Before you start menu planning, make a list of as many meals as you can think of that you know your family loves. This is your base to jump from! These are your go-tos, your reliably good, crowd-pleasers. If you have enough to cover a whole month, congratulations! You’re in great shape. If not, you’ll get there. For me, part of the fun is finding new recipes, but that does mean that sometimes you’ll have a big fail and we’ll all end up eating PB&Js. Kids are happy. Husband just sighs and pats my back and says, “Maybe next time, dear.” 🙂
1) Decide your meal planning period. We do ours by pay period.
2) On your calendar, note any days that stand out. For example, if you have a nighttime commitment of some sort that would affect your time in the kitchen. Establish routine. We have a few regular “nights” in my house. Pizza night is one. Leftover night is another. I get a night off! Every so often, I build in a takeout night (rare, but it happens). You may want a pasta night, a soup night, or a comfort food night. Maybe even a kids’ choice? Who knows. It’s up to you, you have the control. It doesn’t have to be boring- our pizza night changes all the time. Sometimes it’s margherita, sometimes it’s apricot and proscuitto. Make it yours.
3) Based on what you have currently in your freezer for proteins, decide on as many meals as you can come up with. Then look at the sale flyers for the grocery store and see what’s going on that week for sales so you know what to pick up. Fill in your menu plan as necessary with current sale items. Remember, if you have fresh ingredients like veggies, your recipes with fresh need to come closest to your shopping date. Save the items with canned or frozen veggies for later on in the menu plan.
4) Now that you have your menu plan established, it’s time to make the list. Go through each recipe and make your list for the store. Then head out and do your shopping. No, you don’t need the double stuf Oreos. Trust me. While at the grocery store, if you can’t find a roast beef that is the right size for you, you can ask the butcher counter to halve a bigger one. Buy both, but take one home and freeze it for a recipe later on. You don’t have to use the bigger cut in one shot just because it’s there.
5) When you get home from the store, trim your proteins and divide them into your most common portions. If you’ve planned the meal for a given cut already, you can portion it to exactly what is needed in the recipe and then label the container (baggie, foodsaver, tupperware, etc) with the meal it’s for. Generally, I will label my baggies with the item and the weight or number of pieces so that it’s easier to track down later on. Do this immediately when you are putting away your groceries.
6) Depending on your schedule, pre-prep your veggies. I can do mine the day of. You may benefit from prepping veggies every few days. A day or two in advance of each night, take out the protein to be defrosted and put it in the fridge to defrost slowly. Now, as far as prep goes. As a stay at home mom, I have the luxury of getting one child off to school, settling one in at the counter with crayons and paper and drinking my coffee while I chop up veggies and things to put in the crockpot in the morning. Or, during naptime, I can chop up my ingredients for a stove top dinner that night. Everyone who goes to work doesn’t have the same luxury. The solution for that is simple. Every few nights, take a half hour to prep your veggies. Things like onion and celery and carrots. Measure out what you need for each dinner, get your sharpie and label everything. Put it back in the fridge. Then, the morning that you need it, preheat that crockpot, take out your prepped veggies, and drop them in. You’re out the door. If it’s a stove top meal, you get home, take your bra off, put on your PJ pants, pull your already chopped up veggies out and you’re good to go.
7) Organize your freezer. Your freezer is your best friend as a meal planner. Keep it neat so that you can find things! If you make a meal with tons of leftovers and you won’t eat them for lunch, right when you’re done with dinner, pull out your containers or Ziplocs, fill and label them and put them in the freezer.
- Hint: with soups, label the Ziploc baggie first, then fill. Freeze the soups FLAT until frozen solid. Then you can stand them up and it saves a ton of room and they are easy to find later on.
- Items that freeze phenomenally well for me:
i. Soups, stocks and non cream based sauces
ii. Things cooked in crockpots or other slow cooked methods
- Waste not, want not. We have a leftovers night built in to our menu plan. Most recipes are geared towards bigger families than mine. This doesn’t mean you have waste. Freeze, freeze, freeze! In the case of most crockpot meals, I serve half and freeze half. I have the grocery store butcher counter cut roast beef in half for me. I buy both halves, but we only cook one at a time, otherwise we won’t finish it. Saving money is the first thing here. The second thing is that you don’t cook a second time (or possibly a third or fourth, depending on the recipe). I adore my crockpot. I have two. I have some recipes that I make once every few months that go directly into the freezer once cooked, divided up in containers and ready to defrost when my meal plan says to, like chicken soup, chili, butternut squash and corn soup, homemade marinara sauce and meatballs, pulled pork. Not only do I make several dinners in one cooking time with these, but in the case of the sauce, I’m branching out into a bunch of possible meals. The chicken soup I will also thicken sometimes and serve over rice or noodles as a fricassee. For those of you who work, this will be a great option for you. Take a day once a month to make a few high-yield recipes, divide it all right up and put it in your freezer for later use.
- A slight modification to the leftovers night is the idea that one meal flows into another. I don’t necessarily mean that you eat the same thing two nights in a row. That would get old really quick. My favorite match up is to make a crockpot pot roast one night. We do a full sized one and then I cut half of it (sometimes even slightly more) and package it up. I’ll freeze it and then use it later as the stuffing for shredded beef enchiladas. I am notorious for adding chicken breasts to salad. I’ll just make an extra one or two early in the week without seasonings and cook it up, and slice one onto a salad later in the week. I also have mentioned how many of my crockpot recipes are halved and one half immediately gets frozen. Yup, that’s another night that I’m practically “off duty.” Hopefully, you can already see how much time I’m saving just by being diligent about immediate freezing.
8) Keep track of dinners that go over really well. Discard those that don’t. You’ll need some sort of way to hold on to the keepers. My website is great for that for my purposes, but I also have a book that I’m working on at home. It’s just hard to find the time to handwrite things. I keep a lot of magazine clippings and constantly bookmark things on my computer. Check out sites like Tastebook to make your own hardcover recipe book (wicked cool).
9) Use your frozen stockpile. Don’t forget about it. When you go to do your next meal plan, pull up meals that you’ve already cooked from the freezer. It’s practically a night off.
Rinse, repeat and improve. It will only get easier and better. You’ll start to learn what meals work really well for you consecutively (for example, me making pot roast and then a few days later having shredded beef enchiladas). You’ll do the most work for the first few menu periods.