As a busy mom who loves to cook (because I love to eat), meal time can make me or break me.
I choose the former.
I could spend HOURS in the kitchen – baking, cooking, tasting, pondering ideas… I truly love being in the kitchen. However, I do not like to waste time just standing, frantically trying to come up with what to eat right now. This is where meal planning has been my lifesaver.
Meal planning started as a goal for 2012 and after only a couple months, the whole family (but especially me) welcomed the idea with open arms.
I’ll admit – it took some getting used to. Coming up with lots of meals at one time seems overwhelming. Now on my ninth month, I still get stumped sometimes on what to make for dinner. Meal planning takes practice and even then it can be tricky because there’s no one single “right way” to do it.
See the smudges up there? The eraser and I are best beds – we’re thisclose.
I wrote a meal planning 101 a few months ago, but the recent pantry challenge made me re-evaluate my methods and alter them slightly. We still have goals (eating a meatless meal once per week, eating seafood once each month, etc.) and we still like to try new dishes, but we weren’t using what we had to its fullest potential. The perfect example would be the cheese sitting in the freezer and beans sitting in the pantry – both bought with good intentions, yet there was no plan for how to eat them.
To help those who struggle with meal planning (and give some funny insight to the inner workings of a busy momma’s mind) I’m sharing my thought process on how I specifically planned meals for the month of September. The final meal plan is here and this is how I got there. (Heads up – I tend to ramble, even in my head, so this post is kinda long.)
1. Take inventory of the “main meals” (meats and beans) in the pantry, fridge and freezer, and anything else that you have a lot of. Include anything you really want to use or are tired of looking at.
- tri-tip x1
- steaks x1-3 (hard to see in the bag so planned to use one; will use others next month if there’s more than one)
- tilapia filet x?
- hot dogs x2
- kidney beans (1lb raw)
- white beans x1
- provolone cheese
- pepper jack cheese
- 1/2 qt bag of frozen strawberries
- 1 gal bag of frozen strawberry puree
- orange juice concentrate
- spaghetti sauce x6
- 1/2 container cool whip
- cranberry sauce
- sausage links x2
2. Stare at this list and hope something jumps up at me… (just kidding). Can I make anything that my family likes with this stuff? What dishes can be made that require the least amount of items from the store (aiming for nothing)? Search recipe databases and look at past meal planning for ideas.
tri-tip x1 –> grilled tri-tip, then tri-tip tacos with leftovers
(Grilling is easy, want easy sides too… have pasta, would like to try a new pasta salad recipe… AHA! Go Italian and can double as salad dressing too! Can make buns/bread depending on what the husband prefers, already have carrots in fridge if other fresh vegetable is more than $1/lb. This will make leftovers and family love tacos, will add tilapia if not much beef is leftover. Already have masa for tortillas (note to see how much is left), rice, coconut milk and everything needed for salsa, would only need one pepper and one onion for corn.)
steaks x1-3 –> orange peel beef (will make double batch for freezer if there is more than one steak; reserve steak #3 if in bag)
(This beef wasn’t so great as steaks last time so it needs to be a stir-fry or something… (thumbing through recipes-to-try list). Okie dokie, orange peel beef will work since there’s orange juice concentrate in the freezer. Adding fresh ginger in fridge would be nice and there’s rice in pantry. Since there’s plenty of all of these, will attempt double batch for future “in a rush” meal. Want broccoli, but have carrots… will have to see if can find broccoli for $1 before the meal)
orange juice concentrate –> orange peel beef
(Using for orange peel beef, problem solved. Tired of seeing this in the freezer.)
tilapia filet x? –> add to taco night
(Adding to taco night… how much of this do I have left?)
spaghetti sauce x6 –> spaghetti
(Goodness we have a lot and it needs to get eaten. Need to get pasta from Dad.)
white beans x1 –> beans/rice night
(The last bean dish was a success so will do it again and add the recipe to beans rotation.)
cranberry sauce 8 –> coffee cake
(Argh! Why did I buy so much of this stuff?! (thumbing through cookbook under “cranberries”) Ok, can tweak this recipe to fit. Let’s hope “breakfast cake” goes over as well as “breakfast cookies”.)
macadamias –> coffee cake
(Not gonna use precious walnuts on a cake the kids may not like. These should work..)
sausage links x2 –> pigs in blanket
(SO tired of seeing these in the freezer. If I can find a recipe for crescent rolls, can make pigs in a blanket for lunches. Kids will eat them up, make a big batch using all sausages and freezer for future easy lunches.)
kidney beans (1lb raw) –> beans/rice/cheese burritos
(Look for a recipe for beans/rice burritos using kidney beans. There’s a little bit of cheddar in the fridge, some provolone and pepper jack in the freezer. Need to make the bread… may do pitas or naan if there isn’t much masa left.)
provolone cheese –> grilled cheese sandwiches
(Perfect for grilled cheese night, but need some better non-plain recipes.)
pepper jack cheese –> grilled cheese sandwiches
(Score! Another grilled cheese option!)
1/2 container cool whip –> strawberry pretzel salad
(This needs to go too. Maria wants strawberry pretzel salad so will cross this off the list.)
Hot Dogs x2 –> hot dogs
(So glad I bought in bulk, these will be great for Labor Day. Make homemade buns and find some corn on the cob, treat husband to Greek couscous.)
3. When you’ve run out of ideas, plug these meals into the calendar and see what’s left to cover. My guidelines: aim for no more than one pasta dish each week, one “easy” meal each week and pizza every other Friday.
Breakfast (need 4)
cranberry macadamia coffee cake
Lunch (need 4-6)
pigs in a blanket
Dinner (need 4 meatless, 15 regular)
grilled cheese (meatless)
white beans/rice (meatless)
4. Write down any new recipes that you’ve been wanting to try. Try to use items that are already in the house, but some needed grocery items are ok. Can any of these meals be two-fers (cook once, eat twice)? Like the tri-tip example above?
Breakfast (have 1, need 3 more)
- apple cinnamon bread (haven’t made this in awhile, always have apples on hand)
- banana chocolate chip muffins (family favorite, always have bananas and chocolate chips)
- cranberry coffee cake (make twice, possible make muffins if cake doesn’t come out well)
Lunch (have 2, need 2-4 more)
- snacky lunch (kids LOVE this, almost out of granola bars so find different granola recipe)
- peanut butter and banana pitas (alternative for jelly, pitas are fun, want to attempt pita chips if this turns out)
- peanut butter and jelly (a few sandwiches won’t kill them, besides it’s the jelly that MeMe made)
Dinners (have 2 meatless, need 2 more; have 7 regular, need 8 more)
- DIY Salads – meatless (easy way to get veggies, no cook, can come up with creations from the fridge and pantry)
- Ravioli – meatless (from Costco, a inexpensive treat and nice alternative, have pesto and spaghetti sauce at home)
- Buttermilk Ranch Oven-Fried Chicken (new recipe looks THE BOMB!, need chicken (ouch!) and buttermilk, but everything else will be from kitchen)
- Bacon, Lettuce, Tomato Sandwiches (husband has been craving bacon and has patiently waited for the budget to reset, would be nice to have some for a simple sandwich dinner, roast some potatoes for fries)
- Whole Chicken on Grill (need chicken (ouch again!), but will pull off chicken for leftovers… plus can use bones for stock)
- Lemon Caper Chicken (husband’s request, thinking that between the three chicken meals, can buy 2-pack of whole chickens and chop up the second instead of cooking whole, have everything else in the pantry)
- Chicken Spinach Verde Enchiladas (hopefully using leftover chicken, need spinach, diced chilies and tortillas… put at the end of the month in case we change our minds or budget is tight)
5. Shuffle meals as needed so that we don’t have three nights of tortillas in a row, or the same thing two weeks in a row. Double check the month and if you’re satisfied, go through each dish and read the ingredient list. Physically look in the kitchen for the ingredients and the correct quantity. Write down what’s needed. Don’t trust the brain.
tri-tip veg ?
more masa ?
mozzarella cheese x1
whole chicken x2
6. Add in everything else that’s been on “the list” since the last time the budget reset and items that need to be replaced.
unsweetened cocoa bar
red wine vinegar
apple cider vinegar
almond milk x2
7. Double check the whole list and make sure that everything has a purpose. Can anything be substituted for something else, or something already at home?
buttermilk (not substituting, want real thing for recipe and husband requested buttermilk potato bread)
tri-tip veg ? (carrots if nothing is available for $1/lb)
more masa (only one night of tacos, try to find different bread option for lunch burritos)
ravioli (can wait until later in the month)
sour cream (nix this, use yogurt instead since already buying it)
vanilla flavoring (can use juice in pantry for now)
8. Separate the list according to the store and shop for all non-perishables. Shop for perishables that cover the next 7-10 days. Make separate lists for weeks 2, 3 and 4, as necessary with what’s left on the list.
And that’s how I do it! Some months are easier than others. Sometimes there’s tons of food in the house and other times there seems to be none. I know I’ve already said it, but it bears repeating:
This takes practice.
The first month may be rough, but you’ll make it through. Write down what worked and what didn’t and keep that in mind when you plan the next month.
Some people find planning for one month to be too overwhelming – that’s fine too. I plan for the month because that’s what works for us. There is also the method of planning and shopping for seven meals, then choosing the day/night of from that list. That works for some, but since there always seems to be something going on around here, planning every meal works best for me. You need to do what works best for you!