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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Tips & Tricks {Meal Planning}

Because I know absolutely nothing about lots of stuff...
Because a bloggie friend asked and then another, and then we got to talking about it...
Because it's Wednesday, and I'm wearing my yoga pants... again...
Because it's 76 degrees in the desert right now and folks are wearing leather and fur...
Because eating around the table as a whole family is really that important...

Today's topic is meal planning.

Meal planning used to be something I despised.  To be honest, meal planning is still not by best friend.  Or even a good acquaintance.  But after many years and many trials and errors, if meal planning and I saw each other at a dinner party, we could make casual conversation and get along.  Maybe even laugh a bit.  In the history of my being a homemaker and mama, I've come a long way in my relationship with meal planning.

So I thought I'd share with you how it's done in Casa de Crazy.

1)  I meal plan approximately once per week.  The key word here is approximately.  First, I know many mamas that do it on a very regular schedule (like every Monday, every other Wednesday, the first week of the month...) but being on a more flexible schedule works better for me.  More on that later.  Secondly, I plan and shop weekly.  Again, many mamas plan for 2 weeks at a time, or even monthly.  But I prefer to do it approximately every week as I usually need to go to the market anyway that often anyway to keep milk and fresh fruits and veggies on hand.  So I figure I might as well plan the meals anyway since I'll already be at the store.  And the thought of planning for longer, especially for a month, makes my head feel like it's going to implode.

2)  I keep a running list for the market at all times.  I have a little place in my kitchen that all my lists go and the grocery list is there, getting added to all week as we run out of staples.  So by the time I start my meal planning the list already has quite a few things on it.  The list is always organized, breads on the bottom left, produce on bottom right, home-goods top left, meats in the middle right column, dairy on the top right... you get the gist.  It just makes shopping so much faster and easier.

3)  Meal planning starts with my recipe book, my computer, and my list.  Unlike meal planning, my recipe book is my BFF, it is one of a handful of things in my kitchen that I simply can not live without.  I'm lucky to have 3 big box grocery stores pretty close to my home.  I pull up the weekly sales online, and pick the store that has milk (or sometimes protein) on sale that week.  With my recipe book, I find 5-6 main courses (for either dinner or a hearty lunch) that could be made with sale items.  I write these 6 dishes on the back of my list.  To come up with the idea of the 6 dishes, sometimes something in my book looks good.  Sometimes the sale makes me think of something.  Or maybe I use coupons to help me decide.  Sometimes the kiddos request something special.  Or sometimes I have something on hand I need to use.  (Last week I had an over abundance of potatoes.  Not sure why or how, but needed to use about 20+ lbs of potatoes so they wouldn't go bad.  So meal idea started with the mind set of "what can I use potatoes in?"  Potato soup and baked potatoes were two of the main dishes we had last week)  But 6 is the best number for our family to last a week.  1-2 of these meals are usually crock pot meals.  1 of these is usually a hearty soup.  1 of these is usually for the grill.  1-2 of these are usually something I can put on the stove and folks can eat it whenever (like chili or stew) in case we have a busy night with kiddos going in and out and we don't have an opportunity for a sit-down family meal.  Sometimes some of these 6 meals are used for family lunches on the weekend.  Lastly to my list, I add the ingredients that I don't have on hand to make the 6 main dishes.

4)  To the list I also add side dishes for those meals, and several things I get weekly, such as milk, fruits and vegetables, salad fixin's...  To be honest, there are many things I don't add to the list because I get them automatically.  These include, milk, eggs, yogurt, fresh fruits that are in season and/or on sale, salad fixin's, a couple loaves of bread, bagels (part of Tess's requirement for her food issues or I wouldn't normally get them because they're too expensive to get regularly)  I also add staples for our regular breakfasts.  We have a list of 8-ish breakfast meals, and I keep all those things on hand at all times.  I also add what I need for the staples of packing lunches.

5)  Then Mimi and I are off to the store.  We only go shopping on weekdays in the morning. (On a side note-I've always had the rule that toddler feet don't touch the floor in the grocery store.  They stay in the cart... period.  Call me a meanie but I gotta get out of there with minimal destruction.  When I had Tess and Jude with me, Tess went into the Ergo through age 4, and Jude was in the cart.)  The organized list makes it so we do less back tracking, and I get in and out of the store in an hour.  I scan the sales as we shop and pickup on anything that I keep on stock even if it isn't on the list, (canned soups, canned vegetables, cereal, meats, tuna fish, crackers...)  The grocery bill is usually less than $100.

6) On Wednesdays, I add one more store, Sprouts, which is our local whole-ish foods store.  They offer the sale prices from both the week before and the week coming on Wednesdays so there are more sales.  Here I get our bulk foods that I keep in stock (granola, almonds, trail mix, whole oats, steel cuts oat, flax seed...) and more fresh fruits and vegetables.  The total us somewhere around $20.  When I get home the grocery list is then turned over to the side that has the 6 meals listed on it and posted in the kitchen so I don't forget what they are.  That kinda thing happens when one has 7 children, or even 1.

7)  I never pass up an opportunity to double any meal that I'm cooking, and freeze half for a later date.  This includes spaghetti sauce, casseroles, many soups, chicken pot pie...

8)  Everyday by noon, I made sure that I have done two things.   First, figure out what is for dinner (which is easy since I have a list of 5-6 possibilities will all the necessary ingredients.  And secondly, figure out what is for dinner the next night and pull anything out of the freezer to go in the refrigerator that might need to be thawed.  Now that next meal might not be made tomorrow.  With 9 of us in the house, meals can be unpredictable.  Baseball practice, appointments, Boy Scout meetings, and the such can derail what I was had planned for dinner.  But by planning what meal is "next" I always have something ready to go for the next few days.  And I have to start thinking about it and make the plan by lunch time.  If I wait till later in the afternoon, I'm far to late to get anything prepared by dinner time.

These 5-6 planned meals (for all dinners and lunches on Sat. and Sun.) will surely get supplemented with a couple pull-it-out-of-the-freezer meals, a left-over night, pizza night, and/or probably going out to eat with the family once.  So these 5-6 meals last about a week, give or take a few days.

I start making the next meal plan when there is only 1 meal left on the list.

Like I said, meal planning isn't my fave.  But I know that if I don't stay on top of it, there will be stress, higher grocery bills, too much takeout and eating out, and not as good food.  And I know that this is just the way it works for me.  There are lots of other good ways to do it.  Would you comment and tell us what works for you?


  1. This is so helpful! I really need to do a better job of planning our meals ahead. Thank you for sharing your tips.

  2. This is exactly how I plan our meals as well and it works well for us... and our seven kids! And since I am the one cooking the meals, I get to chose exactly what I want to eat that week!

  3. did i read that right? (got a bunch of kids on me and trying to school haha) you spend $120 a week???? needed. a pic of your cart before check out and a list of meals for the week. does that include veggies and fruit?

    1. Yes, a $120 max for the 9 of us. It's usually under $100. We do not do many convenience foods since I cook a lot. Hardly any snacky things like crackers or cookies. I do a lot of canning and that helps. Yes fruits and veggies included.

    2. Oh yea, meals for this week are
      1--Chicken Italian Soup (Chicken was on sale, like discount and about to expire. I froze it till I get to this one and bought an extra for later)
      2--Bisquits and gravy (I had sausage already frozen from a sale a while back)
      3--Goulash (had to buy gb for this one)
      4--Fijitas (had meat frozen and it's been in there a while so I need to use. Also have tortillas left over from last week's supply)
      5--Chili dogs (I keep hotdogs in stock as they go on sale frequently)
      6--Cowboy beans and cornbread (pork was on a great sale. I bought 3 so two will be frozen and saved for a future meals.)

  4. I make my list based on our weekly meals. We do 6 dinners and always go out on Fridays to either the pizza place or the local brewery. I love Fridays! I'm not a sandwich person so I usually also include my lunches, like a bag of popcorn chicken, or ingredients to make lasagna or chili. Then I'll eat that for lunch all week unless I know whatever I'm making for dinner will provide me with leftovers for lunch. I also write my meals on the back of my list and then clip it to my fridge when I get home. We usually spend between $70-100 a week (groceries are crazy expensive in Seattle!) for 4 people. If there's a good sale on things I keep on hand like pasta, sauces or cereal I stock up. I gave up on coupons. I ended up buying things I didn't need and spending more money!

    1. Ya, I've tried coupons too. But I do buy more with them. So it's better that I don't use them.

  5. I hate meal planning. I don't like cooking, either, so I think meal planning just makes me feel inadequate. I'd be a drive through mama if we could afford it, but as it is, I'm more of a "what shall I defrost tonight?" Mama. Tater tots are a veggie, right? (I know, I know!)

    1. Ya, I do that too. Nothing wrong with it every once in a while. Especially when I stock my freezer with meals I've made!

  6. There is only 3 of us, but the big man and Lilly are...ahem...good eaters? Was that a nice way to put it? We purchase our meat once a year from a butcher. However, we run out at about the 7 month I have to supplement. We typically buy from Sam's and come home and divide it up and vacuum pack right away. We keep chuck roasts, ground beef, whole birds, and skirt steak on hand at all times. We eat no processed foods so we buy lots of fruit and veggies. I also divide up our veggies and vacuum them too.

    We might be boring, but because we don't eat processed, I use onions, celery, carrots, and garlic in almost everything. I do use canned tomatoes after I run out of my canned stash. It doesn't matter whether I'm making a roast, soup, or roasted chicken...I use those veggies in everything. I change up the taste by using spices. Spices are FUN!

    We do have spaghetti once a week. Because my girl likes my spaghetti. A lot.

    I make all our bread and pasta. We were buying our flour in bulk but I've asked for a mill for my birthday and I will soon switch us over to all whole grain.

    Lilly drinks milk and water. We should buy a cow to keep the kid in milk. The big guy and I haven't been able to shake our Diet Dr. Pepper or coffee habit so we do buy those from Sams in bulk. We purchase no other beverages.

    Snacks around here consist of fresh fruit, popcorn, or sugar-free popsicles. Okay, maybe the only "processed" thing I buy. Lilly accidently picked up the regular one night and she threw them out because they were disgusting!

    We probably sound pretty boring...but spices are my friend. We go out to eat one time per month. When I had to quit working 4 years ago, we lost 70% of our income. We had to immediately "adjust fire" because there was no way we could continue our old ways. I was a military contractor and I traveled 2-3 weeks per month. Lilly and her Dad were always eating out...and when I was in town I didn't want to either!

    I don't know how you get out of there spending less than $100.00 Nancy! I do live in a part of the country that is expensive only because of it being kind of "out of the way". I'm from Texas and took all that beef and fresh produce for granted. I can't by avacados up here because as much as I love and crave them, $2.99 for a puny Haas Avacado just won't fly on our budget!


  7. Heh - you are better than me - we'll figure out tonights dinner when I get home around 2:30! My mom on the other hand (remember I'm WAY older than you) had a standard 7 day meal plan and you could tell the day of the week by what hit the dinner table! Sunday - cottage ham in the pressure cooker, Monday - meatloaf, etc - I can still recite the whole list! Since mom never learned to drive a car, after Dad passed away the local grocery store owner would call on Saturday morning, and sometime Saturday afternoon would drop off the boxes of food for the week - and on sunday after church Mom would start cooking and freezing! Quite the operation in our house - and the first person home fired up the oven and dropped dinner in there so we could eat on was all good! Yeah - starting at age 8 I might be expected to light the gas oven (it needed a match, no such thing as a pilot light) and start dinner...times were simply different then!

    Enjoyed your thoughts - it might make it easier for us if we did that! One thing that DOES kill our grocery bill is milk. With 4 lactose intolerant folks in the house we buy lactose free's about 2.5X the cost of regular...bummer!

    hugs - aus and co.

  8. Nancy, are you willing to share breakfast and lunch ideas? I am forever stumped in that area. I love this post. I need a major re-boot in this area. :)

  9. I am super impressed about how little you spend. I find packing lunches can take a toll on the budget and my teens are also big eaters. I would love to know how you convince your teens that crackers and cookies are not a necessity of life :-) I am currently in a mode where I only have 3 dinners a week planned and the rest is flying by the seat of my pants. I need to get more organized!

    1. Ann- I just don't have crackers and cookies in the house. I don't know if they are convinced or not! Actually we do have cookies pretty regularly because a couple of the kids really like to bake. But they disappear pretty quickly. But I just don't buy snacks so they aren't in the house.

  10. I like it that you are not obsessively organized like some mom blogs I have seen. No spread sheet, no rigid checklist. This blog is written by a real mom for real moms!

    1. Well thank you, Lulu! I think I can be obsessive about some things. But flexibility is really important to me too.

  11. i am awful at meal planning! this was really helpful :)

  12. Okay, I confess-I am one of those "obsessively organized blog moms", but only out of necessity-if I had it my way, nothing in my life would be planned ;). However, I have a full time job, 4 highschool/college kids and my downs syndrome sister living at home, direct children's ministries at church, and have recently started a non profit organization, so needless to say, I HAD to find a way to streamline many day-to-day chores. Menu planning & grocery shopping were taking me most of the day on saturdays, or not getting done, which then forced us to eat out way too often.

    I made a list of all our favorite meals along with 8 new dishes to try. I then divided those into categories (beef,chicken,soups,salads, sandwiches,etc). Once that was done, I organized those into 8 wks of menus. Each week we do 1 beef/pork dish, 2 chicken/turkey dishes, 1 soup, 1 salad, 1 sandwich, & 1 pasta dish. I made master grocery lists for each weeks meals & standard items, along with spaces to add anything else we may need that week. I laminated the menus & corresponding grocery lists(Walmart carries relatively inexpensive self stick laminating sheets) & put each on separate snap together rings & keep them & a dry erase marker on a hook inside the pantry door. The grocery lists are separated by categories, and on Saturday mornings, my two oldest girls & I go out for breakfast and then grocery shopping. We each take separate carts and our lists and meet back at the front of the store when we're finished to check out. Most weeks it takes less than half an hour in the store. While we're gone, my hubby & son clean out the refrigerator & pantry, and the two younger girls put the groceries away and switch the menu on the refrigerator when we get home. I rarely ever use coupons because I just don't have the time.

    I know this probably sounds difficult, and it initially did take most of a saturday to put together the menus & lists, but I only have to do it once every two months now, and as we try new dishes and find things we like, we're adding them to the lists, so I have to do them less & less frequently. Also, with the menu for the week on the fridge, the kids know what's for dinner & can get it started before I get home from work. We usually do sandwiches or salad on Wednesdays since we have church, and I usually reserve the more difficult/time consuming meals for the weekends. The ladies at our church also try to get together once a month to share recipes & cook meals together that we can divide up & put in the freezer to have on hand for nights when other things come up, or to share with a friend who may be sick, grieving or recovering.


    1. Hi Pam!
      My favorite part? That you and your girls go out for girl time before the grocery shopping. How sweet and well earned!
      Thank you for commenting. There's a lot of good stuff to chew on.
      I LOVE the laminated lists! Might have to do that soon.


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