Friday, January 6, 2017

Meal Planning Made Easy


I am an avid meal planner. To be honest, I'm a planner in general. I've finally found a method to keep a personal planner - which is a different post, someday - and it's helping me keep meal plans on point.
Meal planning helps us stay on budget, but only when I cook with what we've acquired. If my meal plan for a week includes a bunch of weird ingredients or proteins that I don't keep on hand, the grocery budget is obliterated. I follow a few simple steps and plan our meals on Wednesday, then do the shopping on Thursdays. I've found that shopping late in the week inspires more home cooking on the weekend, which makes it easier to say no to going out to eat. 

I've recently started planning all of our breakfasts and lunches a week in advance, as well. Snacks get planned the night before, depending on what the boys have been favoring lately. Planning all of these things may seem overwhelming, but I find that a rhythm happens pretty quickly and all this planning keeps me reaching for different flavors. I hate getting in flavor ruts. For a few weeks, every breakfast involved syrup. Seriously.

The first step in planning is to review the calendar. Do we have a family dinner one night? Mark it off as one less dinner to prep. Is Hubs teaching a guitar lesson one night? Plan on eating leftovers. Once I have an idea on what the week looks like, I can easily plan what styles to cook on each day. Knowing on Monday we will be eating leftovers, Saturday or Sunday I plan to cook a large meal that offers plenty of leftovers.
We use our phone calendars (synced) for every appointment, playdate and school function. Hubs and I each get a notification when a new event is added, so unless I'm seriously spacing out, things don't come as a surprise on the calendar.

School days I plan for lunches that are really fast to get on the table, because my preschooler comes home starving and it's dangerously close to nap time for the little one. Same goes for breakfasts those mornings; one of the quick, old staples has to do. Nothing wrong with that!

Knowing LW has music class one afternoon a week leaves one night to have a quick meal like quesadillas or breakfast leftovers for dinner (pancakes, waffles, etc.) - which winds back to, "Which morning before this will I have time to make waffles?" or which dinner a previous evening will produce leftovers that we can plan to eat for dinner that night. I know, it seems like so much thought...but it's WORTH IT! Because we never have that sinking, "What's for dinner?" feeling!!

I keep a pretty hefty stash of leftover soups in the freezer, as well. I freeze them in deli containers and it's a lifesaver for nights that dinner from scratch just can.not. happen. 

I keep meals on a loose rotation, based on things I keep on hand. I try to rotate through these main dishes: Pasta, salad, tacos, soup, pizza, quick meals and our classic faves. 

Does that seem really boring? This is where I get creative. "Tacos" does not always mean ground beef, taco seasoning and hard shells in our house. It can mean shrimp and avocado, barbacoa beef, pork carnitas or chicken tacos. Possibilities are kind of endless with tacos. 

"Soup" is the most open term in the world, because pretty much any veggies that need to be eaten can be dumped in the super pot with some home made stock, a protein (sausage? chicken? whatever!) and rice, beans or noodles. LOOK! Now it's soup! This Lemon Chicken Orzo Soup is a staple I make every few weeks. It's soooo comforting and delicious (wait, everything from Damn Delicious is). 
"Pasta"is another really broad term. That can be a million different things I find on Pinterest or some of our easy staples for a busy night like ravioli and a jar of sauce with garlic bread. 

"Pizza" I try to keep variable as well. We aren't huge frozen pizza eaters, but naan pizzas are quick and easy, plus the boys love them. Change up the crust by making them on tortillas or english muffins. If there is more time allowed, I can make the dough and sauce from scratch using up some garden veggies which is the most cost-effective way. Budgets rejoice! 

A salad loaded with chicken and veggies is really satisfying and can be interpreted to fit into nearly any cuisine we're craving. We love southwest salad with chicken, this Asian Noodle Salad and this Caprese Avocado Salad.

As I mentioned, some nights need to have quick meals and we don't always have leftovers to fall back on. That's when breakfast for dinner, quesadillas, ramen noodles, hot dogs or chicken nuggets save us. Not every night can be healthy and made from scratch, and I accept that. Everything in moderation.

Of course, it feels always good to cook an old staple. Some of our faves that don't fit into other categories listed above are Smothered Pork Chops, sloppy joes, lettuce wraps and Mississippi roast.

#Promomtip: Put new things in meals my kids understand. When the boys ask what's for dinner, I can say "Tacos" and they get excited. They know what tacos are, they understand the flavor profile, and I can introduce lots of new ingredients. Put it in a taco and they generally try it, at least. Or on a pizza. Or with pasta. Or whatever. I totally play to my strengths with that move.

Once I have the calendar marked up and an idea on what style dishes I want to make, I take a peek through my pantry and freezer for what needs to get eaten. If I am out of chicken tenders but I have chuck, I plan a dish that uses chuck. If we have a lot of frozen fruit that could be used up, I plan on making smoothies for some of our breakfasts or snacks that week. If I find a package of rice noodles that begs to be the highlight, I plan a stir fry. 

Technology plays a big part of our organization with the pantry/grocery shopping, too. Hubs and I share lists on Wunderlist. We add pantry staple ingredients to the list as they run out (milk, eggs, bread, etc). Items with a star are Hubs responsibility - they are for Costco. Items without a star are for me to shop for at Aldi.
When I know the meals I want to make and have a handle on what my pantry can offer that week, I create the shopping list. A lot of the items every week are the same (milk, etc) but produce I try to purchase local and seasonal, when I can. Aldi has stickers on every item that is locally grown. Which, in January in the NW suburbs of Chicago is just potatoes...but in the summer and fall it offers several fun options!

The List
Once I have all the meals sketched and scribbled on notepaper, I put them in the Reminders app on my phone. This way, I always have them with me. If I'm out and about and my stomach drops because I think I forgot to defrost something for dinner (happens constantly), I can flip the app open and see what I had planned on making that night.

A huge part of this is flexibility. I plan what feels like every second of every day because it comforts me. Most days, I don't touch 1/3 of the plan. I don't care! I just like having a plan to start with. If the kids don't nap or something goes awry, I have to be flexible and make it work. We NEED to eat, and my goal is always to feed us from our pantry.

Most mornings I have completely different plans for breakfast than LW does, but we balance each other out. Eventually all of the food gets eaten, just on different days than I had planned. Which I am totally cool with. I don't care when it gets eaten, I just don't want it wasted.
Have any tips or questions? Reach me out to me on Facebook or Instagram. Our daily life can be found @sparklesandcrafts and our meals are on @whatifeedmykid


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