Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Meal Planning Part 1: The Plan

There are so many different ways to crack the meal planning nut.  I've tried everything from planning out meals a month at a time to flying by the seat of our no-plan-whatsoever pants.  Then there's bulk buying and prepping frozen meals for the week or month, shopping according to sales and planning around the food you've already purchased, and I'm sure a dozen more ways to approach planning meals.   One thing is certain though - when I plan in advance, I save us money and waste less food.

So, after weeks of frantically coming up with our dinner plan for the day around 4pm, it was time to go back to the most effective method for our family:  a monthly meal plan, with a weekly shopping trip.  It takes a little more work up front but saves me tons of time in the long run.

I'll break up how we attack this into a 3-part mini-series this week....the planning, the shopping/prepping, and the actual execution/cooking.  Today I'm sharing how we come up with our meal plan for the month.

First off, why plan a whole month at a time?  Why do that to yourself?

I never even considered planning out meals a whole month in advance until we were at a friend's house for a bocce tournament and I noticed a monthly meal plan on the fridge.  Skeptical, I asked how well she was able to stick to it, and she said that not only do they stick to it but they have for several years.  After trying it myself, there are a few reasons it's now my favorite way to plan our meals too...

1.  A monthly meal plan keeps me from my standard" in-a-pinch" easy meals and keeps my family from enduring the same 7 meal rotation every week.  It's easy for me to get stuck in a rut.

1.  We can plan easy meals for busy days on the calendar and start thinking about meals for any fun events for the month well in advance.  Hello, St. Patty's Day!  I needed time to research the perfect Shepherd's Pie recipe and scour Pinterest for creative Irish inspired dessert recipes...that I may or may not have actually made.

3.  A monthly meal plan makes for less stress when I sit down to plan my grocery lists each week.

4.  I'm overly excited about lists and calendars

So, what does the process actually look like?

Just before the start of the month, I sit down with four things:   

-Our family calendar  
-A blank printed calendar
-Last month's meal plan
-My recipes

I used to do all this in Microsoft Word, but now I print off one of these calendar sheets I purchased from Jen's IHeart Organizing Etsy Shop  Because they're pretty.  And why not use something pretty.

First, I take a look at our family calendar and make note of any holidays or days we might want to do up a special meal.  This month we have St. Patrick's Day, the Mr's birthday, and our anniversary to celebrate.

Then I fill in any standard reoccurring meals.  Friday is pizza and movie night around here, so that one's usually a given.  But our family is also catholic and during the season of Lent, we don't eat meat on Fridays.  I had a few meatless meals from a frozen meal exchange, so I included those for Fridays in March.

Then it's time to crack open the recipe vault (more on that in the next post).  I fill in the remaining days, trying not to repeat meals from the last month.  Unless they are a favorite.  I also identify any days on our family calendar that might be busy or include an evening commitment - I'm sure to jot down an easy meal or crock pot dinner on those days.

During the winter we do more soups/stews and now that the warm weather is finally showing up, we'll be scheduling more meals on the grill.

There have been times I wanted to try out a new recipe every other day and other times I stuck to my comfortable old stand-by's.  Now, I try to schedule a new recipe every week or two.

James usually takes leftovers for lunch the following day, but if I'm planning a meal that I know yields a huge portion, I will either freeze half for another night or schedule a dinner of leftovers later in the week.

When it's done, it looks something like this:

This is not set in stone and there are definitely times we have to shift things around or adjust our plan.  I write it out in pencil (or you could laminate it and go with dry erase) so that I can make quick changes as needed.  Having a plan makes it so much easier when it comes time to make the grocery lists, shop, and actually cook.  All coming up in the next two installments of this mini-series!

 *Anyone else out there a monthly meal planner?  What are your tried and true way to meal plan...or do you just wing it?

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  1. I've tried a variety of meal planning options, too -- with varying degrees of success. :-)

    This month, I did a bulk cooking freezing day with a friend. And instead of assigning meals to days, I just made a list of 20 meals for the month. That way, there's a bit more flexibility for plans throughout the month.

    As we eat them (either frozen or fresh), I cross them off the list. It seems to be working well at curbing excess grocery shopping, and it makes weeknight dinners a bunch easier!

    1. Sounds so worth it! I would love to try a bulk cooking/freezing day sometime!


  2. I do the same as you. A monthly plan and weekly grocery shopping. I usually shop the sale ads for produce for our sides and so on. But we keep it flexible. It's great to know that I have all the ingredients for those meals then if we wanna eat it a different day it doesn't mean a trip to the grocery. This has made a huge difference for our family in terms of saving money at the store! I'm interested to hear how you plan the next two steps too!

    1. I need to be better about shopping those ads! ;)

  3. I don't do a monthly plan. I do a big grocery shop every two weeks and a quick small one every week. I plan about 8-12 meals for that 2 weeks and write the meals down but not all get assigned a particular day. Usually I glance through my list and decide what I want to cook for the day / following day and go from there. I find I like doing it this way as it still keeps it flexible for random invites to inlaws or lunches out and only wanting a small meal in the evenings, or just for days when I'm not keen on anything except something quick and easy. I couldn't stand it if my meal planning was overly rigid. But I do shop with a list and meal ideas and go from there. :)

  4. I am super excited about this series! Meal planning is by far my biggest frustration and guilt inducing thing for me as a wife and a mom. I just this year started the monthly meal plan and am struggling a little with it but overall I love it and love not having to meal plan every single week!

    1. No guilt, Mama! It's been my nemesis too, especially whenever our family dynamic changes (new baby, new work schedule, etc). Whatever efforts you are making to make mealtime better for your family (however small) are not lost on them. There are so many different ways to approach it...hopefully you'll find your groove here soon :)

  5. I LOVE the calendar pages you purchased Jen's shop so cute! Since Brendon is a super picky eater, what I make for dinner is limited, so I do a weekly meal planner. I had bought this cute magnetic dry erase board that has a week calender on it. Each Saturday I go through and plan the meals from the week, write them on my board and stick it on the Fridge.

  6. Great info for a very non-organized meal person like me! I have really been in a rut lately. Maybe your little mini series will give me the push I so need!


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