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Sunday, January 6, 2013

A return to menu-planning for January

Several years ago I menu-planned every week. My life was quite busy with 3 small children. Being organized kept me on the top of the rolling boulder, instead of underneath.

Somewhere along the way, my calm, thought out, once-a-week, menu-plan session, morphed into a caffeine driven, bleary eyed, madwoman on the highway mom, shouting out, "what should I make for dinner?", to the occupants of the back seat of the car, en route to said occupants' school.

Shocking as this may be, this current plan for securing a dinner menu, is no longer working terribly well for me.  Life has seemed more chaotic this year than any recent year, and I have slipped to the underside of the boulder careening down the mountainside.

And so, once again, I embark upon a scheduled menu-planning session, every weekend, to see if I can simplify meal prep in my kitchen.

One aspect of menu-planning has never appealed to me -- the idea of planning my meals, then going to the grocery store to buy all the ingredients. I tend to stock my kitchen with good deals, THEN decide what I can make from it all. So, my planning style reflects this.

My three kids help with dinner preparation, weekly. They have one night per week when they work together to make dinner, and each have a night as helpers to me. Kids of all ages can be a help in the kitchen. But once they are teens, they can do so much more than be assistants.

When they are "helpers" I set aside one specific task for each, so they can know what is expected of them, and follow through. If I just have them hanging around the kitchen while I try to come up with things for them to do, I find I often am moving as fast as I am thinking, and just can't come up with tasks that make them feel productive and truly help me. So, you'll see, below, that with each helper, I have chosen a specific task, at their level of kitchen skill.

Dinner prep takes longer for my kids, at this point, so I schedule them on a night when I know they have the time to spare. Most weeks, their night is Saturday, and they begin with dinner prep around 4 PM, for a dinner hour around 6 PM.

When kids or husband help with meal preparation it really means a lot to me. It says that they appreciate what I do for them the rest of the week. A lot like having a spouse who cleans the kitchen after dinner. That is a much bigger "thank you" than words, as you home cooks can attest.

I try to "double up" on work when possible, and make extras to be used later in the week (or even month) in another dish. And about once every fortnight we have a leftovers' smorgasbord. I am trying to make weekend dinners easy for me -- a nice break from the work week.

As I said above, I plan from what I already have in the kitchen. So, this week's dinners are heavy in ham and turkey, as we're using up holiday turkey and ham from the freezer. While we have plenty of fruit in the house, for veggies I'm down to just greens like kale, broccoli, mustard greens in the garden, salad greens under lights indoors, and a handful of carrots and potatoes. My shopping list is brief, however, for this week's dinners.

need to buy: onions, potatoes, cabbage, carrots, eggs

  • ham, broccoli (or kale, depends on what's in the garden still) and cheese quiche, steamed brown rice, avocado-citrus salad (make extra rice for Friday's fried rice)   
Tuesday (daughter helper with veggies)
  • pulled turkey sandwiches on buns, carrot sticks, oven-fried potato wedges (cut extra carrot sticks for roasted carrots on Wednesday, out of bbq sauce, will make a substitution w/ ketchup, soy sauce, onions and chili powder for pulled turkey, make double batch of buns with dough in bread machine over weekend, freeze other half of buns for next week)
Wednesday (daughter helper with fruit salad)
  • ham slices, fruit salad, corn pudding, roasted carrot sticks (ham from freezer, corn pudding made with canned corn) 
Thursday (son helper with serving dinner while I take daughter to dance class)
  • pumpkin-ham soup, cornbread (make extra soup and cornbread for lunches next day), frozen fruit cobbler (do double batch for tomorrow's dessert)
Friday (kids cook)
  • fried rice, with egg, ham, frozen mixed veggies, onion, garlic and cabbage (shred 4 cups extra cabbage for Saturday's cole slaw), plus leftover fruit cobbler
  • leftover night -- take all leftover containers from freezer for smorgasbord-style dinner, serve with cole slaw (cabbage for cole slaw shredded by kids on Friday, simple dressing)
  • turkey-cream cheese-cranberry sauce sandwiches, roasted squash, pickles (turkey, cranberry sauce and roasted squash from freezer)

So, what do you think about weekly meal planning? Is it something that works for you? Do you think it saves money? What do you do when you reach a day when what you've planned just doesn't sound appetizing any more? Or are you a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of cook? Do you enjoy the flexibility of choosing what to eat the afternoon of? I GET both sides, and just want to know where you fall with regards to planning a week ahead.


  1. I would rather work from a well stocked freezer and pantry, than just a list. However, I need to plan at least the morning of or when I'm tired in the evening, I am likely to get takeout. However, I am not as well stocked as you are because I find if I buy too much, I tend to waste it. So for now, I'm still a work in progress.

    My kids have always helped in the kitchen. However, once they got to be teens, I found it was better if I stayed out of the kitchen when they were working and let them ask questions if they had them. I tend to be too bossy. During long school breaks when they couldn't find a job, they were in charge of all meals. That was their job. They did all of the planning and cooking. They gave me a list and I bought what they needed. It was a good thing for all of us.

    1. Hi live and learn,
      I know what you mean about needing to stay out of the kitchen when your teens are cooking. I find if I'm around too much I start to freak out about their way of doing things, or messes. Best to just not look!

      But when they are my helpers, I have a very specific task for them, such as chopping the veggies, or making a salad. Then they leave to do other things. And that seems to work for us.

      I like the idea of giving meal planning and prep to teens on school holidays, if they're not working a job. That not only takes some of the weight off your shoulders, but gives them some structure to their off-school days.

  2. Like you, I stock up on good deals, from which I then create my menus. BIG $ saver. I also do "themes" each day of the week such as big meat meal Sunday (provides planned overs for later in the week such as today's roast beef can become a stroganoff, a stew). Freezing leftovers and pulling them out later also saves. I originally, when I moved out on my own, started with weekly menus, moved to 2 weeks, now do monthly. One less thing to worry about, I plan for crazy nights (that's crockpot night for instance or I prep a casserole the night before, knowing that a kidlet can pop it into the oven while I am still at work, etc).

    1. Hi Carol,
      Yes, I do think stocking the kitchen with deals, then planning from what you have, saves a tremendous amount of money.

      We subscribe to the kitchen philosophy of "freeze all leftovers". It's fun to pull a bunch of mis-matched leftovers out for a smorgasbord dinner or breakfast. Plus it gives me something to fall back on if I'm having one of those days, and can't get a proper meal on the table.

  3. Weekly meal planning works for me as well and like you, I shop for the good deals and then plan my menus based on what I have on hand. And I do believe this saves us a lot of money. When I'm working and get tired, if I have a plan to back me up I am good to go, otherwise I'm easily swayed to go out to eat! lol, which is hard on the budget.

    1. Hi Belinda,
      I know what you mean about a back-up plan. Being tired at the end of the day makes for a tough meal prep for dinner. Even when my kids were babes, I would begin dinner as early in the day as I could, just in case I was beat by 4 or 5 PM and didn't have the energy to do all the dinner work.

  4. I fall into the same category of meal planner. I buy items we like (on sale whenever possible) and plan my meals around what we have on hand. I often don't assign days, but say these are the things we need to eat and let my family pick. This gives us some flexibility, but a bit of structure because I am not letting things go to waste this way. (Normally I try to do this while we're all at the supper table the night if I forget I feel more at a loss the next day.)

    Love how you include some things to make or prep in advance. I find that thinking that way really helps me feel like I am more prepared for the next meal(s).

    I do feel like it saves money. Even when I can't find things on sale, just staying off the road and out of the store helps.
    Another big thing that helps is if I do have to be on the road, knowing something is either ready or going in the crockpot makes it easier for me to avoid picking up something on the road.

    1. Hi Shara,
      staying out of the stores is probably the best tip someone could give a new-to-frugal-living person. We tend to get more creative and just figure a way to do something, if we've decided we won't run to the store every time we run out of something.

      And for a lot of folks, every single trip to the store brings additional impulse buys that they never would have considered. I think we forget that grocery stores are businesses. They have teams of employees whose job it is to entice the consumer into buying things they may not really need. Okay, so I'm a bit of a cynic! ; )

  5. Your table looks beautiful! We used china for Christmas dinner but usually we're a dish-it-up-from-the-cooking-pot family rather than using serving pieces. I had some vague notion (before kids) that I would always use serving pieces, but I have succumbed to the simplicity of NOT doing that. :)

    Anyway, that's not what your post is about. I find that over-planning makes me feel trapped and when I feel trapped, I get grouchy. So I generally have a good idea of what I'll serve 2 or 3 nights a week and then punt the rest of the time. I try to not leave it till the last minute (I like to thaw my meat the day before instead of in a panic at the last minute) but I feel like I have the freedom to change my mind if I so desire. I buy ahead on specials for the most part, and then make meals from what I have available. I do keep on hand foods which require minimal prep (smoked turkey sausage, for example) to make a quick and easy meal. This definitely saves money--while I don't match your grocery savings, we rank in the "frugal" ranking when compared with the national average. And I find that I can make a variety of meals from a variety of meats if I keep pantry staples on hand such as potatoes, pasta, rice, taco shells ...

    1. Hi Kris,
      Thanks! We're mostly a serve-it-from-the-stove family, too. Less to wash up after, plus it gives me the opportunity to tailor the amount on each plate to my guess of each appetite, or if I've goofed and not quite made enough, I can divvy up what's in the pot, and find bread/pickles/fruit to round things out.

      I know what you mean, about feeling constrained by a weekly plan. I sometimes feel that too. Because what I feel like eating on Sunday just may not be what my taste buds want on Thursday. My thought right now is to try out a weekly scheduling again, for several weeks, then take a week off, a vacation from the structure. We'll see how this goes.

  6. I usually plan six meals for the week, and then for the seventh we either eat out or eat something easy like leftovers. I don't plan a particular meal for each day, just decide on the day (or the day before) which of the meals to make, which helps it not to feel too structured.

    I like the way you plan your meals around what you have in the house :) I need to work on doing this, since we have a very well-stocked freezer and pantry, and I need to make room to freeze some summer fruits for winter.

    1. That's a nice way to plan, Economies, for flexibility while still having an idea of what you'll be preparing for the week. Sort of a balance between the two meal prep styles.

  7. I'm just getting back to meal planning too, although it's mostly left overs/stuff out of the freezer this week. I meal plan when we're all at work/school but have a more casual approach in the holidays!

    1. Hi Sarah,
      There is something about the post-holiday period that makes me want to get organized, and meal-planning was just one of those areas. Our freezers are also quite full, which makes grocery shopping a breeze! : )

      I can see where planning during school term(and your work) would be essential. That simplifies one area of life, doesn't it? You never know when a son or daughter will need your full attention to make a tapestry or period costume,for school, right?


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