Sunday, April 3, 2011

Weekly Organizational Challenge - Meal Planning

Funny thing, this is a post I've been working on for a week or so - showing you how I meal plan - and it comes up as a weekly challenge!  Perfect timing. 

A little background - I've always enjoyed cooking.  Even when I was single, I would scour recipe books and try new things all the time.  I learned to cut recipes in half so that there wouldn't be too much for one person - or even for two, after I got married.  I've learned what seasonings we like, what we don't like, and how to prepare certain things that even surprise me every once in awhile.  I am by no means a chef - I'm just your typical home cook who messes up, makes bad meals, has a roast that doesn't turn out, a cake that is VERY dry but still enjoys cooking. 

We had really gotten into a rut as far as meals go for a little bit . . .well, like a year.  I've mentioned in other posts related to to this topic how we had tacos, spaghetti, beef strogenoff, every single week. The other 4 nights we ended up grabbing something out because life was just too busy.  Summers were great because we could grill but even that would get pushed aside due to "life".  Well, than I flipped the other direction - I was cooking a new recipe every single night and, let me tell you, there were some dooseys.  Wow.  The last straw was when I made three meals in a row that were horrible and we had to do a Taco Bell run.  Not good!!!  So, I finally started on something I had wanted to do for years - even tried to do - but I was determined to make it work!!

My Meal Planning
1. I went through all of my recipes and made a list of our favorites by category - beef, chicken, breakfast, desserts, ect.  This list is only the tried and true favorites - the ones we could eat every week and still love.  I originally kept this in my Home Management Journal but have found that it is  better housed in my Recipe Binder.  With this list I'm able to quickly plug items into our weekly menu.

2.  My Menu Sheet is my next big lifesaver.  I finally created one that actually includes a space for Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, Snacks and Cookies/Desserts.  I created this is word so I can either print it off and hand write the items  or I can fill it in on the computer and than print it off.  One thing that I've found works for me is that I gave each day a "category".  For example, Monday is Ethnic, Tuesday is Beef, etc.  This is not set in stone by any means but it helps keep me from throwing in Beef meals every single night.  Some weeks, like the one shown below, I just throw stuff in that looks good and have no rhyme or reason!  If you do nothing else, taking time out once a week or every two weeks to plan your family meals will really help you out a lot.  I used to be the one running to before coming home from work because I didn't have what I needed or waited to plan - this really has alleviated that pressure!
3. The next thing I do is gather all of my recipes.  One of the early weekly challenges was to create a Recipe Binder.  I have chosen to use a regular size 3 ring binder (Letter Size).  Over the years I've tried all kinds of ways to keep recipes and have discovered that having to retype recipes is not something I want to invest my time into but rather, by using a standard size binder, I can just print from recipe sites or pull recipes from magazines and they fit right inside.  I divided my recipe binder into sections that we use and put all of the recipes that I had ready, into the right section.  So, after I plan my menu, I go to the recipe binder and pull out the recipes I have - because my binder is "new", many of my recipes are saved on my computer in a smaller size for my old Rolodex so I use that time to print them (instead of printing everything at once!). 

4.  Once I've gathered all of my recipes, it's time to write the grocery list.  Several months ago, I took time to create a grocery list by aisle in my local store.  This has been a huge time saver at the grocery store for me.  When writing my list, I use both my menu and my recipes - I start by looking at Saturday and make sure I write down everything we need for Breakfast, Lunch, and dinner.  I continue through each day of the week so I'm sure I don't miss anything. 

5.  The last item I do to prepare for grocery shopping (which is really part of menu planning, isn't it?) Is coupons.  Now, I've tried everything and have finally come up with works best for me!  For years I did the coupon accordion files and yes, ended up many times with coupons in a mess on the floor of the store; than I got a binder and baseball card style holders.  It came with separators that had no connection to how I shopped so I found it not user friendly.  Next, I tried out Savings  I will say that it is a great site.  It does exactly what it promises and it WILL help you save money.  I liked that it had the enter ad from my store in the database and it included every item.  You could click on the item and make a grocery list.  I found, though, that I was spending 6-8 hours a week trying to get all of this done not to mention the cost of ink to print coupons from other sites.  Yes, it saved me money on food - sometimes close to 50% but, it really wasn't working for how I shop and, really, I was spending more money because of what I was buying.  So I had an epiphany :-)  I took my coupon binder with its sleeves and created new dividers based on the aisle in the store.  Yes, I have lots of dividers but now, I can easily flip through and find the coupons that match by aisle AND if I'm shopping and see a special deal, it's easy to find the coupon!  So . . once my grocery list is done, I flip through my coupons, pull the ones that match and  place them in the sleeve in the front of my binder to hold coupons for the week.  I also slip in my grocery list, menu and recipes.  Just an FYI - I carry my menu and recipes because there are times my store won't have something I need.  I can than pull all of the items out for that recipe and pick up something simple like ingredients for tacos. 
So, that's how I menu plan :-) 
If you head over to A Bowl Full of Lemons you can read another great idea posted by the guest poster for this particular challenge.  One thing she talks about is an inventory sheet.  This is an awesome idea - something I've used off and on over the years.  She has provided a link for an excel spreadsheet through another site that looks pretty neat.  I may check it out (or not LOL).  Both my deep freezer and my pantry are in the basement so sometimes I forget to check for items and end up buying things I already have for a meal - the inventory sheet might be a helpful tool! 

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