Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Meal Planning - A Busy Mom's BFF

I debated over making a post about this, because the Interwebs are already littered with meal planning articles.  But this is more of a "praise in favor of", rather than a "how-to" type post.  Because we all have different lives, and what works for me might not work for you.  But y'all--meal planning has been a lifesaver for us, so I just wanted to sing its praises, and then give a few tips for how to make it work for you.
Why I Like It:

- Less Waste:  By preparing a meal plan around what needs to be used up in our fridge/freezer, we sacrifice less food to the trash can in the name of Moldy Mush and Freezer Burn.  And it can feel a little bit like Chopped: "What can I make that uses cauliflower, cilantro, red onion, mushrooms, and avocado? (Answer: this guy.)
- Less stress:  Y'all, I am BUSY.  I work 8a-5p, with a break 3 days a week to go to class, have to coordinate with the Hubs about pick up/drop off of Lil' Man, and in theory, get my lazy butt to the gym.  The less I have to think about what I'm putting together for dinner, the better. Also, by cooking big batches of stuff as part of my meal plan, we have tons of leftovers, which takes care of lunches all week and in-between dinners, so I don't even have to cook every night.  With already having a tight schedule during the work-week, I generally can't afford to leave the office for lunch anyway, so having leftovers I can eat at my desk also helps me be more efficient with my work time.
- Lower Cost:  By planning around what I already have (rather than living off whims), we make fewer trips to the store, and can stock up on foods when they're on sale, and have them in the freezer for when a whim strikes. For example: It's winter right now, and I noticed that one of the stores has potato salad on sale for 99 cents. Well, I don't know about you, but when I see potato salad, all I want is gumbo.  Thankfully, I already have andouille, okra, chicken and shrimp in the freezer (bought while on sale), so I can go buy my cheap potato salad and then make whatever type of gumbo sounds tasty.

Tips For Success: 

Have a Frame:  This could be a chalkboard in your kitchen, an Excel spreadsheet, whatever works for you. I use, because it's simple, and I can access it from work, my phone, or home on my laptop.  Pepperplate is designed for 1 week at a time, but you can plan out further than that.  Once I have a week planned, I print out the page and hang it on the fridge for reference.
Have a Method:  For me, I have a mission of ACTUALLY cooking all the things I pin on Pinterest, because I love to try new recipes.  That means I have to be realistic and go through my Pinterest a few times a year and have a heart-to-heart with my mind and stomach: "OK guys, I know that picture of the rosette apple pie looks REALLY pretty, but are we ACTUALLY ever going to bake it?  No." is GORGEOUS though.

I saw a recommendation on another blog for folks who don't like to experiment--make a list of the meals you and your family really love (and that you like/don't mind cooking).  Ideally it's about 20-30 dishes.  Then, you just divvy those dishes up across a 1-month calendar, and then you plan your shopping each week around those dishes.

Have some Forgiveness:  Things are going to happen that will screw up your plan.  Maybe family make a surprise visit and you go out to eat with them, rather than making the dish that was going to be your leftovers for lunch the next day.  Or maybe everyone gets sick.  Or maybe you just have a crap day and don't feel like cooking.  It's OK.  Our meal plan almost always ends up covered in little cross-offs or arrows where we moved something to a later day.  

Have a Backup:  We almost always have at least one frozen pizza in the freezer, for emergency situations where no one feels like cooking.  I also buy pot pies and microwave meals when we can get them cheap and keep 4-5 in the freezer. So if we do run into a situation where there's no leftovers to take for lunch, I still have something I can grab and take with me to the office in the morning.  

We are not normally this fancy with our microwave meals, but between a sale at Target and an Ibotta deal, got these for $1.50 each.

Take an Inventory:  Like I mentioned, we like to stock up on things while they're on sale, so we have a lot of food in our freezer.  But if we don't actively try to use things up, we end up with random 2 year old freezer-burnt pork chops.  This is particularly important if you have a chest freezer rather than an upright, where it's easier for things to get buried and forgotten about.  I like to do this 1-2 times a year, and then search through my Pinterest recipes to see how we can use up some of the older items.

Yes, that says "9 Bacons".

Take the Shortcuts:  I could spend my weekend meal prepping for the next week...or I could play with my kid.  I could make meatballs from scratch and have dinner on the table at 7pm...or I could buy the frozen meatballs (on sale, of course) and have dinner done in 30 minutes.  Using shortcuts doesn't make you a bad person.  One of my current favorite shortcuts?  Bagged salad kits.  I decided last year I want to eat more delicious salads--you know the ones, with all the different stuff in them?  But I am WAYYYYYYY too lazy to prep a fancy salad at home myself. So, I can either go to the deli or a restaurant and spend $7-8 (or more) on a salad, OR, I can spend $3 on a salad kit that has enough for 2 big salads (so two days' worth of lunches for a buck-fiddy each), and just add grilled chicken breast (prepped the night before or over the weekend) or a tuna pouch from home.  

...and last but not least:

SHARE THE DUTIES:  Y'all, I would be lost without my husband.  He is an amazing life partner, and any time I have to juggle everything myself, it's a mess.  I do really enjoy cooking, but sometimes I just don't have the energy, or I'm running behind.  It's really helpful if I call him on my way home from work and say, "hey, I can get the kiddo if you can start the prep work for dinner, I'll text you the recipe".  And then when I get home, all the chopping and measuring stuff is done, so I can jump right in and start cooking. Or he may just hop in and cook it all himself.  By having a meal plan on the fridge, there's no mystery about what we're having--all he needs is to know where the recipe is.

If you have a great meal planning tip, please share it in the comments!  

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