Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Menu Planning 101 with Bloom Guest Amanda

As promised, Amanda on menu planning. Prepare to be inspired:

Growing up, my mom would always exhaustedly ask, “What should we have for dinner?” You could hear the weariness in her voice, and it wasn’t until I had a family of my own that I completely understood her reaction to the task of getting dinner on the table. When I was pregnant with my first, I think I fixed the same Chicken Enchilada Casserole twice a week, just because my pregnant brain couldn’t conjure up anything different. Believe me—that got REALLY old. Somewhere between pregnancies 3 and 4, I’d had it with cooking altogether, but there’s no way we could afford to have Mr. Applebee fixing our meals every night. I decided to get myself organized, and that’s when my obsession with meal planning began.

Hopefully some of these tips I share with you will help you in your efforts to save time, energy, money, and let’s face it—SANITY—as we strive to nourish our families physically just as we do spiritually and emotionally.

1. CREATE A MASTER LIST
Have you ever had this happen to you? You’re trying to figure out what to make for dinner, when all of a sudden something comes to mind and you think, “Wow! We haven’t had that in forever! Why didn’t I think of that before?” And then, of course you forget about it for another 6 months. I spent an afternoon writing down every single main dish we enjoy eating. Sounds daunting, but it’s not. I divided them into categories: Chicken, Seafood, Beef, Pork, and Vegetarian. Now when I go to make my menu, all I have to do is look at my list (which gets added to as I find new recipes we like) and I have an entire directory of meals and a variety to choose from instead of trying to recall the cache of meal ideas somewhere in the deep recesses of my mind.

2. LOOK THROUGH ADS
Why give away your money buying things that aren’t on sale, when EVERY product goes on sale at one time or another? (I believe it’s every 3 or 4 months.) In my area there’s a great website called grocerysmarts.com. After entering your area’s password, it will actually pull up every item listed in every ad for every store in the area, plus show you what coupons are available for that item. It really is brilliant. I know there are other websites out there similar to this, but this is the one I use here in Northern Utah. So, now I quickly go through and click on the ones that have the biggest savings and, referring to my Master List, proceed to make a menu off those items. The beauty of getting ads from all stores is that there are a couple of stores, like Albertson’s and Walmart that do price-matching, so you don’t have to drag your kids to 14 different places to get your great deals, only to have that offset by the money you’d spend on gas.

3. COOK IT ONCE, USE IT TWICE
I make sure when I’m planning my menu to include things that can be used twice. For example, if we’re grilling chicken breasts, I’ll cook up some extras so that I can use the cooked chicken in another recipe later on. Likewise, with a Sunday Roast or Roasted Chicken, I always buy them bigger so I have enough meat leftover to make Shredded Beef Burritos or Kentucky Hot Browns the next day. I plan to use my leftovers so they don’t get lost in the back of the fridge where they’re no longer recognizable. This same concept can be used when prepping veggies. If you’re chopping up a bunch of them for a soup, do twice as much and store them in zippies in the fridge. Along these same lines (and like an earlier BLOOM post), doubling a meal to freeze one for later use is super easy and time saving. And really, who couldn’t use that extra time for some snuggle & story time with your little ones?

4. PLAN IT OUT
Whether you shop weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly, make sure you’re making your grocery list off the menu you’ve planned. Because we live on a variable income, we can’t count on paychecks every 2 weeks. I plan my menus and shop monthly, with added trips to the market at the end of the month for fresher items if funds allow. Otherwise, we supplement with canned & bottled food. Using my menu to shop assures that I can create meals for my family without worrying that I’m missing ingredients.

5. BE FLEXIBLE
You can’t always predict what kind of day you’re going to have, or what kind of food you’ll be in the mood for. Because of this, I’ll sometimes choose to prepare something different than what was planned, but I always swap it out for another meal on my menu. This relieves a lot of stress if unexpected things come up during your day. For this reason, I don’t plan for every meal to be gourmet & take all afternoon to create. I try to keep a good balance between easy to prepare & get to the table (the slow cooker & freezer are your friends!) and more complicated dishes that push you to try new techniques & create exciting dishes for your family.

6. GET THE KIDS INVOLVED
My children each have a night assigned to them where they are responsible to help with dinner, and this begins at its inception. As I’m planning my menu, the kids get to choose what meals they want to make on their nights. You would not believe the pride that exudes from each of my girls as they serve the meal that they decided on and helped to create! I can’t tell you what a precious feeling it is to hear your children praising and thanking their sibling for a delicious meal. Your heart will SOAR!

This is a taste of what works for me. I know not everyone can stand the uber-planning that goes into my meals every month, but if there’s one thing that makes it all work, it’s the Master List. If for nothing other than being able to reference it, decide what ingredients you have on hand, and get a meal on the table, it’s such a huge help. It’s also great for planning food storage. Pick out 7 or 14 or even 21 different meals that have ingredients that would store easily and you’ve got a great start on getting a supply of food for your pantry or long-term storage. I always buy enough ingredients for an extra meal or two each time I shop. I just can’t say enough about what it means to have food on hand when you really need it.

Now it’s your turn. What things have worked for you as you feed your family? `

9 comments:

Astyn said...

Very helpful tips. I really like the idea of letting your children be totally in charge once a week. Once my children are older than 2, I will put that in my plan. I love the master list. I need one of my own.

Josie said...

My mom used to make all of us do dinner once a week when we kids as well, and as a result my brothers and myself left home with the ability to cook for ourselves. Which is a shockingly diminishing skill amoung our generation. Good for you!

Melanie said...

Thanks for the ideas. I also try to have my husband cook one night a week. He enjoys cooking more than I do and is much more adventurous with recipes, so it's a win-win situation.

Jessica said...

I like the idea of having your kids help once a week with cooking. I put my master meal list in an excel file, with a column for the recipe name, meal type, where the recipe can be found, and main ingredients. I like to put the link in there to recipes I have found online, and I can organize and sort it different ways depending on what type of recipe I am looking for.

Jen said...

Jonesy, I want to be you when I grow up. :)

Honey said...

This is wonderful! Thanks, Amanda!

Carissa Rasmussen said...

it's just me and my husband so it's hard to buy in bulk without things going to waste, but still get the best price. I buy meat only when it's on sale and then I cook it and freeze it in serving size baggies (i.e. 1 cup each) so when I have stuff for chicken enchiladas I can throw the bag in the microwave for 30 seconds and voila I have chicken that will taste like it was slow roasted in the crock-pot with savory spices, because it was!

Same with hamburger.

I only buy chops and steaks when they are on sale and then I use them fresh as I hate a defrosted steak:)

Also, since I don't use a whole bunch of celery,(or parsley, cilantro, or even olives) but it is waay more cost effective to buy a bag or bunch, I chop them up and freeze them so anytime I need some celery flavor I just defrost for 30 seconds and I have celery for soup, or crockpot or whatever. (Obviously frozen fresh food doesn't really work as fresh food again...so I make sure to eat up as much of it fresh before I freeze it)

This way i also always have ingredients on hand for impromptu meals and I feel like I don't have to plan as much, like if we decide we want pizza, I have all the stuff.

My mom taught me this trick and as a mother of 8, she always had to have dinners ready in a short time and couldn't always count on planning time. I think she could prepare a gourmet meal the quickest of anyone I knew because she would just whip everything out of the freezer.

She also made use of a good sized food storage (like a mini grocery store) good to be prepared not only for dinner but for any other impending emergency!

Melissa said...

Oh how I love this. I'm an organization nut and you are speaking my language Amanda. :D I have my master list on index cards. I write the "menu" on the front, i.e. BBQ Chicken, Mashed Potatoes, Broccoli, Salad, Rolls, and then on the back of the card, I make a list of all items that would need to be purchased at the grocery store. That way when I meal plan, I pull the cards out that I want for the meals that week, and then I can turn them over and make my grocery list. Remembering all the items I need is sometimes killer, so I love not having to think about that when I'm making my list. Thanks for all the great ideas!

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