Meal Planning that Works (for me)! Part two: How to meal plan.

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.

9. Cook!

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!

TIPS:

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!

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Meal Planning that Works (for me)!

Right up front, I’m going to disclose that this post became an absolutely overblown, long-winded, text-heavy tome. Rather than making it one single post, I’m making it a series by splitting it into three separate ones. The first is kind of the background about how I came to my manner of meal planning. So here goes:

Over the past year or more I’ve struggled to come up with some way to actual make dinners work. I have gone in fits and starts:

I’ve tried freezer meals (making many entire meals in one day for future use) – this did not work at all for me – I was grumpy and tired at the end of it all and then we got bored with the same stuff repeatedly. I’m sad to say some items even got wasted. I’m so impressed with how people manage this – for me, finding several hours to really bust a move in the kitchen, let alone time to shop for such an extravaganza makes me feel like I’m drowning.

I’ve tried building blocks in the freezer (this worked reasonably well for me and I did it a couple of times where I spent 4 hours in the kitchen putting together the building blocks, however I was cranky by the end of it and so I changed it up, first, to just doing one of the building blocks at a time – much better! – and now I do one on a smaller scale when I’m already making one of the building block items for dinner – more on that later)

I’ve tried quick meals (20 mins or less) which never seemed to go as quickly as the recipe advertised. Plus I had to have the necessary ingredients and, being disorganized, this was not easy for me. Of course, I have my go-to quickies which I make liberal use of, but actually finding additional quick meal recipes has been less-than-successful thus far.

I’ve tried meal planning to an extreme (down to every breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack, dessert, for me, my kids, my husband – you know, for taking to preschool and work). I thought having everything set would liberate me in that I’d never have to think about it – instead, it bogged me down – it was too much. The menus took hours, then making the associated grocery list took a long time, then shopping for all that stuff was an epic adventure – by the time it came to cooking these meals and prepping the snacks, I wanted nothing to do with any of it!

I’ve tried buying organization. You know those sites that will give you a “week’s worth of recipes, complete with a shopping list.” Yeah, I have tried (free-trial in most cases) several of these with varying degrees of success failure. Inevitably, there was a recipe that I knew none of us would eat or enjoy. Some recipes took too long. Some portions were huge, others were minuscule. I’m not saying this might not be a good option, but for me, it wasn’t meant to be.

But now I’ve hit my stride! I’m almost two months in, with several months of planning already in my back pocket, and things feel great! I’m happy, not cranky. The food is getting eaten. I feel more organized and in-control. We’re saving a lot of money. AND, now it’s October and things are just madness in terms of busy and we’re still eating at home – good, yummy, home-cooked, real meals – almost every night. When something works even in the insanely manic times, I know it’s working completely.

Try enough different things and eventually something fits, I guess… I’m just really, really, sloooooow at getting there.

So, here’s what works for me: DINNER PLANNING.

Let me repeat that. This is meal planning for dinner only.

Here’s why I only plan dinners:

Breakfast: I eat one of three things for breakfast 98% of the time: oatmeal, yogurt, green monster smoothie. As oatmeal can keep in the pantry and add-ins are whatever we have (including frozen berries), yogurt is staple in my fridge (see add-ins for oatmeal), and green monster smoothies in my house are banana (always have) + spinach or kale (frozen) + whatever else (peanut butter or berries or whatever) + some other stuff (yogurt and/or chia seeds and/or flax seeds and/or vanilla extract), there’s really no need to plan for that, per se. Similarly, the kids eat oatmeal nearly every day. And the husband takes yogurt cups to work, so as long as I have some basic bits and pieces, we’re good for breakfast.

Lunch: The kids get packed lunches. I basically need supplies for those and mix and match whatever I have. These supplies include oatmeal/fruit bars, apple sauce, fruit, yogurt, cheese sticks, stuff for sammies (bread, sunbutter, jam, whipped cream cheese, cheese slices), fruit-in-juice cups, and raisins – you get the idea. I just make sure I have a variety of these things on hand an build lunch from there. My husband doesn’t let me pack him a lunch, so I am off the hook for that one. I eat leftovers or something like a sandwich and a banana (from the kids’ lunch stash) if there are no leftovers going that day.

Snacks: The kids get stuff from the lunch stash. I’ve stopped snacking and drink water or tea. If I’m desperately hungry, I hit the lunch stash – raisins are great!

So really, that leaves dinners. And since the Breakfast and Lunch stuff is working already, why “fix” what ain’t broke?

Dinner was most definitely ‘broke’… and driving us broke. Okay, not really, but we had been spending waaaay more money than we wanted to and more than is reasonable on dinners in restaurants and take-out. Plus we were bored with going out! I mean really, we ate out entirely too often. But most of all, dinner was a massive stressor for me. I mean, I had the full-on guilt going: guilt about buying food that ended up wasted because I didn’t plan well. Guilt about spending money on take out and restaurant meals we didn’t really enjoy. Guilt about feeding my family not so healthy take out and restaurant food. Guilt for being disorganized. Guilt cycle gone mad! And now that is all gone!

Tomorrow, I’ll share my second post in this series. I’ll dive into the nitty gritty of my methodology. This will give you the tools to do the same kind of meal planning I do. (Click here for the next post.)

It truly has made my busy months (specifically, late September and October) go so much more smoothly (thus far) this year than it has previously. My stress levels are way down, too! Stay tuned for the next two posts!

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Owl Dress

Holy crow! I haven’t posted in for.ev.er. As usual, fall is kicking my butt. However, I am handling dinners better this fall than last (post forthcoming on that one) and I’m feeling more organized for my daughter’s birthday this year than last (phew!) and we are definitely mixing fun in with all the crazy-busy this time around (yay!). Plus, I’m in love with the weather in Raleigh this time of year!

Last year I bought three kind of plain dresses off the clearance rack at (where else?) Target for my girly-swirly. They were intended for this year or next (as I bought sizes up from where she was). I do this a lot. I like getting a dress for $3.74 because I know she is only going to wear the heck out of it and for under $4, I feel less stressed when I pick her up from preschool and she’s covered in glop from whatever project they did that day.

Dresses, screaming for pizzazzery

Dresses, screaming for pizzazzery

 

But, I bought these dresses with a very specific idea in mind, beyond the zen-mommy-esque-ness they’d inspire for a split second. They were so plain, I just couldn’t wait to spiffy them up with some kind of pizzazzery. (Oh yes, when I get overly busy, I tend to also get creative with my verbiage.)

Dress with owl and stars

Dress with owl and stars – it’s hard to see the stitching that adds texture on the branch, leaves, owl, and wings, but it’s there!

I’ve only managed to make one of the three all purdy so far – the blue one just spoke to me – it said, “put an owl on me.” So I did. What was involved? Felt, embroidery thread, and glitter star buttons (picked up on one of my clearance bin dives at Michael’s for under a buck), also several needle-pricks were added, as I apparently like to stab myself while attempting embroidery-like stitching. I googled “owl” and looked at some images of owls then just free-handed cutting out an owl-shaped piece of felt and some wings. I put a bit of an old (woven) cotton shirt on the underside of the dress to keep the stitching on the felt and the buttons from pulling through on the jersey knit dress.

Decked out in her owl dress.

Decked out in her owl dress.

My little lovely enjoyed wearing it to preschool this week… and it survived the wash afterward, so I’m pleased!

Now I just have two more dresses to go!

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My dog is SO dumb

I love my dog. He is lovely and cuddly. He makes weird snorting sounds and snores so loudly I can hear him with the door closed and on a separate floor of my home. He’s pretty awesome. But he is not smart.

My dog is nine years old. When he came to live with us as a puppy, we already had our two kitties (they are fourteen and litter mates). At the time, the dog weighed less than 2 lbs and each cat weighed around 17 lbs. He didn’t seem to think this should be of any consequence. Now all three are approximately the same size, but the dog’s muscular build (he’s a Boston) means he is about 23 lbs – slightly heavier than an individual cat.

Our cats have very different personalities. One tolerates and even seems to enjoy the company of the dog at times. The other employs the “I’m gonna go psycho crazy if you come near me” tactic (this is reserved for the dog – people never get psycho-kitty treatment). There is growling, howling, hissing, and if that fails, there are claws. The dog never learns his lesson.

His serious side.

His serious side. Dapper dog. 

This past week, while my husband was off on a business trip to Canada (and good and late at night – just as I was going to bed, to boot), the dog engaged the cat over who knows what. I believe it may have been that the cat was sitting on the sofa and the dog also wanted to be there. And of course the cat thought that the *entire* sofa belonged to him due to the fact that he was already on it and he is a cat and the dog did not deserve to even look at the sofa because he is a dog and, of course, the dog did not understand this point of view. Nor did he understand the subsequent low growl-turned-howl-at-the-end the cat emitted. Nor the hissing. At this point I knew trouble was coming, but the cat was doing his “I’m psycho” routine already, with claws out, literally.

As usual, the dog got smacked down, taking claws to the face. He usually has a bloodied cheek or something after such an encounter. But unfortunately, this time one of the cat’s claws managed to sink into eyeball.

Yes, you read right. EyeBALL. Ugh!

I saw blood in the white of his eye – it was clear where it was bleeding from – a really dark red puncture in the white of his left eye. Poor dog. Oddly, he didn’t seem all that bothered. No whimpering or crying (he’s hard as nails, my dog is!). This was a good thing because I was fairly freaked out and his being calm helped me stay calm(er). I consulted two vets and both assured me I needed to bring him in right away and not wait until morning because of the risk of infection.

I shot this photo just hours before the incident... that's the psycho-kitty behind him.

I shot this photo just hours before the incident… that’s the psycho-kitty behind him.

I really, really didn’t want to wake the kids up at 11:45pm for a ride to the vet. And so I went out my front door to see if any neighbors had lights on. One unlucky neighbor did, and so she got a knock on the door. She is so awesome and generous and she immediately came over so I could take the dog to the emergency vet.

psycho-kitteh!

psycho-kitteh! 

My lovely, life-saver of a neighbor got to go home at about 1:30am, which is when I returned from the vet, dog in tow. He was lucky – no corneal involvement – so all he got was a bunch of antibiotics to stave off infection. Eye drops 4 times a day and pills twice a day.

My happy, smiley, dopey doggy.

My happy, smiley, dopey doggy.

Dog seems happy enough and his eye seems to be healing well – we take him back in for a check up this week. But, he will not leave the cats alone. Hence, I’ve been on referee duty each day, breaking up inter-species tensions before things get out of hand. He has to be really thick if a claw in the eyeball doesn’t send the message home, right?! He’s such a lovely doggy, though, I think he just can’t help wanting to be close to the cat, even if the cat hates him. In some ways, I’m kind of surprised he hasn’t gotten hurt in the past given his proclivity for cat-scuffles and his bug-eyed physicality. I’m so glad he gets to keep his eyes and that he’s OK – I’ll happily maintain my referee duties indefinitely.

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Toddler Room Updated

My son finally graduated to a ‘big boy bed’ about a month ago. Today we finally got around to the transformation of his nursery into his ‘big boy room.’ I’ve been pinning (on pinterest, of course) ideas since last summer (yes, really). Here’s the before:

Toddler Room "Before"

Toddler Room “Before”

Another look at the "before"

Another look at the “before”

I love outdoor-inspired spaces. When my daughter got her ‘big girl room’ almost three years ago, we chose a garden inspiration for her space – flowers, butterflies, leaves, and walls the color of clear, blue skies. For my son’s room, we didn’t really want to change the light green wall color (pure laziness, I’ll admit), so we didn’t fight it and decided on a camping inspiration.

Camping inspired toddler room: "after"

Camping inspired toddler room: “after”

We chose a large photo mural as the main way to create the camping feel (yes, it’s what you think – channeling the 70s!). By the way, if you choose to put up a wallpaper mural, skip the powdered paste that comes with it – it does not actually work very well – and buy a tub of Roman’s Pro 880. It seriously took longer to stick up the first 2 panels with the rubbish that came with it than to do the other 6 using the good paste. Plus, we were crazy stressed with the first two and the rest was  relatively stress-free.

Floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall mural of woods

Floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall mural of woods

Since the mural was too tall for our room (9 ft high, but we have 8 ft ceilings), we had to trim it. Mostly we trimmed the top, since cutting off the ground just seemed a bit odd (trees growing out of nowhere). The mural is also too short, width-wise, for our room (12.5 ft for a 13 ft room). To resolve this, we centered the mural when we put it up and added two 3.25 inch bull-nose moldings (they’re meant to be base boards, I believe), which we painted the same color as our son’s furniture. We used Rustoleum’s Designer Color Spray Paint in Espresso – it matches the wood finish of the bed very nicely.

Camping bedroom - the tent, campfire, chair, and log pillows!

Camping bedroom – the tent, campfire, chair, and log pillows!

 

Since he’s two, we added dinosaur bedding (yes, we relaxed the camping idea so that we could put the bedding he wanted in there – why not find some dinos in his own personal camping fantasy?) – the bedding is from Target. We also picked up the coordinating curtains (not yet hung) and a dino night light while we were in the aisle. In addition, his room features an outdoor chair (picked up during the summer clearance for less than $5), a Little Tikes tent set with light-up fire, a Coleman LED mini-lantern, and very cool log pillows (also from Target – these came from the section for kitting out dorm rooms). We’re so pleased with how it all turned out.

Playing in the tent

Playing in the tent

We’ve still got a few more details to see to, specifically the curtains, but my son seems to be super-happy with his “woods” as he calls it. Downside: it took 1.5 hours for him to finally make his way to the land of nod this evening, as he was too busy camping out to sleep.

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Two Easy Dinners

I like leftovers. Most of the time. Sometimes they feel dauntingly boring. But usually, I welcome the easy meal – no planning, no thinking, just reheating. Often, I enjoyed the food the first night, so an encore is just fine by me. However, I always have admired people who manage to take leftovers and ingeniously, seemingly magically, produce a different meal from them.

That’s what I tried to do this week. A trip to the grocery revealed a sale on London Broil. Right, that’s a big chunk of meat for the two of us plus the little munchkins – they still don’t eat all that much, usually. I picked up about 1.75 lbs of London Broil (but any similar cut would work), which happened to be the smallest they had.

At home, I dumped the meat, unceremoniously, into my slow cooker. I’ve long since given up on pre-browning meats as I find there is rarely much difference. But if you like to pre-brown, have at it. I like saving a step. I salted and peppered my chunk of meat, flipped it, and did the same to the other side.

Then, I added half a bag of baby carrots, two ribs of celery, and two peeled potatoes, cut into large chunks. In went two bay leafs, a squirt of dijon mustard, a splash of balsamic, a splash of Worcestershire sauce, a squeeze from my honey bear, and enough water to just cover the mess.

On went the lid to the Crock Pot and I dialed it to low, where it sat for 8 hours until it was dinner time. How much do I love that I don’t have to cook after at the end of the day if I’m using a slow cooker? A lot. A whole, stinkin’ lot.

Dinner was delicious and all in one. We each had plenty of veggies and I cut up half the meat for that dinner (it was super tender and even my daughter, who often turns her nose up at steak and such, ate it quite happily). I served it au-jus style, with just a bit of the cooking broth on top.

The broth and remaining meat were put away for another night.

Dinner tonight: leftovers with a twist: Beef Stroganoff-ish. This is my version and not really exactly sticking to any recipe, but rather a dish inspired by a foggy memory of some version of stroganoff I’d had in the past. But it tasted good!

I started by getting a pot of water over high heat to bring to the boil. Meanwhile, in a pan, I melted about a tablespoon of butter over medium-high heat. One onion, halved and sliced went into the pan next, with some salt and pepper. It was cooked until lightly browned.

Meanwhile, I cleaned and sliced about 6-8 oz of baby portabello mushrooms (although I am sure white mushrooms would work, too). As soon as the onions were golden, I added the mushrooms and another tablespoon of butter to the pan. I continued to cook the onions and mushrooms and added a sprinkling of garlic powder. Of course, garlic would be great, but I didn’t have any on hand and the store’s garlic had sprouted by, oh, 5 or 6 inches, so I skipped them.

When the water boiled, I added egg noodles. A few handfuls. Whatever you imagine is ‘right’ for the size appetites in your home. Those bad boys cook in 7 minutes, so we were looking good to finish up shortly.

Once the mushrooms were looking like they were softened, I added a tablespoon or two of cornstarch to the cold juice from last night’s slow cooker meal and whisked it in. The broth went down over the onions and mushrooms and I brought it up to a simmer. Meanwhile, I cut the remaining London Broil into chunks and added them to the pan.

When the timer said the noodles were done, I drained them. Then I removed the pan of stroganoff from the burner (mine had been on plenty long to simmer the gravy and the beef so they were fully reheated – if yours need more time, the noodles will be fine for a few minutes in the strainer). Into the gravy went a nice dollop of sour cream – between 1/3 and 1/2 cup – stirred up to combine.

Noodles were topped with the “Stroganoff-ish” mixture and served. It was a very hearty meal. It also felt like a very different meal from the slow cooker meat-and-veg affair from the other night.

In true MamaNut fashion, I did not think to snap any photos. I have to get used to taking pictures of my everyday life! What’s more, I now wish I’d bought a second London Broil to set up as a freezer meal. Live and learn! Here are my recipes (feel free to wing it as that’s what I did):

Slow Cooker London Broil and Veggies
serves 4 plus leftovers for second recipe, following

1 x 1.5-2 lb London Broil or similar cut

2 large potatoes, peeled and cut into large chunks

2 ribs of celery, washed and cut in large chunks

1/2 small bag of baby carrots

2 tbsp dijon mustard

2 tbsp honey

2 tbsp Worcestershire sauce

1 tbsp balsamic vinegar

2 bay leaves

salt and pepper to taste

dash of Mrs Dash Original (1-2 tbsp)

Instructions: Put all items into the slow cooker and add enough water to just cover the meat and veggies – it’s okay if some are just barely sticking out. Cook on low for 8 hours. Always check your meat is cooked through. Serve all veggies and half the meat with a bit of the juices. Cool the remaining juices and the meat and store in the fridge for a day or two until you’re ready to make the “part two” meal.

For freezing: If you have more foresight than I did and your meat counter has a big sale on London Broil, pick up a 2nd one. Put all the above items (except the water) into a freezer bag along with your meat, push out the air, and seal it tight. Then, stick that baby into the freezer. In a few weeks, you can pull it out, thaw it overnight in the fridge (I’ve heard that’s not necessary, but I do it to be safe), and dump it into the crock pot, adding the water and setting it to cook for the day – zip-o work!

Part Two: Beef Stroganoff-ish
serves 4, using the broth and cooked meat from the previous recipe

2 tbsp butter

1 small onion, halved and sliced

6-8 oz baby portabello mushrooms, cleaned, de-stemmed and sliced

1/4-1/2 tsp garlic powder or 2 cloves garlic minced

1-2 tbsp cornstarch

1/3-1/2 cup sour cream

egg noodles

leftover broth and meat from the previous recipe

Instructions: Bring a pot of water to the boil. Meanwhile, melt 1 tbsp butter over medium-high heat. Add sliced onions, season with salt and pepper, and cook until golden brown. Add sliced mushrooms and additional tbsp of butter. Add garlic powder and stir.

When water is ready, add egg noodles (we used 1/2 a bag, but use what you think is right for you family), and cook according to instructions.

Meanwhile, whisk cornstarch into leftover juices from the crock pot meal. Add the gravy to the pan with the onions and mushrooms and bring to a simmer. Cut the leftover London Broil into cubes and add to the onions, mushrooms, and gravy. Make sure you fully reheat your gravy and meat. Remove from the heat and stir in the sour cream.

Serve Stroganoff-ish over the egg noodles.

There you have it – a two-fer without having to eat the same, exact meal twice. I’m sure plenty of people manage this on a regular basis, but I’m pretty straight-forward when it comes to leftovers most of the time. What are your favorite two-fer meals?

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Staycation debrief

What a fantastic three days we had! I’m so grateful for the break we got. I felt so relaxed and we had loads of fun. What did we get up to?

We ate in restaurants (no cooking for me) a LOT. We went to a favorite diner we rarely get to because it’s a ways away and is crowded on weekends (Elmo’s in Durham) and another diner that was new to us, but a favorite in our town (Big Ed’s City Market in Raleigh). And that was just breakfasts. We also hit a favorite sandwich shop that isn’t popular with our kids and a sushi place and then we used a groupon for a nice dinner in Midtown (it was ‘parent night out’ at our kids’ daycare on Friday, so we got to treat ourselves to a grown-up dinner while the kids had a pajama pizza party – win-win!).

We shopped. Shopping without kids is a whole different experience. With the kids, shopping is an exercise in efficiency, requiring both strategic planning and tactical response when things don’t go to plan (which is every. single. outing). Kids make taking even one singular item of clothing into a fitting room a massive “double dare you to throw a tantrum” move. Browsing is impossible. But without them? Yes, I can finally get those new sneakers I’ve been counting on (and actually try on more than one pair to figure out which ones I truly would like/fit me). We hit the Tanger Outlets just west of the Triangle area (I have new sneakers!) and the Charlotte IKEA (which was actually more remarkable because we did it spur-of-the-moment when it turned out we were getting rained-out on our finally day of staycation).

We lounged and played. We went to the movies (Batman) one afternoon, which was pretty cool, as we do not get to see films in the theater often. We spent one morning playing tennis (I am still paying for that one – hello arm and shoulder muscle-buds which are apparently underused, even in my work-outs) and followed up with a dip in the community pool (which we had to ourselves for nearly the entire hour and a half!). Another afternoon, we went off to a local vineyard for a wine tasting – yum! And we hung out in a bookstore, sipping coffee and browsing not-in-the-kids-section.

And that isn’t everything (although it’s a lot to fit into 3 days!)… we actually talked to each other… about non-work, non-household chore, non-kid things. Novel idea, right?

Both of us agreed that the staycation was an unmitigated success in that we did things we rarely do or stuff that was brand new to us. And we both felt relaxed and happy.

You might wonder if there’s anything we wished we did but didn’t. Yep. Wish we could have made it to the beach for the day, but the weather did not cooperate. And I wish I’d found time to work on my photography, but we were too busy doing fun stuff, so that’s OK too!

I will say that, like most vacations, it was too short; unlike most vacations, however, we are not faced with enormous piles of laundry or unpacking to do this weekend. Sweet!

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