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.



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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
Leftovers
Vegetarian
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.

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