I consider myself to be an organized person. Messy, but organized. It may be ironic, but I have a tendency to leave things sitting out: random cups, shoes, underwear. You know. . .normal stuff. My husband thinks he is so funny when he finds my cups sitting around the house & puts them all on one table. One time, he gathered up all of my shoes and set each pair of shoes on their own step on our staircase. Hilarious, isn’t he? Well, this “messy” person loves to be organized. It is where I find the calm in the storm. I get in a zone when I organize. I have organized files, notebooks of music, organized stuffed animals, categorized bathroom toiletries, canned goods, labeled pantry items, an organized refrigerator (well most of the time). . . .you name it, chances are I have either organized it or thought very seriously about it.
So naturally, monthly meal planning sounded awesome to me in a nerdy sort of way. But just as great as it sounded, it was just as scary too when I started to think about the execution of it all. Not only would I have to plan out meals, but I would need to gather 20-30 recipes that all of us like, write out all of the ingredients to make a grocery list, decide which items needed to be purchased monthly or every two weeks or every week, make a note of when we didn’t need meals because of travel or special plans. . . . . . And at that point, this great idea turned into an organizational nightmare for me. I started slowly by making a list of 20 meals for the month & then I wasn’t tied down to a specific recipe for each day. We could choose what we wanted to make from the list at any time. But this turned into more of a nightmare than I was already in. It was hard to plan the grocery trips because we didn’t know what was on the menu. So I decided to tackle monthly meal planning the “right” way.
In the beginning, I tried excel programs that would generate a handy dandy little grocery list. Well this was a big fail because I did NOT want to spend hours inputting all of my recipes and ingredients, just hoping I typed them in correctly. If you forget just one ingredient or input the wrong measurement, your grocery list will be wrong. So then I tried AllRecipes. I made lists using their recipes and my own. But again, I had to input my entire recipe if I wanted to use it in the list. So again, I did not have the patience for this. Too much brain power. And plus, I have a love affair with paper. I make lists better on paper, I follow lists better on paper, I brainstorm better on paper. Everything is just better with PAPER!
After a few months of torture and sticking with it (because I REFUSED to give up. . . .my first name means “determination”), I came up with a pretty good plan to make it work. For some of you, excel might be super awesome, and for others AllRecipes is great. But for those of you like me, this will be your saving grace! Here we go.
First, join AllRecipes. You don’t have to do this to make it work, but I must say, it is nice. A great place to store your recipes in case something happens to them. It also allows you to make a list if you want and add in your own recipes. They will also send you a nice magazine (with a subscription) with even more recipes!!! I use AllRecipes primarily for storing and researching good recipes. So far, all of the highly rated recipes have been amazing. Second, print out a year’s worth of blank calendars. You can just do a google search for this or go here (I use “landscape” starting with Sunday). Third, locate a pencil. They’re cheap. If you don’t have one, go buy one. They still sell these things! Fourth, gather up all of your recipe books that you want to pull from & sit yourself in front of the computer. Fifth, fill in the numbers for the month on your calendar. Now you are ready to begin!
Before planning my month, I take out a separate sheet of paper & always write down all the days of the month that we will not be making dinner at home. It may be due to travel, going out on a date, grilling at a friend’s house, etc. Write those dates down and mark them off of your calendar using a big X. Then, identify days that you need a simple meal: days you are working all day, or you will be at an activity that leaves you no time at home. Write these dates down on your extra sheet of paper under the heading, “simple” & mark those days on your calendar with a highlighter. Now count how many days are left on your calendar for normal meals. And count how many days you will make simple meals. This gives you an easy way to plan! Now all you have to do is go through your recipes and count them up until you have enough for the month. Then lastly, subtract 1-2 regular recipes from your list. Unexpected things happen all the time & I have found that we end up with extra ingredients for recipes we didn’t cook every month. And since you’re using a pencil, you can erase and add whenever you need to! And if you hubby decides to eat Mexican food for lunch on the day you’re cooking tacos for dinner (true story, ALL the stinkin’ time!), it’s an easy fix to just switch your days around since you already have the ingredients for the week or more! Isn’t this awesome? Behold, there is flexibility within the monthly meal planning beast.
AllRecipes has a search feature where you can find healthy meals, easy meals, crockpot meals, etc. It is wonderful. I always print my recipes out because again, I am all about paper. If you like using the iPad or your phone, they have a kitchen version of each recipe that is easy to read if you are using a device as you cook.
Once you have collected your list of recipes, simply write the name of each recipe on the calendar where you would like to make it. By the end of this step, you will feel VERY accomplished! And time-wise, it doesn’t take as long as you may think to get to this point.
Next, here is the part that can be tricky. It does steal some brain power, so don’t do it when your children are awake! It is time to make your list. Look at your first week of meals. Gather the recipes & make your list. Put the produce list and anything that will perish after 1 week or less on a separate column labeled week 1. Do the same thing for week 2, keeping the produce & perishables in a separate column labeled week 2. Keep doing this until you finish out the month. Produce rarely lasts longer than a week, so you have to purchase it weekly or every other week.
Once you have your list, you should have one main list and 4 produce/perishables list. Mine looks something like this.
It can easily be done on a computer too if you prefer the electronic version. And just think, you only have to do this once a month. And if you have a young child like I do, this is a life saver! One big trip to the store, 2-4 little trips for produce. And that’s it. Doing this has added so much time to my week & has eliminated the stress of not having the ingredients I need for a meal. . . .or having to go to the store once or twice a week for just a few items. It did take some time for me to get into a groove, but now it’s second nature and well worth the learning curve. Below, I have shared some life hacks that I learned along the way.
If you are interested in planning breakfast, which sounded overwhelming to me, try this idea: Choose 5 different breakfast ideas like smoothies, cereal, waffles, eggs, oatmeal, etc. Write them at the very top of your calendar in list format. Add them to your grocery list & be sure to buy enough for each family member to eat each meal once or twice a week depending on how many items you choose. Then when it is breakfast time, you have all the meals you need in the kitchen and all you have to do is choose from your list. This is great for children because you don’t have to wonder what you will fix for breakfast every morning, but it also allows them to have a choice. You won’t run out of breakfast food because you have somewhat of a plan without being too regimented.
Time hacks in the kitchen (& money savers):
For produce, freezing can be an option, depending on how you are using it.
I have found that buying chopped, frozen onions is an excellent time saver, produce saver & money saver.
You can freeze chopped bell peppers, but they will be a little soggy after freezing. Only use frozen peppers if you are mixing them into a dish and don’t need the crunch.
If you are a smoothie lover for breakfast, but hate having to chop up and prepare everything, try this! Buy a ton of bananas, peel and slice them up once they’re ripe. Put each sliced banana in it’s own plastic cheapie flip top bag. Gather all the bags of sliced bananas & place them in a gallon size ziploc bag. Throw them in the freezer & you have smoothie bananas! Each bag will make 1 1/2-2 smoothies, depending on how much other fruit you add. You can also do this with strawberries, blueberries, etc. Or just purchase them in the frozen section at your grocery store. For a sweet smoothie, try this: approximately 1 cup vanilla almond milk, frozen banana slices, handful of semi-sweet chocolate chips, 3 T of peanut butter (or more depending on what you like) and 1-2 T of honey. Mix it up & wow does it taste like a sinful dessert! Add more or less of each ingredient depending on your taste.
When you do your monthly shop, be prepared to spend an hour or so going through your food and prepping it. This helps so much, but it isn’t necessary unless you want to have easy prep meals. As soon as you bring your food home, take all the meat and prep it according to the recipe. If it calls for 3 chicken breasts, divide them into the amount you need, wrap them well in plastic wrap, foil & ziploc bags, then label them with the recipe name. Place them in the freezer. If you need sliced beef for fajitas, do the slicing ahead of time, then freeze them in labeled plastic bags. If you need 1/2 pound hamburger meat for tacos, cut into that portion size & do the same thing. Label & freeze. When it is time for that meal, all you have to do is pull it from the freezer & cook it. This saves so much time. You can do this with some of the produce but not all. To learn more about what produce you can and cannot freeze, go here and here.
If you have any other great ideas related to monthly planning or kitchen hacks, please share them!