Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Menu Planning 101

Meal planning sounds like such a simple, straight-forward concept.  You sit down, you figure out what you're going to fix for the next week or so, make a shopping list, then execute the plan.  Am I the only person struggling with making this work?

Here are some of my struggles:
- Not knowing which nights to plan for - surprises pop up on the schedule at the last minute.
- Not knowing what my energy level will be like every night - when push comes to shove, I may be too tired to execute the plan.
- Entree planning - did I buy the right main dish ingredients?  are they in a mysterious crevasse of my freezer?  have I defrosted?
- Recipe overload - I want to try so many new recipes.  I buy the ingredients for new recipes.  I'm too tired to execute a new recipe.  The recipe doesn't work exactly like I thought it would and needs extra time.
- Kids with opinions of what to eat and when.

Here are some of my weapons:

1) Tool(s) for managing schedules, meal plans, and shopping lists.
You've got to think about what will work best for you and your family. It took us a while to find tools that worked for us.  We started with a magnetic shopping list on the fridge.  It was OK, except when we thought about things to add to the list when we were away from home and couldn't access the list.  Or when one of us would ask the other to add something to the list and we didn't.  Or when I would forget to take the list, or lose it in the cavern I call a purse.

In the mobile age, there are apps that can simplify the portability issues.  It's so much easier to go to the grocery store, pull out my phone, and get to my shopping list and calendar while I'm at the store. But since I'm not the best at typing on my phone (especially when my left hand numbs up), I needed to find an app that could be updated online as well. I'm a lot faster typist on my laptop than my phone.

When my family found Cozi ( - Boom, problems solved.  Hubby and I can both update the calendar and shopping list from our laptops or our phones.  If I forget to charge my phone before going to the store (which happens a time or two), he can pull up the list.  And when Cozi added a meal planner and recipe storage to the app, then it meant one-stop access to the info we needed.

2) Recipe management
I would love to have a neatly organized, easily accessible arsenal of recipes with which I felt comfortable to whip out gourmet meal after gourmet meal without a second thought.  Maybe I'll get there someday.  For now, I need to get myself comfortable with a few old reliables.

I'm a baseball fan, so I think of recipes like I think of pitchers.  On the day of a game, does the manager sort through bios of all active pitchers and call one up to see if he's available that day?  Nope.  A manager has a groups of 10 or so pitchers on his team.  He has 4 or 5 of them set up in a regular rotation to start for him.  When he needs to switch things up, he can bring in a reliever.  And a really good pitching staff has a closer, that go-to pitcher that can get things finished well.

So instead of spending hours pouring over books, magazines, and online databases every few days to pick the meal, I'm starting by building up a solid bunch of regulars.  I'm putting together a basic rotation of chicken, pork, beef, etc. recipes that I can rotate.  My kids won't be bummed because they know they liked the recipes before, and it keeps me in focus.

3) Bulking up
There are some people out there who cook once a month, label them with descriptions and cooking instructions, and then just pull things out as the month goes.  I don't have the energy or lifestyle to spend an entire day cooking, but there are still ways to bulk up even if you're not ready to go a month at a time.

- Buy meat in bulk to stock up the freezer.  I'll go to the nearby warehouse store and buy large packages of chicken breasts, pork chops, etc. and put some in the freezer when I get home.  This is also a good way to take advantage of really good sales at the grocery store, like when my grocery store will have a buy 1, get 2 free deal or a huge price discount on something we like.  I have a vacuum sealer, so I can split up big packs and make smaller portions to freeze.  Example: There are 4 people in my family, and I buy a pack of 8 pork chops, so I can pull 4 of them out and freeze them in my vacuum sealed bag.

- Try a make-ahead meal.  You may not be up to doing a whole month's cooking in a day, but there are plenty of easy make-ahead meals that you can prep and then freeze until you're ready to use them.  You can find recipes online by searching recipe databases for once-a-month or make ahead cooking.   There are also books that specialize in make-ahead recipes, like Make-Ahead Meals Made Healthy by Michele Borboa.

- Make a party-size recipe to divide and conquer.  My church cookbook has a recipe for spaghetti sauce that serves 25.  I rarely have enough folks around to use all of the sauce in one meal.  But it's an easy recipe that my kids love, so I make it, serve some on the day I make it, then freeze the remaining portions so I can pull them out as I need them. If you'd like to do this with regular recipes, you could just double the recipe and then freeze half of what you make.

4) Your freezer is not a black hole
My sister laughed at me when she found out I made a freezer inventory.  When I had the inventory, planning was a lot easier because I knew what I had and whether it was still good to serve.  When I stopped keeping up the inventory, I was buying stuff I didn't need and letting good food go bad because it had taken up permanent residence at the bottom of the freezer.

So when I finally cleaned out the freezer and saw how much I had wasted, I got back onto the freezer inventory train.  My previous inventory was on paper, which meant I didn't have it with me while I was shopping.  Now I'm keeping it on Cozi as a journal entry, so I can pull the list up while I'm shopping and not let the appeal of a discount price overload me with stuff I don't need.

In my freezer itself, I've bought two little clear plastic drawers to help me keep things sorted.  One of them holds chicken breasts, and one holds beef.  Those cheap drawers make it easy for me to keep the freezer in order and find what I need to find.  That means we won't waste as much and won't buy more than we need, which saves $$$$.

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