Meal Planning Ideas

When I sent out a survey to various friends requesting meal planning input, I did not expect such a big response.  So, rather than making your handout 15 pages long, I decided to pass on the ideas through a blog entry.  So, this will be a lengthier blog entry.  If you would prefer to have the information in a document, please e-mail firstfreemops@gmail.com  I will send it on to you that way.   I will post the devotional ideas blog sometime next week (I may be without a computer for awhile due to remodeling 🙂  Also, here are some links to a a few freezer meal sites that Tina found – I forgot to add them to the document too.

And now … To plan or not to plan:

To Plan or Not To Plan?  Here are some answers ….

I definitely do meal plan otherwise I would go beyond our budget.  I try hard to shop using coupons and ad matching.  Then I look at what I have and try to use that first, so that I can avoid buying items at full price. 

 Sometime during the week-end, my husband and I sit down together and discuss what meals we want to have for the week.  We have several favorites that we rely on, besides new recipes that we try.  We often cook together, so we plan together too.

 So meal planning has always been a chore I don’t like 🙂  Of course I always save money when my meals are planned so in December I joined this website: https://emeals.com/ I receive a Menu every Wed with a weeks worth of meals.  It also comes with my shopping list.  I don’t usually like every recipe but they are numbered on the grocery list so I can easily just not get items for meal number five.  I love this… it has taken all the work out for me.  I think I got a years worth for 45.00.  I am saving the lists in a envelope so I can use them again.   I still have to use it to make it work but I think it’s great 🙂

I usually do my planning for one week.  I look in my magazines or online to find new recipes.  Sometimes I do not get to make them all because we eat the leftovers.  I try to just shop once a week.  I do look at the Wednesday adds and sometimes chick dig deals to help me find the best prices.    I have a standing meal for Sunday evening, breakfast for dinner.  I never have to wonder what we are having that night and I always have eggs in the fridge.  I totally love that.  So I can have a “lazy” afternoon.

I abhor meal planning and grocery shopping and dread it all two weeks.  HOWEVER, I love knowing I have food in my  house to feed my family healthy meals (which is becoming more important to me the healthier I get) and I love that it keeps me out of the stores during the week which buys back time to exercise instead of run errands, and saves money.

I have winged it each day and I have planned in advanced. There are some super cute menu boards on Pinterest. I just use a dry erase calendar. And I have a master grocery list. If I have certain things in my cupboard and freezer I can make almost anything. We have pretty basic tastes and if a new recipe calls for something I don’t usually have on hand, I’m not likely to make it.  I think the tip that has helped me the most comes from the once a month cooking. I buy large amounts of meat, cook it, and freeze it in appropriate portions. This cuts the thawing and cooking time tremendously on a day by day basis.  And the second thing is to have a few easy “back up” meals for busy/sick/whatever days. Whether it’s a frozen casserole or hamburger helper, if it keeps me from wanting to order a pizza, I call it a win. 🙂

I print off a blank monthly calendar and fill in the spaces with meals and then make my grocery list…..I pull all of those recipe cards out and put them all together where I can easily get them out when it’s time to cook. I also put on the calendar a “heat and eat” night when I see that a big pot of chili will feed our family for two nights, etc. That way I know I don’t need another meal planned.

I usually do planning either for a month or two weeks....still trying to figure out what works for our family. I also make sure to plan in frozen pizza night, or make paninis....etc....
I don't necessarily follow the calendar as I wrote it, I just cross it off as we go so I know it's been used. 
As far as shopping, one thing I'm trying is to calculate say how many juice boxes or Gatorade etc. I think we need and buy that many for the month, when they are gone they are GONE....there is always water! Trying to be a little bit more budget friendly in this area....

As with everything in my life, I usually do not plan in advance.  I just fly by the seat of my pants.  There are a few situations where I do sort of think ahead.  These would be birthdays, holidays, and “national whatever day.”  For instance, I knew a week in advance that the following week was going to be national pancake day.  Therefore, I planned to make pancakes for supper that day.  However, I did not decide on pumpkin pancakes until a couple of hours before supper.   Also, on the occasion that I actually have made freezer meals, I can sometimes plan ahead by deciding what meal to get out of the freezer, possibly as early as the day before.

One last thought on my meal planning would be this…I keep a VERY well-stocked pantry.  I have so much to choose from that I do not have to run to the store at last minute for whatever I do decide to make.  I always have canned beans of all varieties (navy, pinto, black, chili, etc.), canned tomatoes (diced, with onion and garlic, Rotel, sauce, paste, etc.), canned veggies, canned broth or Watkins soup bases, pastas of all sizes and shapes, etc.  I also buy my meat from local farmers and keep my freezer well stocked.  I get 1/4 cow and 1/2 pig at a time, and I also keep my eyes out for chicken sales and buy many packages at a time when it is on sale for $1.50 or so per pound.  I freeze all of this, as well as can the meat in quart-sized jars for future use.  It makes for a very quick go-to for meals.  I also have a garden and can a lot of that as well.  There are occasions where a store-bought rotisserie chicken can make for a quick meal (chicken noodle soup, chicken quesadillas, chicken and dumplings, etc.) and can be added to items that you already have.

When you have such a well-stocked pantry, you can really make meals at last minute that are easy and healthy for your family and you do not have to resort to pre-packaged things like Hamburger Helper that are full of preservatives and additives that are not good for you or your family.

 I plan meals in advance, one week.  I plan my meals for the week as I make my grocery list so I can go to the store once a week.  I really dislike grocery shopping, but I like to cook, so it ensures I have all the ingredients to make the dishes.  I have found we eat healthier because I have fresh produce and ingredients on hand, and it is cheaper because we tend to not eat out as much, shopping with a list keeps my impulse buys to a minimum, and we save time and money by not stopping at the store multiple times during the week.  Some weeks work better than others, but I find I eat so much better and I don't stress about it, because I have a plan!  

When things get extra busy around our house, a little organization can help a lot! I try to have a simple menu of things our family likes that I repeat each week. As there is time available I substitute and put in some new things. Staples for lunch – sandwiches, quesadillas … For supper – hamburgers, tacos, crock pot chicken, salad …

I know a lot of people that plan their meals on Sat. or Sun. for the week.  They use allrecipes or the Hy-vee website to help them put their meal plans together.  On allrecipes you can get already made meal plans – you just have to sign up for them.

 Sometimes I pick out 7 meals, then I write the grocery list accordingly.  Or else I just replenish what I am out of (based on a running list), and we eat the same things again.

I am hit and miss when it comes to actually planning out meals according to a calendar.  I usually have a well-stocked pantry and a few meals in the freezer, so we do rarely have an unscheduled fast food run due to lack of food.  Also I have to plan extra for every meal – my husband eats leftovers every day for lunch (usually willingly, although I can tell when something wasn’t his favorite when I find out he ate a $2 Taco Bell meal instead).  When I go to the grocery store I usually do have meals in mind and a general idea of when I am cooking what.  But this is a definite goal of mine to improve in this area.  Life is less stressful when I can look on a calendar and know exactly what I am cooking for dinner.

I usually plan out my meals for the month. I do a big Sam’s run then a big bread store run (about 20 loaves) on the north side of town and throw it all in the freezer.  Then, I go to Trader Joe’s once a week for A LOT of produce.

I actually created a chart on my computer for this and I used it a little sporadically until I started working evenings.  I’ve done freezer meals a few times too.  My family hates soup and casserole though so that is not the perfect solution for us either. Now my husband/daughter cook many nights a week and it is chaos.  We waste more food for sure.  I’m never sure what to buy so I spend a ton just filling the fridge and freezer so they have options.  Probably not worth it all but I’m not smart enough to do the math nor consistent enough to talk my husband into letting me quit.  I don’t have that chart on my new computer so it’d take a bit for me to send it to you but I could if you wanted.  It worked pretty good when I stuck to it.  Another idea we never followed through on was having Mex Monday, Italian Tues, Fish Wed., etc.  If we did this now I’d never get some of my favorite foods!

I have found that it works best for me to plan 4 meals at a time.  If I plan more than that, I feel like I waste food.  Plus if I plan too many, the meals that I have picked may no longer sound interesting.   If the meals are fairly easy to double (such as lasagna), I try to make two and then freeze one.  We tend to eat leftovers on the week-end.

I wish I did better meal planning – it would make life easier, I think, in meal prep and in shopping.  I am usually one or two days ahead in my planning.  Although I don’t know what we will do for supper tonight   Sometimes I make something with leftovers for another meal, like last monday I made pork roast so last night we had bbq pork sandwiches.  I like to have leftovers sometimes for lunches (my husband doesn’t like to take sandwiches in his lunch). So a couple times a week I try to make sure there will be leftovers (he doesn’t take his lunch every day). Also try to plan variety – I could eat chicken and pasta everyday and be in heaven, My husband would not like that though.  So I have learned to not have chicken twice in a row, and we only have pasta only once a week.  That is part of planning too.

Sometimes we use a monthly meal plan that we made years ago – it consists of hamburger meals on Monday, chicken meals on Tuesday, Italian on Weds., Oriental on Thurs. etc., but already predetermined meals for each day of the month.  It’s a plan that we would just repeat each month, but it provided enough variety to keep it interesting.  We had some 1-2 days left open for new recipes.

I usually make a week’s menu and go from there.  The menu includes lunch and dinner, even snacks.  We use quite a bit of fresh fruits/vegetables so those are bought weekly.  I have pre-cut carrots and celery for during the week.  For more long term planning, I may buy extra items (nonperishable or frozen) if they are on sale.  Canned foods, bread, etc….

 I sometimes make extra and freeze the second portion.  I have found that the ziploc vacuum freezer bags are great for freezing foods and keeping them tasty.  

 Some items that I may cook in batches to freeze in meal size portions:

beans (garbonzo etc…)

beets

squash (pumpkin, acorn.  Roasted in oven along with beets, rutabagas, etc…)

pork butt roast (this makes great shredded pork sandwiches.  I cook the roast over about 16 hours, shred, eat or freeze)

ground beef

poultry/turkey

usually I make chicken or turkey broth from the carcass

pasta (I find that the Barilla Plus pasta is a nice firm pasta for this.  I cook only to firm, not soft.  I let it freeze flat in the package then use the vacuum to  remove the air.  This way I don’t flatten the pasta)

pizza crust (par-baked)  I can freeze these as personal pan size, or thin crust, etc….

rice

 I also use a pressure cooker to cook beans, pasta, meat.

I do plan my meals, but usually off of the sales that week and then I do my own form of freezer cooking.  I also do many meals in crock pots.  I take my calendar and just assign meals according to the time I will be home in the late afternoon.  Mondays and Thursdays are most often crockpot meals or one that I put in the oven for 3 or more hours.  I have a list of those to pick from.  I also use lunch as my get rid of leftovers so that we don’t buy as much processed meat.

I would love to ignore the sales and just plan a menu but that is a very expensive way to eat.  Most of the time I fill in a black with several vegetables that would work, but I am flexible with what is in the freezer or on sale.  Usually, I buy things to put in the pantry knowing that I will need something like that eventually and then it is not twice the price when I need it.  I have quit doing this with candy and treats.  I just pay the extra, otherwise I just eat it.  So then I am out my cheap treat that I was saving and I am fat.  Both bad in my world, so I decided I would just wait to buy stuff like m and m’s til I know we will be using them and then I just make a big enough batch to finish them off so I will not be tempted to “finish them off.”   I have rotated the same meals for 2-3 weeks and then done it again.

I do not plan my meals in advance in a conventional way.  I don’t like to be locked into have a specific meal on a specific day.  However, I do have a plan of a sort.  In my kitchen, I have a white board.  On that board, I keep a running list of possible meals that I could make based on the food in my home.  When I make a meal on the list, I erase it.  After I go to the grocery store, I add meals to the list based on what I have purchased.  Having the list helps me to decide each morning what I will make each evening.

There is one other thing I do to help my meal “planning.”   I prepare much of the meat that goes into my meals in advance.  For example, I will roast whole chickens in my roaster oven and then debone the chicken, cut it into bite size pieces, and freeze it in ziploc bags.  When I need cooked chicken for a casserole or soup, I just take out a bag of cooked chicken from the freezer.  I do the same with ground beef.  I brown it or cook it into meatballs.  It makes meals like tacos or spaghetti very quick to make when the meat is pre-cooked. 

I cook food in advance and that helps me a ton when planning meals.  I purchase ground beef and either whole chickens or chicken leg quarters at a low price and have a cooking day.  Usually pan fry the hamburger and let drain and cool, and the chicken I either, lightly season and put in the crock pot or oven, depending in what it is and how much I bought.  (I try to not do both kinds of meat all at once…). I then bag the cooked meat in freezer bags in 2 cup increments (2 cups is about what a pound of cooked ground beef is in amount).  I do the same with the chicken, except I get to do all that fun deboning stuff.  (Poultry carcases can be used to make chicken broth btw). I also keep the stock in small containers or ice cube portions to use when I need it.  I have a good well tried rotisserie chicken recipe for the crock pot that I use in occasion.  It’s from the crockpot365 blog.

I also find myself buying chicken breasts at a low price in massive (10 or 20 pounds from super saver when they are $1.70 or less) quantity and either weighing out a pound of meat, bagging it and squirting marinade in before I zip it shut, or I cut it up small for stir fry dishes before I weigh, bag and freeze it.  And yes, I buy my zip lock type bags when they are super cheap.

I don’t make many casseroles beforehand because its hard for me to remember to thaw in advance.  I’d rather thaw the meat and be 15 minutes ahead if the recipe prep time.  Plus I have more flexibility.

As for meal planning, we pick 8-10 meals for 2 weeks and I buy the ingredients for those meals.  But I have two small kids and a husband, and one of the kids is addicted to pb&j.  🙂   We also freeze the leftovers if we can for another quick meal.  (Spaghetti sauce, taco meat, sloppy jokes mostly.). It has certainly cut down the excess we used to bring home from the store.

Good advise to pass on – label.  Label everything that goes into the freezer.  I have done it twice now – I’ve pulled out what I thought was sloppy jokes for my husband’s lunch and sent it with the bun and chips and whatnot.  It was spaghetti sauce once and taco meat the next time.

I love soups! I have HUGE pot (note: what was on display at the meal planning session) and I usually take a recipe times 2 or sometimes times 4 or 5 based on original size. I then I freeze TONS in both tupperware sized for a family meal, and in some small individual sized tupperware for an easy lunch if short on time.  I tend to freeze a few of the family sized and 4-5 individuals. This works great for chili, taco soup, chicken noodle and vegetable soup. I’ve also tried putting soup into muffin pans, then once frozen, take out and put into ziploc bags. 1-2 muffin “soups” warm up for a great snack or meal.  I’ve thought about getting the large muffin tins for solely this purpose.  (Last week, we had family drop in unexpectedly. and I was able to pull out a tupperware of soup and dinner was served.)

 Also, did crock pot chicken with peppers that you  shredded chicken, tossed half reciepe in freezer and pulled out for fajitias.  I also will crock pot huge roast, or 2 smaller ones that you can then shred and freeze half for sandwiches when you need it. Other is make huge roast, eat it for day or so, then take leftovers with juice from crockpot (shredd meat) toss in diced veggies and some more broth and you’ve got hearty soup you can either eat or freeze for later.

When I make pancakes, I ALWAYS double batch it and freeze half. I either pop them in the toaster or microwave them for quick breakfast. Why does pancakes make such a mess anyway….

I keep a very well stocked pantry.  I do tend to have meals that I make frequently.  Most of my recipes are now in my head, so there is not quite as much meal planning that I need to do.

I buy A LOT of meat when it goes on sale, so that I always have a variety to choose from.  Then every week I look at the ads and plan my meals around what is on sale.  I also make a lot of large meals, then I serve the leftovers the next night.  This way I can do less cooking – my family doesn’t seem to mind.

I plan meals at least a week in advance.  It saves me about $50 or more in food costs a week.  I go through cook books and plan a weekly menu.  I plan around activities and my husband’s work schedule.  Also I know if I need to cook during the day to prepare for the meal at night.  The planning saves money and headaches.

I am a recent meal planner and I cannot believe the amount of money it has saved!  I was guilty of spending a lot of money on food and then feeling like I have nothing to make for dinner!  On average, I now spend $75 less per week!  I plan the meals for the week on Sunday and I’m pretty loose about it-I only take 5-10 minutes to so it.  Then, I check for coupons only for what I am planning to buy and that’s it!  Personally, I have also had to just avoid SuperTarget…I love it so much but I was always spending a lot of money on non-essentials. So, now I make a list and buy only those things only from a grocery store.  The avenue I use for finding the weekly recipes is Pinterest, which I would say is the greatest thing ever.  🙂

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