And now, a little delayed, welcome to the last installment of this mini Meal Planning series! Last week we chatted about coming up with a meal plan (we plan one month at a time) and grocery shopping/food prep. Today, we're diving into how we execute our meal plan and actually do the cooking. It may seem like a no-brainer...you cook the meal, right? But we have a few simple tips to share that make dinner time run much more smoothly around here!
Even though we plan out a full month of meals, when it comes to the shopping and the cooking, we take just one week at a time. For awhile my go-to method was to pull all of the recipes for the week's meals and place them in a pocket folder on the counter. My monthly meal plan was on one side of the folder and my recipes for the week on the other. I never had to go searching for the recipe come mealtime, and I had everything I needed for the week in one spot.
I loved this, and still recommend it as a great option, but my laziness got the better of me. I loved having the recipes handy, but didn't love pulling them out and having to put them back each week. Mostly because my recipes were spread between a pile of printed papers, a recipe box and an old recipe binder.
As I starting writing this last post last week, I figured it was time to get my recipes mess in order. I've had the supplies to do it for months and have simply been procrastinating. Here's what I used:
And this. Giant pile o' recipes.....
First, I did a big purge of my recipes. Just like any other area of our home, our recipe stash can collect a lot of "clutter" over time, so a regular cleaning out of recipes is never a bad idea. Once I had weeded out those recipes we didn't necessarily care for, never make, or simply aren't very good for us (desserts exempt!), it was time to organize!
The categories in other recipe books or boxes never seemed to fit exactly what I needed. I was able to create the categories I wanted with these dividers and can easily change things up if needed.
I had two packs of these larger dividers with pockets and they proved to be an even better solution! I'm in the process of transferring most of my recipe cards over to full size pages, so the pockets were the perfect spot to corral the remaining cards. (I had planned to use those small divided protectors in the first picture for this, and still might if the pockets get too bulky).
I use allrecipes.com quite a bit and my family trades good recipes we discover via email. I like to print these off and that's how that pile above came to be. The sheet protectors are perfect for these....you can make notes with a dry erase pen and they wipe clean of any cooking spills.
And because I'm a bit OCD and a color-coding dork, I made up a quick recipe template that I can use to transfer any future recipes I find on the web, get through email, or even hand copy from my recipe cards.
Each sheet has a spot for the name of the dish, ingredients, directions, and notes. There are five colors and each tab/category in the binder gets it's own color. You are welcome to download them for yourself too.
I keep extra blank sheets in the pocket on the front cover of the binder.
The last part was coming up with a way to identify our recipes for the week without pulling them out of the binder. Enter super cute arrow sticky notes found in the new gift section at Target (right by the greeting cards...seriously, I love every single thing on that shelf). Now at the start of each week, I look at our meal plan and move my daily stickies to the corresponding recipe. Obviously, this Chicken Parm recipe has seen a lot of action. There are a bunch of notes and additional ingredients on the bottom half :)
Everything in one spot and easy to find.
Seriously, why did it take me so long to do this?? I may keep my recipe box for those special recipes we only use for holidays and a couple times a year, but the binder is definitely an upgrade in our kitchen!
1. Check the menu the night before and pull out anything from the freezer that needs to thaw. Whenever we abandon meal planning, I feel like I'm always trying to thaw meat an hour before dinner time. No bueno.
2. Set out dry/non-perishable ingredients. In the morning or the night before I'll pull out any ingredients for that day's meal that don't need to be refrigerated and set them out on the counter. I also set out my pan/cutting board/utensils. It's a small thing but totally helps when it's time to actually cook. Half the time I'm dodging kids or trying not to step on a land mine (i.e. lego), so the less running around the better. And the more likely I am to actually cook the meal if things are already out at the ready.
3. Just like we chop fruit and veggies ahead of time, sometimes I'll do a little pre-cooking earlier in the day (or if you work, the night before). At lunch, I may brown/cook the meat for our spaghetti sauce, shred the chicken for a soup, etc.
4. The freezer can be your best friend. If you have the garage space, I would recommend getting an extra freezer. It allows us to cook meals when it's convenient for our schedule and freeze for another time, and to buy foods in bulk and therefore at less cost.
I found meal planning the hardest when I was single or even just cooking for two. Meal portions were always way more than we needed and I could never get through leftovers fast enough. It was easier to just grab something quick and easy, which usually meant less healthy. So if you're in this boat, go ahead and cook a full meal. Set aside half of it right away and freeze it for another night.
5. Work as a team. If you have a partner in crime, play on each other's strengths. James really enjoys cooking (especially grilling). But for the longest time I felt bad asking him to help with the meal prep as soon as he walked in the door...until we talked about it. He said cooking dinner is actually relaxing for him and helps him to unwind. But gathering all the things we need for the meal can be stressful for him and takes time, so it helps if I follow tip #2 and have everything set out and ready to go.
Knowing that he likes to cook, I'll also plan meals that involve more prep and time for the weekends when we can cook together.
And that about wraps it up! Everyone will tackle this meal planning giant a different way, but hopefully you've found some tips throughout this mini-series that will help you get started or improve what you already have in place. Now it's time to hear from you! What are your best tips for meal planning? How do you tackle the challenges of your home dynamics? Let's spread the meal planning wisdom love :)