Meal Planning 101

Another part to budgeting is getting our food expenses under control. Food is expensive, time consuming to prepare, and if you don’t know how to cook or don’t like to cook, extremely aggravating. You have to go the store and deal with people too. Yuck! I know. I, fortunately, enjoy cooking. It certainly makes the process easier, but it isn’t needed necessarily.

First, let’s get the money thing under control. Then we can talk about the time portion of this. I am still mastering this, so we can journey together. I would suggest you set a good chunk of time aside, possibly an afternoon, or, if you are being really ambitious, a full day. Setting up your meal plan can be a bit time consuming, but it pays off in the end when you no longer have to think about it. If time is money, you are spending more now to make more later.

I use a simple binder with 4×8 index card space pages. Twenty pages have four slots and ten pages have two vertical slots, one horizontal slot, and a skinny slot on the side. I use 5×3 index cards though.

My lovely binder:

190

One of the pages I use. As you can see, the cards are smaller than the slots. I find it easier to pull out the cards like this.

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My cards with recipes and my pens for writing everything out in color code:

Part of my choice to do a binder is to get rid of the seven thousand cook books I have scattered everywhere. I hardly ever use them, as I will go to the Google for the recipe I want first. So, I have taken on the task or writing down the recipes I will use, or would use, on index cards. I use different colors to denote different types of meals. For instance, red is for Hispanic inspired dishes and green is for Italian. There are hundreds of ways you can categorize your meals, but I broke them down like this:

Soups & Stews are in a dark gel pen blue

Hispanic is in gel pen red

Italian is in dark gel pen green

Assorted World Foods is in ball point pen black

Americana is in light gel pen green

Breakfast is in gel pen maroon

Lunch is in gel pen black

Appetizers are in gel pen orange

Sides are in light gel pen blue

Desserts are in ball point pen blue

Breads and rolls are in gel pen pink (with a maroon star if it can double as a breakfast loaf)

Staples (like pie crust and pizza sauce) are in ball point pen red

Twelve categories seems to be more manageable for me. Your question might be, why go through all this trouble when you can just look up the recipe. I’ll tell you why. I won’t go look them up if I think I remember how to make the dish, for one. Secondly, I won’t look in my pantry when I am making my shopping list if my ingredient list isn’t right in front of me. Third, if I eat a meal I love and ask for the recipe, I don’t have to find a place to put it, as I have my recipe box right there. It puts everything into arms reach when I am trying to plan out my weeks worth of meals.

This has been a lot of work and very time consuming. If you enjoy the hands-on approach to organizing like this, welcome to my complicated world. If you don’t, I would suggest writing down the names of the dinners you like and what page they are in your cookbook, or how to find them on the internet ( I always have a hard copy of the meals I like as I have had recipes disappear from the ether). To give you an idea of how big I am making my project, I want to be able to plan a year’s worth of meals (this is with one leftover day to clean out the fridge and night out every other week, or 78 meals), without repeating any. This is not to say we won’t repeat meals. We love Paella and hamburgers, and steak, and fettuccine Alfredo and, and, and, you get the picture. But if I can have a good mix of about 250 meals we like (I already have 35 soups and stews alone) then I think I will be in pretty good shape and can donate all my cook books.

You do not have to make this project so large! I have been meal planning for a while and this is my next step. My suggestion to you is to write down roughly thirty meals your family likes to eat on a regular basis. Thirty is not so tough, even if you only list the names. This gives you basically a months worth of dinners that you know your family will love and eat without much complaint. You also don’t have to be so ethnically diverse if you don’t want. The point is to make this easy on you, so don’t over think it with roasted lamb in mint sauce with Au gratin potatoes and homemade ciabatta bread with sea salt. That does sound really good though.

An example of a basic week worth of meals for us; Paella, spaghetti, hamburgers, baked potato soup, stir fry, dinner out, left overs. A week we don’t eat out, chili, pollo rosa maria, fajitas, shish kababs, steak, leftovers, leftovers (we usually have plenty left over). Two weeks without repeating meals, except on leftover days. You can make it so you don’t have left overs, but I have yet to find a family who doesn’t cook too much for at least one meal.

Why do them on index cards? You can mix them up! Like I said, I have 35 soups and stews right now. Some will get the ax after I make them, they were just soups I found in a book that I would be willing to try. If I have an equal amount of recipes in my other categories I can choose one from each stack and not repeat for months! I can also make my husband pick, which takes the burden off of me. Or, if you have kids, let them choose a card or two. Make it a game. Index cards also let me shift meals around according to schedule. If I am working 12h, I can’t and won’t cook for three hours (most of my meals don’t take that long but some do). I schedule longer prep meals on my off days, make ahead meals on days I work. Leftover day cleans out the fridge and means I don’t have to cook on Meal Prep day or shopping day.

One final note on the dinner cards. Make sure you note what side dishes you are going to make. If it is a packet of microwaveable veggies (we use Green Giants and they are yummy) and some store bought rolls, write it down. You will need to know what to buy to go with that steak. I usually write the sides I normally cook for a main course on the main courses index card.

The next step is to do your lunch meals. I work backwards, from dinner to breakfast, since breakfast is usually cereal or eggs and bacon. When we get to the bottom I will list some blogs that have great mason jar salads and some sandwich ideas. I pick one or two salads, one or two sandwiches (which can also be made into wraps for a bit healthier option) and use my left over soup one or two days for meals. This means I can prep them on Meal Prep day (think deconstructed sandwiches) and have them ready to go the day I need them. Supposing I have a moment to eat them when working… This also cuts down on your shopping list if you double up days. Like our leftover dinner days, I use whatever is left on the last day before shopping (usually Sunday). This helps clean out the fridge and means, again, no additional cooking on Meal Prep day.

Finally, breakfast. Like I said, I am a cereal girl, or oatmeal, because it is fast prep and I don’t eat a lot in the morning. Pretty much if I can put it together in under 5 minutes, I’ll eat it. Tony eats more than I do though, so a little bit of thought goes into this. You can see in my picture above that I have 7 different breakfasts listed out. Three of them are grab and goes, the yogurt, the oatmeal/cereal, and the banana bread.

Side note: I make little loaves of bread (about 32 of them) and we freeze 24 and eat the remaining 8 over the week. I love my baby bread loaf pan. I will do this with zucchini bread and apple bread too. I just found a lemon poppy seed loaf I want to try too. If you like cakey breads for a breakfast dish, I would suggest these baby loaves.

The other four meals take prep time, especially the blintz and chopping the Brussels sprouts, but they are all still under 15 minutes. About the sprouts. I know that seems like a really odd choice of breakfast fare, but I promise, slice them and pan fry them in some butter and garlic, then top it with an over easy egg. You will be pleasantly surprised.

I am going to start looking at mason jar breakfasts, smoothie recipes for breakfast, mason jar salads and all that coming up soon. They look delicious and if I can prep it all and have it ready to go in one day, that means I can work the other six and make up for lost income.

Alright, steps to meal planning:

  1. Set time aside to meal/menu plan. If you are brand new, set aside a good 2-3 hours (or a day if you are feeling ambitious). If you have been sort of, kind of planning for a while now, set aside an hour or so to get organized.
  2. Get your supplies together that make meal planning fun. If you are doing the binder method that I am, get fun pens, stickers (if you want to mark favorite meals) and such. Also make sure you have the binder, the page spacers, and index cards. I know they sell index cards in a bunch of fun colors, so you might go that route instead.
  3. Figure out how far in advance you want to plan. Do you want to do it a week at a time? Do you want a projected monthly plan, split down into weeks? Do you want to plan for the next three months? Choose your time frame. Much like your budget, stick with this time frame for 3 months then reevaluate. It will be hard, but it gets easier.
  4. Write down your first 30 or so dinners, about 10 different lunches and 10 different breakfasts. This includes meals you could make in your sleep. I know it seems silly to write down how to cook your steak (it’s not because you can make it perfect every time) but remember you have your sides listed on there as well. Yes, even the cereal. Write it down.
  5. Select your first weeks meals! Ah, perfection. You are ready to make your shopping list now. You know exactly what you need to buy and will only have to make the trip to the store once. Now, go look at your Ibotta, Checkout51, coupon apps, and all other sundry to save even more money on the items you know you need to buy.

A quick note on snacks. I don’t tend to buy them because we are two people. All I really have on hand at any given time are apples, clementines, string cheese, and Chobani’s raspberry and chocolate dessert yogurts. If you love your snacks and desserts, plan those into your meals as well. For a while I was making little packets of chopped up veggies, fruits, trail mixes, and other grab and go things. Then I threw out a bunch of them because we didn’t eat them fast enough. It all depends on family size, how much work you want to put into it, and how likely you are to eat it. Nothing worse then spending $130 and throwing out $40 work of food because you didn’t eat it.

Here are some blogs I found on meal planning:

Kalyn uses a similar style to me. It’s less complicated in that you don’t have to write down all your meals and organize, but it is more complicated in the fact that you have to look everything up, multiple times if necessary. She has helpful printouts too.

Rosemarie has some great tips for meal planning. This simplifies it nicely and explains a bit about different methods for food prep and types if meals.

Angela has some helpful ideas about breakfast, lunch, and snacks. Not really a guide to meal planning as a whole, but if you are stuck on the meal most of us eat out for (lunch), this could be helpful to kick-start that plan.

Here are a few blogs/pins on meals to make:

Thank you RedBook for this little list of nummy breakfast mason jars.

Clean Food Crush also has recipes for breakfast mason jars. Added bonus if you have your own dehydrator to make your own fruit!

Today’s Frugal Mom has a way to make freezer breakfasts! Smoothie packs and baking mixes are also listed!

Popsugar has a good post for ideas of mason jar salads.

Ms. Cassandra has a great post on not salad mason jars. I personally love the instant noodle idea.

Imgur has this link to a list of sandwiches you can make. Just some ideas.

Happy Deal, Happy Day has a great post on two things I love, freezer meals and crock pot meals. Time and energy saved!

Last but not least Melissa has what we all need, 25 minute meals.

This is just a short list. There are tons of ideas on Pintrest. Next up will be meal prepping for the week. That should be a much shorter blog post.

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