I just love meal time.
It's so peaceful sitting around the table with my husband and my 5, 3, and 1-year old. We talk and chat about our day. Everyone eats every bite on their plates.
No one whines or interrupts or complains about the unfamiliar vegetables sitting in front of them.
It is pure bliss...
SAID NO MOM EVER.
First off, let me say first that I am nowhere near being an expert on meal planning.
Let me also say that meal times can be a big fat headache when you have kids. Anyone that has young children knows that the hours of 5-7pm can be the worst time of day. Cue the daily headache, right?
My resolution at the beginning of this calendar year was to be better about planning meals, cooking for my family, etc. I didn't say I was going to become an expert. And I'm glad I didn't put that pressure on myself, because Lordy mercy I've failed for the most part to meet any of my goals.
But after trying and failing over and over again, I think my problem is this: I need less frequent grocery trips in order to be able to cook as often as I would like to cook.
See, I've been going through spurts... I'll make my list and get all the groceries I need for one week. I will cook every night that week and we will eat and drink and be merry around our kitchen table all week long.
But let's be honest:
Cooking + serving food to little children + cleaning up floors + washing dishes + wiping little hands and faces + wiping up spilled milk + whining + refills + sometimes picky eaters = EXHAUSTION.
And then you have to turn around and do it all again the next week.
I'd get to the weekend and I would be SO TIRED of cooking that I wouldn't even want to go get groceries for the next week. So I wouldn't. I'd get essentials (milk, fruit, lunchables) when we were out and about, but I didn't even want to think about making a list again, looking for recipes, and then having to get groceries all over again. Didn't I JUST DO THIS 6 DAYS AGO??
So for the next week I would have Chad get food on the way home or we'd all go to Chick Fil A.
And this was a seemingly endless cycle.
Enter the idea of MONTHLY MEAL PLANNING.
You've seen it on Pinterest.
You've seen it on blogs.
You've probably been like me at first and said, "AINT NOBODY GOT TIME FOR THAT."
And to be honest, that's true.
It takes time. A lot of time.
It involves searching for recipes, making an extensive grocery list, sometimes going to more than one place to get all of those groceries, and then you still have all of the inevitables that I listed above (cooking each night, whining, picky eaters, etc.)
BUT... I think knowing that you've already purchased EVERYTHING you need for ENTIRE month (minus, of course, things like milk and fruit) really does eliminate some of the stress. At least it has for me (so far.)
I think, for me, the initial planning for the month will also require uninterrupted time. As in, this is not something I will be able to do while I'm home with the kids or even in the evenings when Chad is home. I will need time alone to plan for each month, especially when searching for the recipes, writing them down, etc. (That is if you want to sit down and plan an entire month at once, like I did for August; if you already have a couple months down then time is not such a huge issue, and I'll mention that in a minute.)
Thankfully, this past week and weekend I had just that: alone time. My parents graciously took care of the kiddos for the latter part of last week. Chad drove up Friday night and stayed the weekend and fished with my dad. So I had the house all to myself. And, much to Chad's delight, I chose not to knock down any walls and didn't even open a can of paint, thankyouverymuch. I spent the majority of my time planning out meals and getting organized. My sister-in-law Keri Lynn came over Saturday and spent the night and we had the best time going to Target and loading up on cute pens and notepads and other things to keep us busy (like powdered donuts and salt-and-vinegar potato chips.)
I don't know if you've seen these Dabney Lee planners at Target, but they are sooo cute. I bought a small one (about 4x8 inches) earlier this summer to use as my personal/family planner. But I had a lightbulb moment at Target when I spotted these larger ones (they are more 8x10-ish in size).
My thought: What if we used one of these planners solely for meal planning? I've seen similar ideas on Pinterest and Etsy but most of them involved a bulky 3-ring binder or some sort of flip chart that I didn't really see as convenient to take to the store. There are also lots of apps like ZipList and such, and many people even use Google calendar solely as their meal planning calendar... and I think those are also great ideas if you like to use your phone/iPad for everything. So convenient!
But I LOVE to write and make lists. I love new pens, new notebooks, and nothing excites me more than the opportunity to write something down or fill something out. (Nerd alert, I know.) So, since I'm obsessed with this planner anyway, I decided to buy one to use as a meal planning calendar. And I'm SO EXCITED!
Here are the reasons I love it:
It has a monthly calendar where you can write in your schedule, appointments, birthdays, etc. And on the same spread is a list page with 3 sections: To Do, To Call, To Buy
For meal planning I will use the calendar page to simply write the meal we will be having that night. (i.e. spaghetti, salad, bread.)
On the adjacent list page I will make my grocery list.
This planner also has a weekly spread with ample room to write.
I'll use these pages to write out the recipe (ingredients and instructions) for each day so that when I cook I will have it right there in my notebook.
I realize this sounds like a heinous amount of writing. But, like I said before, I love doing it. And once you've planned out one month already and you do your shopping and get going, you really don't have to do all the other months at one time. Just do it when you have a few minutes during your day. If you see a recipe that you like on Pinterest or a blog, just jot it down in your planner.
Now, for recipes that I love that come from the cookbooks I have at home, I will write out the ingredients and their amounts, but then I will simply write which recipe book and the page number, instead of writing every single thing down. (i.e. "Pioneer Woman Cooks" cookbook, page 44.) Then I can just pull out the cookbook for instructions. (see above photo)
Another reason I like the idea of doing this is because so many of the monthly meal plans that you can purchase and print out at home contain meals that we wouldn't necessarily eat. We aren't too picky, but we do have foods that we don't like; for instance, we don't cook a lot of fish/seafood at home and we don't eat a lot of casseroles or one-dish meals (simply because my kids are sort of picky when it comes to eating casseroles, unless it is spaghetti!) So doing the planning myself, for my own family, guarantees that everyone will at least be somewhat happy with what we are eating!
A few tips to make this even easier:
1. Make one night a week a theme night. On Mondays, we're going to have Mexican-inspired food. So Mexican Monday. Each of my Monday recipes will allow my husband and son to get their chips and salsa fix for the week! And there are sooo many good Mexican-Southwest inspired recipes out there that you will never run out. This makes at least one night of the week easy to plan. Even if it's just tacos every Monday night! So you could have a theme night each week - Mexican, spaghetti night, sandwich night, breakfast night, soup night - those are just a few ideas.
2. Don't over-do it. Schedule some easy days. If you are like us and have relatives out of town that you frequently visit (but don't necessarily know which weekends you'll be going), make Fridays a relatively easy meal. I've scheduled sandwiches for most Friday nights because I have no idea when we will be going to the Compound. It's usually once a month, so when I figure out which weekend, I'll just fill in those Fridays with either a meal or a "Compound Here We Come!!!!" sticker. :)
3. Eat leftovers on the weekends! If you generally stay home on weekends, but still like to eat out too, Keri Lynn says that she will usually cook something like slow cooker BBQ pork or French dip beef sandwiches, or a one-dish meal like baked penne that always makes more than enough for an average family. That way, if they need a meal for lunch Saturday or Sunday, there are always plenty of leftovers, but they can also enjoy eating out, which is probably more common for a lot of us. I really like this idea! Takes the pressure off having to cook something on the weekends, too. (Holla!)
4. Buy in Bulk. If you have a Sam's or CostCo membership, you can really save money if you buy your meat there. We get our ground beef, steak, and pork there and separate it into ziplock freezer bags. Then whatever you need for your recipe, just pull it out to thaw the night before or that morning.
5. Plan on the Go! The portability of a planner allows you take your meal planning stuff with you wherever you go; the park, doctor's appointments, carpool line, etc. You can browse recipes on your phone while waiting and write them down on the spot.
6. Shop at ALDI! ALDI is by far my favorite place to get groceries. They may not have every single thing on your list, but you can really save big on a lot of staple ingredients like pasta, spices, canned cooking soups, and snack items. Spices, for instance, are 99 cents (as opposed to over $3 at even Walmart, for a TINY container!) Crescent rolls, which we use in lots of my recipes, are 99 cents at Aldi; at Publix they are a whopping $2.59 per can. So even with BOGO and a coupon at Publix, they are still cheaper at ALDI. Tortilla chips (Tostitos) at Walmart run around $3 a bag. At ALDI they are $1.19. So I get 3 bags for almost the price of 1 bag, and those 3 bags last me the entire month. Their snacks and cereals and milk and deli meat are also other favorites. They even have organic pasta and many other organic items - you just have to know where to look! Their frozen pizzas are also wonderful and these are great for times when cooking just ain't gonna happen, planned or not! :)
I'm hoping that this method will STICK. I realize that dinnertime will still be a chaotic time of day and I realize there will still be dishes and cleanup regardless of how I plan meals and what we eat. But hopefully having everything planned out and having the ingredients on hand for a month's worth of meals will eliminate at least some of the stress and exhaustion! Half of it comes from the planning, I'm certain of that!
I want to make a printable version of one of our monthly meal plans with recipes and a grocery list, so I'm going to try to do that very soon and when I do I will post it for anyone that wants to download.
Have a great week!