meal planning 101

Does this image make you cringe with dread?

I don't know about you, but meal planning can really stress me out. Recently, however, I've decided to do a monthly menu plan, and it has been very helpful. Are you trying to get into the habit of making a menu so that you won't be fretting over what to have for dinner or running out to the grocery store at the last minute to "pick up a couple of things", knowing you're going to go over budget as a result of not planning, but you're overwhelmed or worried you'll be bored with your choices? Well, that is where I have so often lived, but hope I'm moving past it. I'm certainly in process, and  admit that I have some months where I don't do this, but whenever I do make a monthly menu, it is so helpful and such a time-saving stress reliever for me. You might want to tweak it to your own personality and time span, but here are a few pointers that have helped me so far. 

Create a meal planning notebook.
Any type will do. I found a plain, college ruled notebook that would allow for a long list.
Within the notebook, here is what I do:

Page 1: Separate into 4 sections, so you'll have 1 per week.
Page 2: Grocery list. One list per page. So if I go shopping once every two weeks, I make one page for those 2 weeks.
Page 3, etc: Remaining grocery lists to be filled in as the month and my shopping goes.
This goes on and on for every month.

Decide how many meals you'll cook. A few good things to think about...:
Will you have theme nights? Some people do Mexican, Italian, pizza, chicken night, vegetarian night, etc.
Will you have a certain number of veggie nights where you know you won't be cooking a big main course with meat?
How many nights do you need to cook? 
Do you usually eat out once per week? 
Do you want Sunday evenings, for example, to be easy, which means a sandwich night or leftovers? How many leftover nights do you want to have?
Do you know you'll have a really long day once a week where you want to make something simple?
How many meals do you want to cook that you can double and freeze for the future?
Will you be having company?
Will you be making any meals for friends who have new babies, etc?

This has been helpful for me. Right now, we have 2-3 "veggie nights", one "sandwich or omelet night"(helps with the budget and saves me time!), and a "leftover" night.  In the winter, I might make one night a "soup" night. This lets me organize by knowing I'll be planning for 2-3 larger "main course" meals and 2-3 easier veggie type meals where we'll also have something like beans for protein. Knowing this relieves stress just because I know I only have to plan for 2-3 nights where I am going to be cooking something with meat or a larger casserole type dish. I usually alternate veggie nights with main course nights. This leaves 8-12 "main course" meals to plan for per month.

Figuring out which recipes to make:
I like to make a few meals I already know how to make, and leave a few spots for meals I want to try. It's always good to have a few "no fail" recipes in case most of your experiments do not go over well! For new recipes, I like to bookmark meals I see on blogs throughout the month under a folder called "recipes to try", and when I go to do my meal planning, I can reference these meals along with any other recipe from a cookbook I might have in the back of my head, or if I know I want to learn to make some special type of dish, I jot that down and look for a recipe that way. I also like to make a few meals each month that I can double or triple and freeze for down the road. This saves my sanity, just knowing there is something frozen I can grab if I need it. A friend of mine made around 50 frozen meals for her family while she was pregnant, just by doubling most of her main courses during those 9 months. Needless to say, it was a huge stress reliever for her to know most of her meals for the first 2-3 months after the baby arrived were taken care of before she even gave birth! Meals brought by friends were an added blessing, but she wasn't left counting on them in case she didn't receive many.

List the meals you'll be making:
Once you've done this, list the meals you want to make for each week. "Main course" meals, as I call them, require more planning and searching through recipes. Veggie nights are easy to me-I might try a new salad or side, but for the most part, I know I'll just be trying to make 2-3 veggie sides, maybe some beans, maybe some bread, and maybe some fruit.

Fill in sides to those meals:
Once you've listed all the meals you want to prepare (i.e. lasagna), go back through and list 1 or 2 sides you'll be serving with them (salad, roasted carrots, and bread, for example).  This helps you plan ahead so you won't be serving broccoli every night. This is good for variety in taste and nutrition.

Make the dreaded grocery list:

I find it helpful to print out all of the recipes I am making, so that I can take inventory of all the ingredients I'll be needing. Looking on a computer screen and downsizing one page after another is personally confusing for me, but it may not be for you. However, one added bonus of doing this is that you'll have all your recipes in a pile to reference when you cook. You can even use a clipboard and keep these together throughout the month.

I also glance through my pantry as I go to make sure I'm actually out of what I think I need more of, and to make sure I have what I think I have but may not. This leads me to my next point...

Be detailed:
I believe this is the biggest part to avoiding frustrating, budget breaking multiple trips to the store! Make a list of every ingredient you'll need to buy when you make your trip. I find it helpful, for example, to go through and see how many pounds of beef I'll need, and I write that amount down next to "ground beef" on my list. I do the same with things like diced tomatoes, carrots, celery, garlic, onions, I'll know I have enough of things that are in a lot of the recipes I will be making. This might seem hyper detailed, but it is worth the extra couple of minutes. By the end of my list, everything I will need for my 2 weeks will be written out. After I've done this for all of our dinners, I go back and add things I'll need to purchase for breakfast, lunch, and snacks. I don't really plan out breakfast or lunch; I just have 2-3 types of meals we usually have and I know to have those certain ingredients on hand (sandwich meat and cheese, salad, black beans, eggs, etc., for example).

Specify which products to buy where:
I buy some groceries from the farmers market, some from the health food grocery store, a couple of things from Sam's, and the rest from my other grocery store of choice. If the bulk of things are coming from that store, then I'll just go through the list and in parenthesis I'll write by items coming from other places where to get them. For example, I buy sandwich meat, yogurt, and some organics from the healthy grocery store, so I label those. I'll write "Sam's" by items I need to get there, and even "Target" beside toiletry items I need.

Speaking of toiletry items, I find it helpful to have a category, on the same page, of non-grocery items. Diapers, bath wash, and toilet paper, for example. And if I have coupons for these, I set them out with my notebook as well so I don't leave them!

I also specify which items I'll be doubling and freezing by writing that out to the side of the meals.

Freezing meals:
I'm a huge proponent of this, as I've already said. A couple of pointers...

Doubling recipes:
I try to make at least 1 meal a week that I can double. For example, if I make lasagna, I'll double to recipe. Since each recipe makes 1 9x12 pan but my husband, child, and I will only eat half at a time, I will make 4 8x8 pans instead of 2 9x12's. We'll usually eat 1 for dinner that night and the rest go straight to the freezer. The last time I did this, I stretched the sauce and cheese a little further and somehow got 6 8x8's out of it. I was giddy while loading all of those into my deep freeze! Just making 1 freezer batch meal a week will add up in the long run to a lot of freezer meals if you can get 4 8x8's out of the time it takes to make 1 9x12. Getting a cheap deep freezer and stocking up on aluminum pans at the dollar store (or even lining pans with foil and then removing the dish once it's frozen) has been such a help. Other things that are great for freezing are breads, soups, sauces (marinara or meat, for example), and pizza dough.

Cooking common dishes at the same time:
When I made the lasagna, I took one day to make the sauce, and then put the lasagna together the next. On the day that I made the sauce, I also made a double batch of marinara sauce that I use for chicken Parmesan, and froze it in 1-2 cup portions. Since most of the ingredients for the sauces were the same, it was a cinch to make them at once. It saved cooking for down the road, and now all I have to do is put the sauce onto the chicken Parmesan when I decide to make it.

To think about:
If you are shopping ahead for more than one week at a time, be sure to set aside a portion of money that you'll need to have to fill in perishables (milk or bananas, for example) throughout the week(s) you'll not be shopping.
I also like to jot the prices down as I buy things at the grocery store so that I can keep up with how much I'm spending as I go (sometimes I even add it up before I check out if I'm worried I'm going over budget), and also to price compare as I go from store to store.

I hope this will help you a little bit as you come up with a plan for how to plan ahead. Whether you are a stay at home mom or have a busy career outside the home, being able to plan ahead will save you time and money, and one too many nights of fighting traffic, only to come home with an already made rotisserie chicken (though sometimes those are life-savers, for sure!).