovers then just plan simpler things. It is your plan.  No one is grading it and critiquing it.  I don’t eat or buy most processed foods (often) but that is how my family works.  Your family eats and likes different things than mine and each of our menus will reflect that.

Another tip to cut down on prep is to do some things ahead.  Chop all your peppers/onions/etc. for the week on Monday and put them in containers.  Each night you will use only what you need for the day and you won’t be pulling out the knife and cutting board every night.  If you rely on convenience foods, eating at restaurants and ordering takeout for 95% of your family’s dinners it might be better to start small and gradually increase your nights of cooking.  Who knows? You might discover that having a plan in place with all of the necessary groceries eliminates the part of making dinner that you truly hate and actually cooking doesn’t bother you at all!

If possible enlist help.  If your spouse isn’t home to be any use preparing dinner on a week night, try preparing a few meals in advance on a weekend, or after the kids go to bed one night.  If your kids are old enough to be of any use in the kitchen, use dinner prep as a teachable moment.  I was taken aback when I got to college and discovered how many students were there who had no idea how to do things like cook for themselves or do laundry.  When/if your kids are old enough maybe they can be in charge of planning and cooking dinner one night a week.

-blah! We all got hit with the stomach bug!  We have a house full of food but none of us are well enough to prepare it OR to go and get anything else to replace it with that we might be able to keep down:

This happened to us a few months ago and I learned a very valuable lesson.  Keep sick people food on hand at all times and put it in an emergency place so that you don’t just dip into it when you are feeling lazy.  We now have in a crate in the garage a few cans of chicken noodle soup, a box of saltines, a few boxes of jello, a six pack of little bottles of ginger ale, a few serving size bottles (not the big ones) of pedialyte, and a container of Gatorade powder.  And we aren’t going to touch it.  Most of that stuff can keep for a looong time, but we are going to replace it at the beginning of flu season every year just to make sure none of it is ever expired.

Keep a couple of emergency, totally from the pantry meals on hand so that you won’t feel forced to order pizza when life doesn’t go your way because it is going to happen.  Rather than always keep the same emergency meal on hand in the pantry I sometimes try to plan a couple of new ones for the end of the month.  If I need to use them earlier in the month it is not as big of a deal and I can back cycle whatever meal I’ve skipped.

-I thought this was supposed to save money, why is my grocery bill so much higher?
Well, first off I’d like to ask if you are including your takeout/restaurant spending (including tips!) in that total.  I’m going to pull some random numbers out of the air here but if you used to spend $75 a week at the grocery store and then another $125 a week eating out, then your grocery bill all of a sudden doubling to $150 is not too surprising, as long as your eating out bill is either equally reduced or completely eliminated.  Double check but you are probably spending less. 

However, if you aren’t then what the heck are you making for dinner?  Really, I’d like to know because it is probably fabulous and I’d like to invite myself over.  Are you still buying a lot of convenience items (pre-made pizza crusts instead of a bag of flour and jar of yeast)?  By making some things from scratch instead of buying them premade you will save a little money and usually be eating a little healthier. 

Another option is to surround a spendy item will cheaper items.  Make a nice piece of salmon and serve it with a pile of cheap bulk rice or frozen green beans instead of the costlier asparagus (which you can serve instead with a cheaper cut of beef or some chicken).  It helps to spread out your “gourmet” without making you feel like you are depriving yourself by rotating between rice & beans and beans & rice. 

You are the one making the plan, so if you are choosing expensive things it will understandably cost more.  Think about what your family was already eating on a regular basis. Was it costing you less when you were scrambling around? That's okay because you can still throw some of those options back into the mix (or options in a similar cost bracket) but this time do it without the scramble. 

Also, keep in mind the sales.  If you planned on making steaks and got to the store to discover the price was astronomically more than you had expected, check to see what kind of substitutions you can make.  If there isn’t anything in a similar vein then scrap the meal for a different idea entirely or be prepared to shell out for the steaks.  I find that this is why it sometimes helps to bring your meal plan along with your grocery list to the store, it can help you remember why you put certain items on the list and whether or not they are crucial to any given dish.

If you missed the beginning of this meal planning series, please start here.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

How To Make A Monthly Meal Plan, part 4

For some people, making a monthly meal plan (or even a weekly one) is fraught with peril.  There are several pitfalls that people come across when they attempt meal planning on a larger scale for the first time.  There are six big ones that I can think of and I'll share with you, half today and half tomorrow, how they can be addressed or avoided.


So now you have spent valuable time and planned out your meals, written your grocery lists, bought your food and gotten it all put away.  You are all set for a week/month of stress free dinner prep, except:
- Someone (your kids, your husband, perhaps even yourself) always says they don’t want that for dinner.  Can’t we have/go to _____ instead?
Sure you can.  Sometimes things just don’t go as planned and you have to roll with the punches and consider that the important thing is that everyone was fed a relatively healthy (hopefully) meal.  However, if it is happening often perhaps you might think about why this isn’t working to see if there is a theme. 

Does it happen regularly on specific days?  For me it happened every Monday.  After having Hey, Babe home during dinner prep on Sat and Sun, I dreaded starting it up again solo on Monday nights.  Now I make sure I’m planning things that I will look forward to eating and be more willing to prep like my favorite homemade pizza.   Another option is to plan something that can be totally assembled earlier in the day while the kids are napping that just needs to be popped into the oven at the correct time. 

Does it happen for specific meals?  Tell it to me straight, you don’t like my chili do you?  You never feel like eating it, though you have before said you like it, and now when it comes up on the rotation we always seem to waffle around it and eat something else.  Since you never actually eat it, stop planning on eating it.  It is a waste in more ways then one.  Maybe leaving it off the rotation for a while will make it more appealing in the future.  Or maybe you can plan it for the night that whoever it is that hates it is not going to be home for dinner. 

Is it always the same person?  I have two separate suggestions here.  First off, maybe they just need to learn to live with it.  Pickiness, especially when it comes to food, is never welcome.  You are allowed to have things you prefer to eat and prefer not to eat, but if a meal is made for you, you eat it or you go hungry (ESPECIALLY if you are an adult/teenager).  I’m sure that as with any rule, there are exceptions (allergies, intolerances, etc.) but generally speaking this should hold true.  For some households there is always an alternate option to have (pb sandwich, hummus, etc.) for other households that just means you say, “Okay, the next time we are eating is at __ o’clock, see you then.”  It is up to you to decide which method will work better for your family.

Another solution would be to have the unsatisfied person contribute more to the meal plan.  If they are asking for blueberry pancakes for dinner instead of the spaghetti and meatballs you are making tell them “Ooh, what a great idea! Why don’t we write that down and have that ___ (tomorrow for breakfast/lunch, next week for dinner, etc.).  When you are making the next meal plan, have them come up with a list of foods that they want to eat and maybe make them a part of the preparation process for “their” meals.  You might want to make a note of which of the meals were their ideas so you can point out to them that they are the reason it is tonight’s dinner if their pickiness comes into play anyway.

In our household, I know that I am the most likely reason that dinner isn’t following the menu.  Not the kids, not Hey, Babe, not any other factor.  Just me.  I need to remember to suck it up and just make whatever is on the plan because I KNOW that when I don’t it makes the last few days of the month rather hairy and takes away the peace that meal planning is supposed to bring me.  I have to keep in mind when I am meal planning that what I have planned may not be exactly what I am in the mood food, but it is still tasty, nutritious food.  If I am going to tell my kids, “tough, that’s what is for dinner,” than I have to do the same for myself. 

-I just bought AAAAALLLLLL this stuff to make ONE MEAL, and it costs so much money, and now whatever isn't used in that one meal is either going to spoil or get pushed to the back of the cupboard and lost forever:
You may need to tweak how you are planning slightly.  There are four things I can think of to fix this: 
1.      Choose less complicated meals, or at least do so for some of them.
2.      Freeze leftover ingredients (granted, some things don’t freeze well.)
3.      Make twice as much of whatever the meal is and freeze half for a bonus meal next week/month! (yeah, some things still don’t freeze well).
4.      Plan another, different meal that will incorporate those extra ingredients for a night or two later.  Leftover ricotta cheese? Make some lasagna, stuffed shells, or cheese blintzes.  Use it up somehow.  Some of my tastiest creations came from adding odds and ends together so that none of them went to waste.

- Similar to the last complaint, I made dinner every night this week and we have a ton of totally prepared food in the fridge and yet another new meal planned for tonight:
I had this trouble a lot myself and started planning fewer meals for a while until Little Man started eating more.  You can go a few routes with this one:
1.      Eat leftovers for lunch and stop buying so many other lunch options.
2.      Plan fewer meals for the week, make one night leftover night and free up some time where you would have otherwise been in the kitchen.  Maybe make a nice dessert on leftover night since you didn’t have to cook dinner.
3.      Make smaller quantities so that there aren’t leftovers.  Scale recipes down, cut portion sizes in half, and have some extra salad to fill people up instead.
4.      Reinvent leftovers.  Make a roast on Sunday and plan on using the leftover meat on Monday for Pulled Pork Sandwiches or soup or a casserole.  Or if you think your picky family might catch on to the fact that it is similar to yesterday’s dinner, plan on using it Wednesday or pop it in the freezer and use it next week.
5.      Intentionally make enough that there is a whole second meal and freeze one of them for a bonus meal!

If you missed the beginning of this meal planning series please start here.  Tomorrow, three more pitfalls with suggestions how to resolve them.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Daring Cooks Make Gumbo

I am interrupting the series on monthly meal planning to bring you this month's Daring Cook's challenge!  The series will resume once again next week.  Our May hostess, Denise, of There’s a Newf in My Soup!, challenged The Daring Cooks to make Gumbo! She provided us with all the recipes we’d need, from creole spices, homemade stock, and Louisiana white rice, to Drew’s Chicken & Smoked Sausage Gumbo and Seafood Gumbo from My New Orleans: The Cookbook, by John Besh.

I can't even begin to tell you how utterly unenthusiastic I was about this month's challenge.  Really.  After reading the challenge I immediately sighed and decided that I was going to make it to bring to potluck game night at the church so that I might not be stuck with so much in the way of leftovers.  I wasn't going to shrug off the challenge just because I didn't think I'd like the food, but I didn't have to be happy about it either.  Lovely attitude, don't you agree?

Now, so far I had only seen the subject line, not the recipe or any of the example photos, and I had already done a mental shrug and eye roll over this challenge.  However, after reading some of the ingredient options and seeing the absolutely stunning pictures in the example, I was feeling a little more charitably inclined toward this Gumbo.  I can't even understand where my prejudice towards Gumbo came from since I've never actually tasted it but it was slowly starting to melt away.  Not enough, however, for me to reassign it on the menu away from the game night.  It might have seemed a little more appealing, but I still wasn't inclined to want a ton of leftovers.

Considering those things, I find it quite ironic that I fell a little more in love with this dish nearly every time I tasted it throughout the cooking process.  And I couldn't have it all to myself since I had already told people what I was bringing to the potluck.  Drat!  It serves me right after forming opinions based on absolutely nothing.  Really, nothing.  I have no idea why in my mind Gumbo = Gross.  Perhaps it was simply the name?  Or the fact that it usually (maybe always?) has Okra, which I dislike intensely.  I have no clue.

While I was making this I made quite a few changes, omissions, and alterations, both accidentally and intentionally.  I knew that I didn't want to make it too spicy, so I left out the spicy sausage called for (not realizing that smoked Andouille Sausage is also spicy!) and I didn't want to have a lot of extra seasoning bottles gathering dust in the cabinet never to be used again so I assembled my own Creole spices but it a much smaller quantity than provided in the given recipe, this also lead me to omit the File Powder.

I dislike okra (I won't even describe what it reminds me of) but I had planned on putting it in anyway because Hey, Babe likes it.  The Okra was eventually omitted when we couldn't find any after checking in three stores.  Another minor change I made was to add half chicken thighs and half boneless breasts instead a a whole cut up chicken.  After the first 45 minute simmer I took all the chicken out and de-boned and skinned it so that I could shred the meat and add it back to the pot, thus making it easier to serve at a potluck dinner.

The last two changes came about after a little...mishap, shall we say, in the kitchen.  According to the recipe you are supposed to cook the roux for 15 minutes, constantly whisking.  Due to either distractions from the kids or the fact that I chose to use some of the leftover bacon oil from breakfast, I am pretty sure that I burned my roux.  The house was slowly filling with smoke, and it was not smelling tasty at all, but the recipe said I was supposed to keep cooking.  I wanted to stop, but according to recipe I wasn't supposed to!

(grossly separating roux)

I should have gone with my gut.  I added the onions and ended up with a weird pot of separated oil and charred...stuff.  It didn't look right and it tasted even worse.  But I couldn't help but wonder if this was actually the result we were looking for?  Who knows, although if any of you think that I was actually on the right track, let me know.  Maybe I'll sacrifice a small experimental pot of it next time.  At any rate, after a little deliberation I decided to start over and cook it less along with no bacon fat this time and with a movie playing for Little Man.  The only problem with starting over was that I only had one onion left.  Oh well!

(the top spoon is the charred version, in case you couldn't tell)

It was the most exquisite form of torture.  Riding in a car for half an hour with the pot of bubbling hot Gumbo sitting in my lap was almost more than I could handle as we went on our merry way to Game Night.  If it hadn't been so very hot I'd have been even more tempted by the intoxicating fragrance to start drinking it up right there in the car.  The general consensus seemed to be that it was delicious, with a caveat from a few who thought that it was a tad too spicy for them.  Next time, and oh, there will definitely be a next time, I'm not too proud to admit when I was wrong!  Next time I will ease back on the cayenne, maybe add a little sweet sausage along with the spicy, and serve it with Tabasco Sauce at the table for anyone who wants to kick up the heat. 

Because I made many alterations to the given recipe, I will post my version below.  To use the recipe without my adaptations, or to check out the recipes for Seafood Gumbo click here.

Drew’s Chicken & Smoked Sausage Gumbo
adapted from My New Orleans: The Cookbook, by John Besh
Serves 10-12

1/2 tablespoons celery seed
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon onion powder
1/2 teaspoons cayenne pepper (or less if you don't like spicy)
1/8 teaspoon ground allspice

1 chicken (3 ½ to 4 lbs.), cut into 10 pieces
2 large onions, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
2 green bell peppers, seeded and diced
1 tomato, seeded and chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup (240 ml) (230 gm) oil
1 cup (240 ml) (140 gm) (5 oz) flour
Leaves from 2 sprigs of fresh thyme
2 quarts Chicken Stock
2 bay leaves
14 ounces andouille sausage, chopped
1 tablespoon (15 ml) Worcestershire sauce
Salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
4-6 cups cooked Rice (I used brown, but I might try mashed potatoes next time, not traditional maybe but I think it would be delicious!)

Combine the seasonings together and sprinkle them over the chicken pieces while you prepare the vegetables.

Make sure all of your vegetables are cut, diced, chopped, minced and ready to go before beginning the roux. You must stand at the stove and stir the roux continuously to prevent it from burning.

In a large cast-iron or heavy-bottomed pan, heat the oil over high heat. Whisk the flour into the hot oil – it will start to sizzle. Reduce the heat to moderate, and continue whisking until the roux becomes deep brown in color, about 15 minutes (the second time I only cooked if for about 10).

Add the onions. Switch to a wooden spoon and stir the onions into the roux. Reduce the heat to medium-low. Continue stirring until the roux becomes a glossy dark brown, about 10 minutes (again, the second time I did this for around 7-8).

Add the chicken to the pot; raise the heat to moderate, and cook, turning the pieces until slightly browned, about 10 minutes.  Add the rest of the vegetables and continue stirring for about 3 minutes.

Add the thyme, chicken stock, and bay leaves. Bring the gumbo to a boil, stirring occasionally.  Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, for 45 minutes. Stir occasionally, skimming off the fat from the surface of the gumbo every so often.  (I got a lot of oil off of this, more than 1 cup.  Can anyone explain why we add it just to take it out?  Can't we just toast the flour without the oil?)

Remove all the pieces of chicken to a plate.  Add the chopped andouille and Worcestershire. Season with salt and pepper to taste.  Start to simmer for another 45 minutes, while you are removing the skin and bones from the chicken pieces.  Shred the meat and return it along with any accumulated juices back to the pot.  Continue to skim the fat from the surface of the gumbo. Remove the bay leaves and serve in bowls over rice

Thursday, May 12, 2011

How To Make A Monthly Meal Plan, part 3

Making a monthly meal plan is such a valuable way to gain control of what for many people is the most stressful part of their day, the pre-dinner chaos that leads to fast food (and tears!).  Many people have heard of the Flylady who discusses getting your homes in order and keeping them that way.  I like what she has to say about meal planning:

"You can't eat what you don't have in the house. Just the simple act of sitting down and thinking about what to fix for the next week then going to the grocery store and purchasing the food will give you more freedom than almost anything. This will save you time and money and put good food in your pantry. When you have nutritious food in your home you will feel better about what you and your family are eating." Flylady

I happen to like cooking and experimenting with new recipes so we have a new plan for every month but that doesn't mean you have to.  If you are the opposite of me or if your family is less adventurous you could make one 30 day plan and just repeat it over and over again.  After all, that means you would only be repeating things a dozen times a year (providing of course that there were no repeats already scheduled).  The beauty of a set monthly plan is that once it and the accompanying grocery list are written, you will spend a lot of time each month not thinking about dinner.  When making your plan you can keep any number of days either "set" or "changeable".  You can keep one day a week or a month free for changes, or maybe you will keep only one meal the same each month.  It is completely up to you!

Your meal plan does not have to be gourmet or complicated or expensive.  It is not supposed to make your life more complicated.  For some people, making out a plan might make them over ambitious and I'd just like to remind you to be realistic.  If giving up takeout and restaurants will be tough, schedule some nights that allow for it.  If you don't like being in the kitchen, plan for quick and simple foods like hot dogs or macaroni and cheese.  Or perhaps you will only plan on cooking only three or four nights a week, either because you know you don't want to do more than that ever or just to start as you are easing into a new concept.  If a month seems daunting, plan for a week or two.  You can always use those meal ideas again if they work and scrap the ideas that don't.  I included the following steps in my handout at the meeting but for those of you who weren't there or didn't get one here is a good way to create your first monthly meal plan.

1. Get a calendar, paper for list making, a pen and some recipe sources (magazines, internet, cookbooks- by the way, most public libraries have a surprisingly large cooking section). I use a computer spreadsheet, but you can use an actual paper calendar if you’d rather.

2. Compile your family’s complete schedule for the upcoming menu period (week, weeks, month). Include information such as the nights people won’t be home, known crazy busy days, holidays, special events, entertaining, etc.

3. Write a list of your family’s favorite meals or even just foods they eat often and willingly. Perhaps even ask for input to see if there specific things they’d like to eat in the near future.

4. Check your pantry, fridge and freezer to see what ingredients you have that should be incorporated into the upcoming plan and add those meals to your list.

5. Start plugging the meals into appropriate days. By appropriate I mean days where you will be able (physically or mentally) to prepare that meal. If you aren’t going to be home all day you will want to plan a crock pot type of meal or maybe that will be your pizza night for the week instead of having a hands on intensive dinner.

6. See what you have left. Are most of the unfilled days busy days? Flip through your recipes to find some crock pot meals or make ahead dinners.  At the meeting, one mom suggested getting a menu to a favorite restaurant or two and looking for inspiration there.  You can often find copycat recipes for popular restaurant dishes online.

7. While you are filling in your weeks keep in mind that you probably don’t want to schedule too much of the same thing in a row, like three Mexican dinners, or three nights where the main ingredient is lentils. Look for recipes you’d like to try and maybe add one new thing for each week (more than that and you might start overwhelming yourself.)

8. Leave room for changes and have a plan for leftovers. Planning a new meal for each night often times means too much food. For us it means that we have lunch for the next day. If there is enough of certain types of meals leftover I will freeze it and have a ready meal waiting in the freezer for a busy night.

9. Going through each meal and the corresponding recipe, make sure you right down all the ingredients you will need, including those for any side dishes or desserts you plan on serving with them. I like to put my ingredients into five columns: dairy/cold, freezer, meat, dry goods, produce. This makes it easier later when you are shopping. Make sure you cross check this with your pantry.

10. Finally, post the menu in a prominent place where you and the rest of the house can refer easily to it. This makes it harder to forget to take out the roast to thaw for tomorrow’s dinner, and eliminates a lot of questions of, “What’s for dinner?” once your family gets used to the idea of the meal plan.

If you missed them earlier, read parts one and two.  Please feel free to ask in the comments if there is anything in particular you would like to know.  Also, I have in mind to address some pitfalls.  In your experience, what have been some you've encountered?

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

How To Make A Monthly Meal Plan, part 2

If you missed it yesterday, read part 1 here.

In the days before the first monthly trip I had come up with our menu. Our menu is a simple one, listing only the dinners that we will be having since Little Man and I eat leftovers for lunch and breakfast is either cold or hot cereal. After compiling the selections, going through all the recipes, and writing a comprehensive list of ingredients needed, I then checked the list against the contents of our fridge, freezer, and pantry. Various items were adjusted and the list was divided into two parts. After taking stock, I added to my portion of the list any household items that might run out in the next four weeks. We were ready.

While writing out my lists I tried to keep it as organized as possible by grouping like items together. The cold section (Dairy, Meats, and Freezer) I gave to Hey, Babe. It is a shorter list, covering a much smaller portion of the store, but it is nearly as time consuming since you need to check a lot of dates. I took the dry and canned goods as well as the household products. Starting at the farthest aisle first and working my was toward the registers, I got all the things on our list. The cart was very full, and quite heavy. I had strategically placed everything in to make sure it would all fit.

When I was done, I realized that it hadn’t taken me any more time than it normally would have. I still needed to walk down nearly every aisle, but while I was there I was taking several items, or several of the same item, rather than just one. Checkout took a little longer, (understandably so) but even that didn’t take nearly as much time as I had suspected it would. The whole trip (not including traveling, but including loading up the car) had taken about 45 minutes to an hour.

Upon arriving home again we found ourselves faced with the task of storing all the groceries. If it weren’t for our second fridge in the garage, this would have been much trickier. As it is our freezers ended up very full because we had to stow three 1-gallon jugs of milk and four loaves of bread in one (yes, we freeze our milk and bread). Everything else we tucked into place in our cabinets in as organized a fashion as possible and we were then done. For the next four weeks we had everything that we were going to need with the exception of produce.

We have been doing it since. We just shopped for our twentieth month’s plan and while there have been some forgotten items, extra items, nights we didn’t feel like any of the options on the plan, etc. it has made our lives so much easier. At 6 o’clock on any given night we have a fully loaded kitchen, ready to make any number of meals. It even has a convenient list of meal options still available clipped to the fridge.

It has gone so well that once after having written out the menu and corresponding grocery list we arrived at the store to discover we had forgotten the list at home. If we turned around and went home to get it, that meant a 40 minute round trip and losing our window of opportunity for shopping during a low traffic time, so we did our best to get what we thought we needed. We only forgot 5 things (though I think we had some extras of some others).

Are there nights we don’t want to eat the menu? Absolutely. Are there nights I don’t want to cook? Yup. Do we sometimes toss the plan to the side and order takeout? Don’t tell anyone, but yeah. Life happens. Kids interfere with your timetable and it becomes too late to start what had been on the plan, or you forget to defrost the roast that was supposed to be for dinner, or maybe you remembered to pull it out but the darn thing is for some reason still frozen solid. It happens, but because we know that it happens, I try to make sure that there are a couple of easy standbys in every month. Things like breakfast for dinner, or even just holding onto a couple of cans of soup for something quick and hot.

We don’t stick to our menu verbatim. If we are suppose to have Chicken Tacos on Tuesday, but I decide to make Thursday’s Beef Stew instead, it isn’t going to be the end of the world. I do, however, try to stick to the current week but that for the sake of the weekly produce more than anything else. For some families that kind of flexibility might backfire. I don’t have readers (yet) but if my kids were older and looked at the menu to see their favorite Spaghetti with Meatballs as tonight’s dinner they might balk at discovering we are instead having Vegetable Soup and no longer want dinner. It isn’t something I have experienced yet, but it is something to keep in mind for the future. Maybe by then I’ll be better at sticking exactly to the plan, but don’t hold your breath!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

How To Make a Monthly Meal Plan, part 1

Earlier today I spoke on a panel with three other people at my church's MOPS group.  The subjects presented included juicing and smoothies, couponing, organizing your recipes, and meal planning.  I feel that I was a little scattered in my presentation and am certain I didn't touch on everything I wanted to say.  Since I mentioned that my monthly meal plans could be seen as an example here and some of you lovely ladies I met today might be visiting (Hi!) to get a better idea of what I was talking about, I thought that I would try again. Hopefully more clearly.  First, a little back story:

I am an accomplished list maker. I like writing them, (it helps stall for time so I don’t actually have to cross things off the list). I also like to cook, especially for an appreciative (or sometimes captive) audience. When I was in college and cooking for myself I wasn’t so enthusiastic about cooking because there wasn’t anyone to share it with and I didn’t like the huge mess it made just for myself. After we got married I was the one who was home and available to do the dinner planning and prep so Hey, Babe and I made an agreement that whoever made dinner, the other of us would clean up. Both of my issues with cooking vanished. I started planning out our meals, usually for a week at a time, and doing the shopping once every week or so. I hate shopping (of all the kinds of shopping I’m actually most fond of going for groceries) and so I planned for a week at a time so that I wouldn’t have to go more often than that.

It worked well for a few years, then I got pregnant and two things changed. My sense of smell was such that I could smell our grocery store’s olive bar from the parking lot which made me quite ill and I developed a slew of constantly changing aversions. I didn’t know what I could eat even hours before dinner, let alone days. Hey, Babe started stopping at the store on his way home every night and calling me as he walked up and down the aisles suggesting things. We ate a lot of convenience foods and junk (the opposite of what you really should do when pregnant) and spent at least twice as much (if not more) on our groceries.

It got a little better after I had Little Man. I started planning weekly menus again, selecting meals that were easy to make with only one hand since I had to prep dinner with a baby on my hip. I probably would have stuck with doing the planning and shopping weekly if it weren’t for a few things. One of which had to do with the way I planned our meals. Since Hey, Babe, contrary to his mother’s belief, is not a picky eater and will eat pretty much anything I make, I only had my own tastes to apply to. I would sit with some cookbooks, magazines or websites, and browse for what was appealing. As I browsed through all my recipe sources, I would come up with numerous possibilities which I then had to whittle down to only seven. It wasn’t at all stressful, but it took up a lot of time and as a mother time wasn’t really something I could call my own anymore.

Still, if that were the only factor we would probably still be planning and shopping weekly, and be quite content doing so. The major cause in our change to monthly planning was the simple fact that we moved. The grocery store we liked to frequent was now a half hour ride away. We started shopping at a new and closer store, however, we quickly discovered that we easily spent over $20 more at the new, closer store, than we did at the old one. Now, $20 a week may not be a huge amount of money, but it will quickly add up. On top of that, we could no longer buy certain store-brand items that we preferred if we shopped at the closer store.

After considering the circumstances, we wanted to see if we could go less frequently. Hey, Babe passes a farmer’s market on his way home from work so fresh produce is picked up weekly rather than in the monthly trip. Even without getting any produce, we use two carts. Hey, Babe works Monday through Saturday so we decided to go really early the first Sunday of every month. I knew from experience that we needed to go early enough that we would beat the weekend crowd. At around 7am on that first Sunday morning back in September we headed out, learning that going early meant we wouldn’t just avoid traffic in the store, it also meant that we would have a much shorter ride getting there.
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