Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Meal Planning Revisited

I'm currently reading An Everlasting Meal, which makes it sound very romantic and enviable to simply start a pot of boiling water and then decide what to make for dinner. That approach is far from my reality (although I'm loving the book). In my life, it makes much more sense to plan out my meals for the week. A) I'm a planner, so having a plan tends to make me feel more comfortable. B) We're trying to save as much money as possible, so we only buy what we absolutely need at the grocery store, and C) I'm not the kind of person who enjoys spending much time thinking about cooking (I wish I were more like Meghan!). Cooking--for the most part--is a very practical endeavor in our household. We cook because it's cheaper and healthier. 

If I don't think about our meals in advance, I usually find myself pulling tried-and-true recipes out of my memory as I walk around the grocery store: pizza, vegetarian chili, tomato/mozzarella/basil sandwiches, and black bean and yam quesadillas. And while those recipes are delicious, they lose their deliciousness when they make an appearance week after week. Plus, it takes me longer to get through the grocery store because I inevitably forget some piece of produce and have to go all the way back to the beginning of the store.

So meal planning definitely makes sense for me, but I don't enjoy sitting down each week and taking time to find recipes and make a list. And although I love Meals for a Year, I want to be able to pull from recipes that have been vetted by our family. 

Here's my new plan: Create four different, seasonal meal plans that we rotate through three times every three months. It sounds more anal that it actually is. Basically, we would eat something different every day of September, but then we would repeat that month's plan in October and November before switching to the next season's plan. Each recipe would get eaten once a month for three months in a row. I originally read about this idea on Sew Liberated or Progressive Pioneer a couple years ago. 

It seems like the perfect plan for our family because once I set up the lists and recipes, Matt and I won't have to put much more thought into shopping and cooking. In the next couple years, our lives are likely going to crescendo into busy-ness. Hopefully we'll welcome another baby into our family and my school will open. We'll be balancing a lot with our own full-time work schedules and the lives of two children. We'll still want to cook dinner and sit down together as a family each night, but it would be great if we could minimize the amount of thinking and planning that has to go into that process. 

That doesn't mean all of our cooking with be mechanized or rote. We'll still try out new recipes when we're inspired to do so and bask in the joy of cooking. But our day-to-day process will be simpler, faster, and cheaper. 

I plan to set up our meal plans in the same way we set them up on Meals for a Year. I'll make a list of the recipes and create a separate shopping list for each week. This will be a fun project to take on as we patiently wait to add another baby to our family.

I also want to read this book about simplifying family meals. It looks really good!

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Annalisa said...

Hey Sara -- I've found that it works best when I make 1 or 2 casserole type meals and plan for 1-2 easy meals. I make things like a baked ziti/lasagna with tons of veggies, mexican lasagna (layers of tortillas, refried beans, cheese, etc), alfredo pastas, homemade mac and cheese, etc. I love quiches or frittatas for left over options.

Since we had out 16 mo. old, my quick meals involve heat and eat stuff w/extra veggies. I LOVE targets frozen meals - they are pretty good flavors and not terrible ingredients. I think they are $7 for a 2 or 3 person serving of butternut squash lasagna, chicken tikka masala, etc. Trader Joes has great options too. I also love the $1 steamable bags of mixed veggies/broccoli/etc to throw in.

Do you have a rice cooker? I use that a lot and it was $15 at bed bath beyond. Uncle Ben's micorwaveable rice packages are great for some options in a pinch too.

Hope this helps! I hate being stuck in a food rut.

Emily Grant said...

so excited to see how you do this, I never been wanting to do the same thing.

Sarah said...

This post is very timely in my life as I am trying to figure out a meal plan/grocery shopping routine that works for our family. We, too, get stuck in a rut of eating the same thing week-in and week-out. We like our meals, but they get old fast. Right now I'm on a mission to try one or two new recipes a week to add to the rotation. Eventually I'd love to create a recipe binder I can work from and then mix and match recipes each week when I plan our meals. The whole meal planning concept is new to me. We used to shop several times a week when we lived so close to the grocery store. Now it's essential to plan ahead so we don't waste time/money. I would love for you to post some of your favorite recipes once you get your system organized!

Carrie said...

I don't cook, but I found this recipe on a blog I frequent and thought I'd share because it sounds heavenly:

For this meal I put all the pieces of naan bread on a big sheet pan, coated each with a little bit of olive oil, and topped them with feta, sliced kalamatas, and a little shredded mozzarella and stuck them in the oven for 350 for about 10 minutes. While that was baking, I tossed together diced cucumber, diced tomato, a few more kalamatas, feta, and a dressing of olive oil, red wine vinegar, oregano, kosher salt, and fresh cracked pepper and let them all mesh and marry each other. Once I pulled the bread out, I topped each with the fresh, cold salad and served it with TJ tzatziki sauce on the side. They were SO GOOD.

Elizabeth F. said...

DALS is an absolute joy! I would highly encourage you to check it out.

Anonymous said...

I really like the idea of the seasonal meal plan. Inspires me to be more diligent with my meal planning because when I don't plan, I usually end up going out for lunch which is not always healthy for finances or waistlines!

Nora said...

I love the idea of a seasonal meal plan. I know there are lots of great cookbooks out there, but because we try to use seasonal fruits and vegetables, we end up cooking from the cookbook "Simply in Season". We cook 90% of our meals from there. As time goes on, I'd like to make a collection of seasonal meals for a side cookbook. It makes so much sense to organize by season.

noorachen said...

I LOVE An Everlasting Meal! It has really changed how we approach dinners at my house. We get a CSA share of veggies most weeks, and I follow her suggestion to roast as much of them as possible all at once on the weekend, and I might also make a pot of beans per her bean chapter. Then we have containers of roasted vegetables and ready protein in the fridge that can be tossed with pasta or quinoa, mixed up for burritos, stirred into a quick frittata, layered on sandwiches with good cheese, fed straight up to the baby, you name it. For our family, having our veggies already cooked in the fridge and ensuring we have some grain/bread staples has been more successful even than more exact meal planning.

loveyalots said...

Have you visited the 100 days of real food blog? Free meal plans, grocery lists and all by season. It's a wonderful free resource.

Gwen Langan said...

I agree with loveyalots...that blog is an amazing resource! Just wanted to let you know this is how I typically plan our meals...but only for five days a week. It works! Shopping is soooo easy too since it's the same basic list every three months (also makes it super easy to bulk shop!). The reason I only plan for five days of "fresh" meals is because I'm experimenting with once a month cooking for a couple easy frozen meals a week. So far tomato or squash soup, stuffed squash, Chili, and chicken thighs in sauce (made in the crockpot) have worked really well!

Here's how I make it work: We pick out about 20 meals we really like that are fall themed or have fall veg/fruit as a base or side. I try to pick out ones that can changed to whatever is on sale as well (subbing chicken for beef if is cheaper...or replacing roasted potatoes with squash since someone gave us some for free...I like recipes like that!)
There are only 20 because we eat things like spaghetti and tacos every week ( or at least three times a month)
Next I pick out 4-6 freezers meals and multiply those ingrediants to fill in my remaining days.
Get a big piece of paper or use post its (currently on my wall til I make something cuter) to make a 30 meal grid. Repeat your very favorites only a couple times (we have tacos typically every week but one week they're carnitas and another shredded chicken and beans. The only thing that doesn't change is the tortilas)
Now I grab my recipes and write every ingrediant down. I use three lists: pantry, freezer, and fresh/fridge. This way I can buy 3 months worth of the pantry and freezer stuff in one big trip.
Before I go to the store I put a pencil checkmark next to everything I've already got on hand. Fresh stuff I usually shop for every two weeks except milk and greens. Though right now I'm testing greens in mason jars to see if they last longer.
When I get everything home I spend the rest of the day chopping and precooking and freezing any meals for later. The next day I start our bread (Artisan Bread in 5Minutes a Day is amazing! I currently use their Healthy Bread book to make whole wheat and rye for daily eating) dough, make and freeze a piazza/naan dough, and make and freeze muffins for breakfasts. I also make and freeze my husbands breakfasts and any premade lunches for him.
We do leftovers for lunch usually and we're both bad about remembering breakfast unless I premake stuff like waffles or muffins or burritos for warming and running out the door.

Good luck! Please share how you do it if it works for you!

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