Here’s the second post in my Meal Planning that Works series. This one describes my method of meal planning. You can use it and customize your meal plans completely for your family.
If you missed the first post, you can click here to read the background on how I came to land on this type of meal planning.
Once you have this methodology, you’ll have the tools to go to town and meal plan your heart out, if it seems like something that would work for you. Truly, it’s not nearly as much work as my original venture into (extreme) meal planning! It’s not so bad once you’ve got a few weeks planned, and you’re used to doing – getting started was definitely the hardest part for me!
Here’s what I do:
1. Gather recipes. My trial and error has found that gathering between 16 and 24 main-dish recipes is about right – I do four weeks of planning at once. Fewer dishes and you don’t get the benefit of getting things done for several weeks in one go; more and you end up overwhelmed (and it takes too long). I make sure my recipes fit into one of three categories and annotate them as such. These categories are “slow cooker (SC),” “make ahead (MA),” and “Quickes (Q).” The make ahead items are not really make ahead – they are items I can freeze one of – things like lasagna fit into this category. Quickies are meals that are quick – spaghetti with jar sauce, scrambled eggs with fruit and toast, grill cheese with (store-bought) tomato soup – you get the picture. Slow cooker – um, stuff I can make in the slow cooker/crock pot – I didn’t need to explain that, did I? Now, if something doesn’t fit into any of the categories, I call it Make Ahead and move on. I just won’t be making any of it ahead (and I’ll probably have to plan to spend more time in the kitchen that day).
2. Split recipes into groups. I group kind of like a cookbook: chicken, beef, fish/seafood, pork, vegetarian. If I’ve got sides or desserts or appetizers (that’s one I’ve yet to undertake, but that shouldn’t hold you back!), I group them as “sides” or “desserts” and so on – you get the idea.
3. Create Menus. Now I start working through the list. I usually have four weeks that I’m trying to plan. I make four columns. I usually work in excel (but paper and pencil works just fine – the advantage of excel is that I reprint my grocery lists when I make those). I usually start by assigning chicken dishes across weeks – one in week one, one in week two, one in week three, etc. Then I move through the items with the idea that I don’t want 3 beef dishes in one week and then 3 fish dishes in the next one. I also try to spread the types of meals into each week evenly, so a couple slow cooker meals, a couple quickes, and a make ahead, maybe. Then I add sides to dishes that need them. Many meals don’t need them – slow cooker meals are often an “all in one” dish. Some just need something simple, like a salad. I make weeks with 4 to 6 dinners planned (more on why 4 to 6 later).
4. Recipe cards. This is the most time-consuming part of the process, but I find that if I simply write down where I can find the recipe, that’s enough to make me less likely to follow through on the day and actually make it. So, I put each recipe right in a binder with the menu. If you have a scanner or copier at your disposal or if you get your recipes online, scan, copy or print them, by all means! I usually just type them out (then I can tweak them when I want to). I put them into a three ring binder with the menu in front for the week, and then the recipes (I find all 4-6 can fit on one page front and back most times). I also suggest using those clear sheet protectors for every page. Then you don’t have to worry while you’re cooking about splashes and so on. Also, you can make a few copies of the the shopping list and slide it in the pocket with the menu. That way you can re-use your week again in a few months with ZERO prep work.
5. Shopping lists. I then use the recipes’ ingredients sections to make a shopping list. My shopping lists are done by section in the grocery store, so it’s easy to shop and get in and out of the store more quickly. With the exception of olive oil, salt and pepper (which I always keep on hand), I list everything I need for a recipe, down to that 1/4 c. butter and the 1/2 tsp cumin. Nothing is more frustrating than getting to the point where you’ve put everything together and you find out you’re out of the chili powder you need for your chili!
So all that is all the prep work stage. It might seem like a lot, but since you can reuse your weeks that you create over an over without ever doing more prep work (just grab your shopping list and go), it’s not so bad!
When it’s time to get rolling here’s what I do:
6. Shop at home. I grab my shopping list for whichever week I want to use and start looking in my pantry, cabinets, fridge, and freezer to see if I have any of the listed ingredients on hand and cross them off (or reduce the # needed).
7. Shop at the store. This is pretty self-explanatory, no?
8. Choose which meals to make each day (I do this semi-on-the-fly). I know I want a slow cooker meal for Thursdays, when we have dance classes and get home at 6pm – having that meal ready to dish up is beyond fantastic. Other than that, I just pick which items fit which days in my week best.
So there it is. This looks so long and drawn out, but it’s not really. Really!
Now, I mentioned I’d say more about the 4 to 6 meals per week, right? Well, here’s why it varies: some weeks are “stock-up” weeks and some are “evensies” and some are “use-up” weeks. What I do is build into this planning some freezer meals. Slow cooker meals? I double down just about every time. Make ahead meals? Double down! What I mean is, I prep two meals at once and freeze one and we have the other one for dinner. So, a slow cooker chili means I’ll brown twice as much ground beef, split it between the crock pot and a ziploc. Every thing I add to the crock pot, I add the same to the ziploc. When I’m done, I label the ziploc with “Chili con Carne” and the date I made it, any additional ingredients needed (e.g., “1 tbsp chopped fresh cilantro – add before serving”), and how to cook (e.g., “SC – 8 hrs low”). It goes into the freezer (as flat as I can spread it and with as little air left in the bag as possible. AND I write in on my dry-erase freezer inventory sheet (name, date, SC). Make aheads – same thing. So, when I make my shopping lists I also include twice as many ingredients for each of these bad boys.
On a week with six meals, I am likely to double-down and freeze between 1 and 3 meals. The seventh day? Well, you could do left-overs, but we usually have one day when take-out or going out just seems to be what works best (but now we ENJOY it, since it’s only once a week). A week with five meals is likely to be an “evensies” week – it’s planned that I will use up one of the freezer meals I have already put away (whichever one I feel like) and I will likely only freeze one (maybe two). A four day week is a “use up” week. The plan is to use two freezer meals that week. I probably wouldn’t freeze any… maybe one, in a week like that. Just remember to check if there are any needed ingredients or sides to add to the shopping list for the freezer meals you’ll be using.
So far, I’ve been doing mostly my six day plans, since I’m stocking up at this point in the cycle, but soon I’ll have to switch to 5 day or 4 day plans, because the freezer will be too full!
Special Weeks: I have already started making “special” weeks and you can, too. I like some weeks to have a theme. One great idea is making an entire week (or 4) of “fall” or “spring” or whatever season recipes, using things that are abundant during the season (so apples, squash, and so on in fall, for example). This is not only yummy, but economical and generally good practice!
Quickie meals: these are ones you already rely on – ones you probably don’t need a recipe for – include them each week. They’ll give you at least a couple nights where you feel completely easy in the kitchen. In addition to spaghetti, grill cheese, and eggs, I’ve got quesadillas, carbonara, macaroni and cheese, pancakes with fruit, and western omelets as some of my quickies. You pick the meals you turn to in a pinch. It’s nice to have them for an evening when that baked ziti make-ahead you original intended to put together no longer feels do-able and you can just make your ziti the next day!
Special dietary needs: This method works great for special diets. I used a low-glycemic cook book and filled four weeks quickly and easily. You’re vegetarian? This method can work. You need gluten free? You can do this! You’re picking the recipes, so you put the ones you like in the plan.
Busy times: You can stock up for busy and stressful times. For us, October is always nuts. This year is no different. The calendar is already insane. So, I spent September stocking our freezer with make-ahead meals and slow-cooker prepped freezer bags. It is exactly what we needed to be doing! Now, I can pick the easier 4-day week menus and rely more on things that just need to be dumped into the crock pot or thawed and thrown in the oven. Phew! This is working like a charm! I feel less flipped out about October already… well, a little less flipped out! I plan on stocking up through November for the crazy crunch-time before the holidays, too.
Freezer meal bonus: You have pre-made meals on hand for when you need them for someone else. Like, when you find out someone you know is having surgery or is having a rough time and would appreciate an easy meal – you can just grab one to take to them.
Not just for dinner: You can do this with cookies, cakes, breads, biscuits, too. For example, we scoop individual cookie balls (with a cookie scoop) and flash freeze them on a sheet pan, then put them in a ziploc and we have bake-when-you-want cookies (way cheaper and so much better than the store bought kind) – especially wonderful during the holiday season. You can bake straight from frozen – just add 2-4 minutes to the original time in the recipe. AND all your cookies will be baked fresh – no worries about making them three weeks ahead of time and trying to keep them tasty. We’ve done this for a few years now and it is FANTASTIC!
Pinterest fan?: I am! And I’ve found this is an EXCELLENT way to incorporate all those recipes I pinned. Just be prepared to tweak a week if one of the recipes isn’t as delectable as it appeared to be when you pinned it! So far, I have had great success with my pinned recipes.
Once and done: Once your binder has a number of weeks in it, you don’t need to meal plan any more, just pick a week and go with it. Doesn’t get much easier!
Originally, I had thought I couldn’t share a plan with you since almost all of my recipes are from books and such. It seemed awfully wrong to reprint them verbatim, um, ‘cuz it is wrong. BUT, I decided to go ahead and plan a week I could share!
So, the third and final post in this series is coming later this week and it is a ONE WEEK MEAL PLAN! Menu, recipes, and a shopping list already prepared for you! Stay tuned!