Monday, January 20, 2014

Homemaking for Beginners, Step 3: Menu Planning

Welcome to the Homemaking for Beginners series!  You can find Step 1 HERE, and Step 2 HERE.


Actual photograph from my actual computer.

Let's cut right to the chase:

You can totally just go online and buy a meal plan for the week.*   The cost is so low that you will be embarrassed you never thought of doing this before (or maybe that's just me).  If you can find 2 extra dollars a week in your grocery budget, you can have a menu plan, a shopping list, and all the recipes delivered to your desktop in three clicks.  If you can find 5 extra dollars in your budget you can get a whole month's worth of that.  I'll link you to some good sites at the bottom of this post.

The problem with these meal plans is that they are not YOUR meal plans.  And maybe you don't have the same budget, or maybe you have a diabetic child, or maybe your spouse is allergic to nuts, or maybe you just don't like the kind of meals the plans include.

So--you have to make your own plan.  Because if you fail to plan meals, you plan to fail to eat meals.  Or something like that.

The thing about meal planning that seems to trip people up most is not a lack of skills.  It’s that eating is a very human thing that we've all done since the day we were born, it is wrapped up in emotion and memory and preferences.  When we become responsible for the feeding of others, we add on our worries about nutrition and budget and ideology and societal expectations, and suddenly the consumption of calories turns into fear and loss of confidence.

Let's fix that, shall we?

Traditionally, we're taught to begin with studying the local grocery ads and compiling a list of recipes based on whatever is on sale that day.  This is an open-ended exercise.  When chicken is on sale, the potential menu for any given meal is any chicken recipe in existence. We end up with the same mental block that comes when we're trying to choose between 10 different pairs of shoes that are all the same color.  Too many options.  Not enough boundaries.

To fix that, you need to create a basic structure that informs all meal decisions.  If you've never done this, the simplest way is to choose a menu theme for each day of the week, then build your meal plan around that.

For example, if Tuesday night is designated as Meat and Three (southern homemakers, represent), you know you will always need to have a meat that night plus three side dishes.

This kind of information can then guide your grocery shopping.  You will know that every week you need X number of servings of protein, vegetables, fruits, and grains, because your menu themes and the number of people you have to feed dictate that for you.  With this information you can shop successfully for more than one week at a time, stocking up on sale items to store for future use, saving you energy and making your budget stretch further.

My most recent weekly menu theme plan looks like this:
Not my actual handwriting.  If it were, you wouldn't be able to read it.

MONDAY:  International Night.  This is the night that we have tacos, spaghetti, stir fry, etc.  Something that is not typically "American".

TUESDAY:  Slow cooker or freezer meal.  This is the evening when I usually teach, so I have to prep a meal for my family that can be ready while I’m in the studio.

WEDNESDAY:  Sandwiches, Soup, Salad.  This is Ella’s Karate class day, so we need something quick and easy to put together after we get home.

THURSDAY:  Breakfast for Dinner.  Because by Thursday I’m tired of fixing “dinner”.

FRIDAY:  Leftovers, AKA Fridge and Freezer Clean Out.  This is part of my Weekly Routine.  Our family’s errand day is Saturday, so on Friday I inventory the fridge and freezer and pantry, put together our shopping list, and use whatever I can from the inventory for dinner that night so there is room for new groceries the next day (hope that sentence was long enough for you).

SATURDAY:  Cook Ahead.  Whatever I cook today, I make at least double, and put half in the freezer. This is often the meal that gets served on a future Tuesday evening.  While prepping this meal I also prep as many other ingredients for the week as possible so that everything is ready to use as needed.

SUNDAY:  French Dinner.  This is the name that Ella gave this meal when she was little.  It is a buffet of cheese, fruit, bread, cold meats, jams, etc.--whatever can be put on a tray and serve cold.  This is also part of my Weekly Routine, because Sunday is my “day of rest”.  (Stop laughing.)

Simple Process for Creating Your Custom Menu Plan:

1.  Get a piece of paper and a writing implement (do you see a pattern?  I’m a firm believer in analog list making.) If you are a subscriber to my newsletter you will get free downloadable PDF worksheets for this purpose.  If you are not a subscriber, you can sign up at the bottom of this post.

2.  Write the names of the days of the week on the left column.

3.  For each day of the week designate a menu theme of your choice.  Invent your own, or choose any of the ones below:

Meat and 2 or 3
Breakfast for Dinner
Hot off the Grill
Raw Foods
Slow Cooker
Pressure Cooker
One-Pot Dinner
Build-Your-Own _______
Kids Cook
Movie Meal
Comfort Foods
Farmers Market Specials
Catch of the Day
Surprise Dinner
Soup, Sandwich, Salad
Finger Foods
Something New
Backwards Dinner
Picnic Meal

4.  Scan your local grocery ads to see what is on sale.  You’re looking for the basics--protein, veggies, fruits, grains, nuts, etc.  NOT boxed meals, unless that is on your menu plan (and that is TOTALLY LEGIT, by the way. Your plan, your rules.)

5.  Choose a recipe for each night of the week that makes use of the sales items you choose.  Make a list of ingredients for every recipe, or use a prepared shopping list for this purpose.

6.  Inventory your kitchen to see what you already have and check off those ingredients.  Whatever is left is your shopping list.

Now you have a plan!  Of course, you have to implement that plan.  :)  But at least you have a plan.

The above process only addresses dinner because typically that is the meal we all scramble to put on the table, but you can use the same process for breakfast and lunch too if you like.  I don’t, because breakfast here is every man for himself, and lunch is usually the leftovers from the night before.  But don’t go by me--I’m a lazy cooker.

*For those of you who quit reading after “go online and buy a meal plan for the week”, here are the links that I personally recommend.  I am not financially affiliated with either of these sites, except that I have purchased and used meal plans from all of them and am a satisfied customer.

Grocery Shrink
Angela Coffman is an old online friend of mine (old as in I’ve known her for a long time, not old as in old as the hills).  I bought her Grocery Shrink book several years ago and learned a ton about menu planning, budgeting, and cooking.  She now has a subscription program available in which you will get a weekly menu for three meals a day plus snack, a shopping list, all the recipes, and a work plan to make sure your menu doesn’t overwhelm you.  She knows her stuff, and she wants you to succeed!

5 Dollar Dinners
The 20 meals for $150 plans that they have been producing have recently gone viral, and that’s because the plans are GREAT.   She has plans for both Costco and Sam’s Club.  I am using the first Costco plan to stock my freezer.  You can use the list materials in the blog and the links to recipes for free, but for just a few dollars you can download a printable shopping list and recipes all in a bundle.  (HINT:  you can do your shopping at other stores besides Costco or Sam’s.)

Hillbilly Housewife's $45 Emergency Menu
No lie, this is menu bootcamp.  Not for the timid, but if you are in a pinch, this is how you get by.  It's not a good plan for long term but it will show you how to do what it takes to squeeze every penny in your grocery budget. You get the same things as the above sites--menu plan, shopping list, recipes, and work order--but at no cost. WARNING:  $45 might not be on target anymore--this plan is several years old, and depending on where you shop, you might go over that amount.

Hillbilly Housewife's $70 Emergency Menu
Same idea as above, but with a little meat added and larger servings.


I've created a little newsletter so that I can give out presents.  Yay!  When you join the Homemaking for Beginners newsletter, you will automatically get free updates when I post to the blog each week, access to all the worksheets and additional materials for this series as they become available, and the occasional video or audio pick-me-up.  I promise I will never give out your email address, but from time to time I will tell you about special deals I am offering on classes or materials.  (Don't worry, you can always unsub later if you like).

Monday, January 13, 2014

Homemaking for Beginners, Step 2: The Weekly Routine

Welcome to the Homemaking for Beginners series!  You can find Step 1 HERE.


Presuming you've all gotten a good start on your Daily Three, let's move up a unit of measure and look at The Weekly Routine.  This is a similar concept to the Daily Three, except, uh, you do these things every week.  (See how clever that is?)

The big news here is that you are going to do a little strategic planning.  Rather than just choosing three tasks to do, you identify the activities and events that are part of your household weekly schedule, then assign and schedule tasks to support them.

Simple Weekly Routine:

Get a piece of paper and a writing implement (to get my free worksheet for developing your Weekly Routine, see the end of this post).

List all the household and family events that happen each and every week.  The larger your household, the longer this list is likely to be.

For each event, list the tasks that must be done in order to make the event run smoothly.

Finally, you will transfer your events to a weekly calendar, and schedule the tasks that need to be done for each event.

HERE'S THE MAGIC:  you schedule the tasks for the day before the event.

To get a sense of how this works, here's a sample of Ms. Beginning Homemaker's Weekly Routine:

Ms. Beginning Homemaker lists her family's weekly events
and describes the tasks needed to keep things on track.

Ms. Beginning Homemaker transfers all her info
to the Weekly Routine chart and pats herself on the back
for being on top of things.

TIP:  If you're a subscriber to my newsletter, you will automatically get a printable PDF that includes these two worksheets, so you can pat yourself on the back too.  :)

Should one of these items be a "best and highest ability" task?  This is your call.  Since most of the tasks are larger scale than your daily tasks, you might not wish to commit to doing one of them to the best and highest ability every week.  Instead you could rotate, so that one week you do the first task to your best and highest ability, then following week you do the second task, etc.  We will get into tweaking the Weekly Routine further down the homemaking road.  For now, just be sure that if you make a commitment to yourself, you make it worth your time--plan a reward that is proportionate and doable within minutes of finishing your task.  After you've used you new routine for a few weeks you'll have a better idea what needs adjusting.

Next week:  easy menu planning for the rank amateur.


I've created a little newsletter so that I can give out presents.  Yay!  When you join the Homemaking for Beginners newsletter, you will automatically get free updates when I post to the blog each week, access to all the worksheets and additional materials for this series as they become available, and the occasional video or audio pick-me-up.  I promise I will never give out your email address, but from time to time I will tell you about special deals I am offering on classes or materials.  (Don't worry, you can always unsub later if you like).

Monday, January 6, 2014

Homemaking for Beginners, Step 1: The Daily Three

Actual photograph of my new quilt.  Isn't it pretty?

Welcome to the Homemaking for Beginners series, your 12-step program for getting your home back on track.

QUALITY OF LIFE.  That's what it's all about, folks.

Things I've tried:

52 Weeks to an Organized Home
Cleaning Grand Plan
All of Pinterest

You might have tried several of those yourself.

You know why none of them work for us?  Because the writers of those plans don't know you or me.  The plans may seem to work for a while, but since they were developed to suit some internet stranger's home and life, they don't work for us long term.

Here's the deal:  nobody else's system will work for you.  Not even the system I use to run my own home. The only thing that will work for you is a system designed for you, and the only one who can design that system is you.  :)

Together, that's what we're going to do--device a custom schedule just for you, that fits your needs and your life.   We'll get to the accountability group in just a moment.

Let's start at the very beginning--a very good place to start. (Please tell me you're singing now.  Are you singing?  Good.)  Today we're going to figure out a basic daily plan that will become the foundation for your personalized, custom-built homemaking system.  I call it The Daily Three, and it goes a little something like this:

Get yourself a piece of paper and a writing implement.  (At the bottom of this post you can find instructions for downloading my handy-dandy worksheet and checklist for this).

Make a quick list of everything you believe ought to be done on a daily basis to keep your home neat and tidy.  We're not getting the place ready for the cover of a magazine here.  This is a list of tasks that you believe must be done in order to make the claim that the house is in order.

From that list choose just three items that you will commit to doing every day without fail.  It doesn't matter to me or anybody else what three items you choose.  For now just choose the ones that you think are the top priority for advancing your quality of life.

Of those three items choose one that you will commit to doing to your best and highest ability every single time you do it.  EVERY SINGLE TIME.  By "best ability", I mean do it so well that it looks like a professional did it.  If that means you have to get on YouTube and watch videos of someone doing it so you know how it is supposed to be done, do that.  If it means calling your mom and asking her to come over and show you how to do it, do that.  If it means finding someone who is, say, a “vocational homemaker” and asking for help on how to do it, do that.  :)

Three things, every day.  One of them to your best and highest ability.

Lastly, and this is critical:  decide on a simple, easy reward that you can give yourself every single time you complete your best and highest task.  DON'T MAKE THIS DECISION LIGHTLY!  If you decide to reward yourself a homemade frappacino every single morning, pretty quickly that is not going to feel like a reward--it's going to become another thing on your To-Do list and it will be a burden.  Make your reward something so simple that it would be foolish to not take your reward.

(Don't panic--nothing you put on this list is definitive.  You can, and should, adjust later, after you've tested your list a few weeks to see if it is working).

Now, because I know everybody likes to compare notes, here is my list of three items to do every day:
  1. make the bed
  2. one load of laundry
  3. one load of dishes

The one that I do to my best and highest ability is making the bed.  I make the bed every single morning to 5-star hotel standards (Yes, I actually went online and watched videos of professionals in 5-star hotels making beds).  I do this because at the end of a busy day (which, let's face it, is every day, amirite?), a crumpled sheet and a lumpy pillow just add insult to injury.  Preparing a haven to rest in, for myself and my loved ones, is my way of expressing my care for them and for myself.

Now this picture makes sense, right?
Later this week I'll show you what makes this my best and highest ability.

What's my reward for making my bed to 5-star hotel standards?  I get to open the curtains behind the bed and let the sunshine in.  This is a real reward for me, because I am a sunshine hog and if it were up to me, the curtains would be opened the minute my eyes open in the morning.  Not opening them until I finish the bed feels like I've earned the right to my sunshine!

The other two tasks from my Daily Three are on the "done is better than perfect" plan:  they get done. Nothing fancy to see here.

Oh yeah--accountability group.  Let's check in with each other during the week.  Leave a comment telling everybody what your Daily Three items are and how they are working for you.  At the end of this week, you'll have a chance to join the Brag Book and show off your new mad homemaking skillz.

SO--I've created a little newsletter so that I can give out presents.  Yay!  When you join the Homemaking for Beginners newsletter, you will automatically get access to all the worksheets and additional materials for this series as they become available--plus the occasional video or audio pick-me-up.  I promise I will never give out your email address, but from time to time I will tell you about special deals I am offering on classes or materials.  (Don't worry, you can always unsub later if you like).

Thursday, January 2, 2014

2013 was the year I gave up

Isn't this pretty?  It bloomed on New Year's Day.  

If anybody had told me this time last year how 2013 would turn out, I don't know if I would have laughed, cried, or even believed them.  Too many losses, too much bedlam.  (Don't you love the construction "too much X"?  As if there is an exact right amount of loss, or bedlam).

SO, for 2014: Resolutions?  No.  Goals?  Why yes, thank you!

These are the only plans I'm making for the coming year.  If I do more, great.  If I do less, great.  If I do exactly this much and nothing else, great.  If I don't do any of this, great.

No expectations, no explanations, no excuses, and no judgement.  That is my carry-over motto from 2013.

Thus, in 2014, in no particular order, I plan to:

read all the books
tell all the stories
knit all the yarn
sew all the fabric
eat all the chocolate
laugh all the time
love all the people

I will also clean the things.  Not all of them, but many of them, I dare say most of them.

Speaking of which...

Starting Monday, 6 January, 2014, I'll begin a series on Homemaking for Beginners.  How is what I'll teach you different from everybody else's systems?  I'm going to teach you how to create a system of your own, that works with your unique combination of household members, obligations, and goals.  This is not a one-size-fits-most program.  A better title for it would be "How to get your home and life under control on your terms".

If you like what you're reading, please come back on Monday for the first installment.  (I know, I could have a place on the blog where you could sign up for notices on new posts--in fact, I'm working on that--so bear with me.  Your patience will be rewarded).