I'm all about planning for success as many of you have ascertained by now, so I thought I'd spend a post or two discussing how this planning can help us in the kitchen.
I usually plan a month's worth of meals at a time, using some free time in the last week of each month to start filling out the next month's menus. If you're new to menu planning, you might want to start with just a single week's menus and shopping. As you get better at it, increase the plan to two weeks at a time or monthly, as I do. And I always keep my eyes open for unexpected sales, even if they're not on my menu plan. Company drops in, the boys bring home friends, and, in short, life happens. You never know when you'll need an extra bag of ravioli or a good-size chicken in the freezer!
My problem in the past was that, despite my best efforts, we ended up going off my menu plans each month and spending more on unhealthy fast-food or eating out than I really wanted to. So before I planned my February menu, I asked myself one simple question, "Why?"
Why, after painstakingly choosing a month's worth of meals, assembling all the recipes into a folder, and putting the menu on the outside of the folder, as well as a copy on the fridge door (so everyone else knows what to expect for dinner each night), why would I stray from the plan? It wastes my time and in some cases, groceries I may have purchased specifically for a particular meal. It costs more, upping my grocery bill. But I found that I was doing this every month, more than once or twice.
As I pinpointed the answer to that one question *(Why?), I realized this was the key to making the plan work.
I determined that I went off the plan usually for one of two reasons:
a. The recipe was too difficult or time-consuming for the amount of energy I had left on a given day, or b. I was missing ingredients for it;
So, when I planned my February menu, I did a few things I don't usually take the time to think about, and now, on February 26th, I can say this month's plan worked beautifully.
Here are my key tips for making a menu plan that works: (I could do a post on each and every step of this method, but here's the short version.)
1. When choosing recipes, look at the days that are the most challenging for you, and plan for them first. For me, it's the nights when we have Bible Study and must leave the house quickly after dinner. (This affects how much time I have to cook, and I need to conserve enough energy to go out! I also have had trouble with motivation on Sundays. Sundays are for resting, aren't they? Who wants to slave in the kitchen on a relaxing Sunday afternoon? Haven't you felt like this?)
The way around this is to make your menu plan work for Sundays and challenging days, too. I do this by
a: Using a once-a-month eating out night for one of those days
b: I plan ONE night a month where I simply heat up a big frozen lasagna like Stouffer's. It's not health food, but it's only once a month, and it makes me happy.
c: Use the crock-pot for something simple like pot roast. I'm not keen on cooking in the morning, but even I can quickly throw a few ingredients into the pot before church and set it and forget it. The whole family LOVES coming home to the great smells of dinner in the pot. This one step, if done well, will save you from those spur-of-the-moment, "Let's order out," nights.
d. Making a meal ahead and freezing it. (I've done the Once-A-Month Cooking a few times in the past, where you freeze practically a month's worth of meals at a time. This is great, for instance, when I know I need to finish a novel quickly. But the prep work for that is far more time-consuming than good meal planning. You need to weigh the benefits and see if they're worth the really big up-front commitment. You've got to cook all those meals in one weekend!)
The point is that I want to serve my family a majority of home-cooked healthy food, and I do that best by including a few exceptions a couple times a month.
So, after picking out at least 5 slow-cooker recipes for a given month, I insert them into the days where I take my daughter to a homeschool co-op, or Bible Study nights, and Sundays. Any time you know you'll have a very full day and will need to have a dinner ready or easy to make, use one of the above contingencies (a PLANNED ordering out meal; or a crock-pot meal, or a meal frozen beforehand specifically for that night).
1. Choose recipes you know you'll make. Don't use the menu planning phase to get excited about a whole bunch of new recipes you've been wanting to try. At most, use only one or two new recipes a week. If life is already stressing you out, skip the new ones, and use old family favorites. Keep cost in mind, and balance: don't put five beef meals on one week of your month's menus.
2. After choosing mostly tried-and-true recipes (or ones you've read ahead of time and KNOW you can handle), make out an exhaustive shopping list. Use the tally method: if you need carrots for one recipe, but then find 6 carrots are needed in another, don't just write "carrots" on your list. Tally as you go, adding exactly how many are needed, so that, say, if you end up with five recipes calling for six carrots, you know to buy 3-5 pounds of carrots for the month. Do this with ALL your ingredients. (The book, Dinner's in the Freezer has a confusing template for this, but it nevertheless taught me the method.)
3. Go out and conquer that list! Don't get some of the ingredients, but not others. I use three main stores so that, in a matter of a week, I have everything I need, getting each ingredient where I can get the best price or quality, or both. Don't let a lack of preparedness prevent you from sticking to your menu plan.
(My favorites are: Aldi's, Kroger, and Sam's Club. Occasionally, I need to get to Trader Joe's or Earth Fare, too. And there are some staples I order on a subscription basis from Amazon.com. Did you know they sell almost all the groceries you might need? And where else can you get them delivered right to your door? I am a "prime" member, meaning I pay one flat shipping fee per year, so all my subscription groceries are delivered with "free" shipping. It's well worth the fee for my family, and definitely cost-effective.)
After my initial expenditures for the main ingredients, I only need to shop afterwards for items we consume quickly, like milk, butter, 1/2 and 1/2, and fresh produce and fruit. The best way to determine where to go for what, is to go over your comprehensive grocery list with a couple colored highlighters. I mark items I can get from Aldis in one color, Kroger in another, etc. When in each store, use your color code to know what to get as quickly as possible. At the same time, having your list with you means you can always buy an item you might have gotten elsewhere but see for a great price or with better quality at the other store.
Tip: I print out a lot of recipes so I have a folder with the ones I need on hand each night. If I take a recipe from one of my cookbooks, I note the page number and the initials of the cookbook it came from next to the meal title on the calendar page. (For crock-pot recipes, I only use the page number, since these always come from my single crock-pot cookbook.) Be sure to consult the books when making your comprehensive shopping list!
PS: The words "Left-Overs" sometimes appear on my menu plans, too. If you know you'll have enough extra after a few nights for a good meal of left-overs, plan for it!
If you are involved in menu planning, you already know that flexibility is important. I build flexibility into my plan by having all the ingredients for the month on hand ahead of time. This way, if I don't feel up to making one meal, I can switch it out for another. Unless you've defrosted meat and it's been sitting in the fridge already for a few days, I find I can always put off that meat meal for a day or two without losing the cut. (I have a cold refrigerator, and I put raw meat in the back, where it's coldest. If you're going to put off using defrosted meat, make sure you keep it cold and don’t' keep it longer than a few days. Four is about the max.)
That should help you get off to a good start if you're new to this. And why do it? It saves me time, money and effort in the long run. It prevents that, "What's for dinner?" whining that children excel at, and it keeps me from having to stress over how to answer that question.
Got any tips for menu planning or cooking that might help other women? Have you found that planning ahead with regard to dinner helps you save money? Or time? I'd love to hear about it!