Friday, April 29, 2011

Meal Planning

I'm on my second smoothie of the day, and it's only 9:30 in the morning...oy. I've been having trouble sleeping the last several weeks but especially the last week or so...I have trouble falling asleep, and then I keep waking up (and staying up) at around 3 in the morning. What's up with that?!?! The only caffeine in my diet is the little bit that's in my raw cacao powder, and I don't have that after, say, 3 pm most days, so I don't suspect it's caffeine keeping me awake. Hmmm....hopefully this works itself out because, let's face it, I need my beauty sleep!

Yesterday, we had a discussion about various aspects of organization (time, menu planning, house clutter, etc.) at my mother's group meeting. Motherhood, by definition, makes most women masters at multi-tasking and finding ways to get things done. However, we can all benefit from tips and short-cuts that can save us time (and preserve our sanity). I consider myself a fairly organized person - I don't like clutter, and I  like to know where everything is. I also really enjoy organizing my pantry every now and then ('cuz I'm weird like that). But I think there is one area of my life where I have really honed my skills as an organizer, and that is in menu planning. As I've said before, I do menu planning because I like to know what's for dinner every day. I don't like having to THINK about what to have for dinner every day. It's so nice to wake up in the morning and think, yup, we're having XYZ for dinner tonight, and I already have everything I need in my fridge and pantry. Now I can go about my day and spend more time watching The Real Housewives of NYC (Just kidding. Kind of.)

I touched upon my meal planning methods in a previous post, but I thought it might help others out there if I went into a little more detail. This is just what works for me, so feel free to tweak it to your own family's needs.

Meal Planning 101

1. Find a day and time that works for you. I don't always follow my own advice, but generally, I menu plan on Fridays during my son's nap. Assuming, of course, that I am not napping right alongside him :) Be sure you give yourself adequate time - this isn't something you can generally zip through in 15 minutes. Unless, of course, you are SuperMenuPlanningWoman. I am not.
2. Grab your favorite cookbooks, recipe cards, or recipe binders. You know what you like to cook, and you need to be prepared!
3. Find a comfortable spot. Sometimes for me, that's right in front of my (faux) fireplace. Other times, it's at my kitchen island with a smoothie. Whatever works for ya, babe.
4. Gather your supplies. For me, this is a tablet of paper, a pen, my wall calendar, and my computer. I like to have my computer nearby so I can read up on recipe reviews and check the weather forecast for the week. I like to have my wall calendar so I can plan around my hubby's choir practices, doctor's appointments, family obligations, etc.

Now that you're armed and ready for battle, here's the nitty gritty:

5. On the left side of your paper, write down the days of the week (Mon, Tue, Wed, etc), skipping a line in between each day or leaving some space otherwise. You can plan as many days as you'd like, but I usually do a minimum of 7 days and a maximum of 14 days. You could always do more, but let's face it - how do you know what you're going to feel like eating in 3 weeks? Right?!
6. Underneath the day, jot down the weather info you can gather. I'll usually write something like "Mon, 70, p sun," meaning Monday is an expected high of 70 and partly cloudy. That kind of weather doesn't call out anything in particular for me, but if it were "Mon, 30, snow", you can bet I'll have some kind of stew on the menu :)
7. Take note of any special considerations for that day, such as an evening practice, sports event, doctor's appt, etc. I like to prepare make-ahead, simple meals for evenings my hubby has to rush out to choir practice, or when I have a doctor's appointment at 5:30. It just makes life a bit easier. I also like to eat special foods on days like the Super Bowl, birthdays, New Year's Eve, etc. Write these things down so you can plan accordingly!
8. Make note of any produce or food that is lingering in your fridge or pantry, and try to use it up during the first one or two meals of your week. I hate to waste food and I throw out little to no food, ever!
9. Think big picture - what are you in the mood for? Do you want to have some Mexican food this week? Main-dish salads? Pasta? Pizza? All of the above? It's a good idea to have some general theme to your menu for the week. Why? Well, I'm convinced it's one of the reasons why I waste so little food and use up everything I buy. Here's why. Let's say you want to make tacos one night. You'll probably want to buy some sour cream, salsa, shredded cheese, some cilantro, some scallions. But it's not like you need that much of each of these ingredients just for tacos. So, I'll have tacos on Monday, a bean-dish using salsa, scallions, and cilantro on Tuesday, and finish up the ingredients with Mexican pizza on Friday night. Sounds like too much Mexican to you? Well, you're the one who wanted tacos, buddy. By structuring your menu this way, you'll make the most out of your food dollars and minimize waste. Suddenly, you won't feel so bad spending $1.69 on that bunch of cilantro. You're welcome.
10. Be realistic. If your family loves to eat pizza on the weekend (as mine does), then by all means, plan to have pizza on Friday or Saturday. Don't pretend you're going to be virtuous and have a big salad when you really want to dig into a big ole slice of deep dish. I never, ever, ever put pizza on the menu Sunday through Thursday, because for my family, pizza is a Friday or Saturday night treat. When Friday or Saturday comes around, we know it's pizza day and we are happy :) [Side note: if you don't currently make your own pizzas, you should really give it a try. I can't believe how expensive take-out pizza is these days, especially for us vegans. Hello, I don't want cheese, which is the most expensive ingredient - can't you throw some extra veggies my way when you're charging me $19!?! End of rant.]
11. Find a balance. One of the reasons I can plan 7-14 days in advance is because I strike a balance in my meals. If I have pizza on Saturday, I typically have something a little lighter on Friday and Sunday, such as a raw soup, main-dish salad, or some grilled veggies. That way, you don't have 2-3 days in a row of heavy food that leave you feeling less than your best. Goodness gracious, I used to have weeks where I'd have pasta followed by pizza followed by a thick bean stew and bread. By the fourth day, you'd have to wheel me to the couch because I'd feel so lethargic. Nowadays, I will usually do a rawsoup-bigsalad-rawsoup-beandish-bigsalad-pizza-bigsalad rotation. That's just what my family enjoys, so find what works for you. In the winter, I eat a lot less raw food and more beans, cooked grains, and hot vegetable-based soups and stews, but I still try to balance heavier meals with lighter ones regardless of the season.
12. Expect the unexpected. Sometimes life will throw you a curveball - you might get sick, your child might get sick, you go out to dinner, or you just don't feel like cooking. It happens to all of us! Depending on the week, I may build a "free day" into my menu to allow for such occurrences. If I end up not needing the free day, then that's a day I'll typically dip into my freezer for some leftovers or make some pasta. I always have some frozen veggies in the freezer (peas, corn, spinach, collard greens, broccoli, green beans, brussels sprouts, lima beans, sugar snap peas) to help fill out a meal. I also like to have something fun in the freezer, like some store-bought frozen ravioli or Trader Joe's Meatless Meatballs, for those nights when I'm feeling lazy or in the mood for some comfort food.
13. Write down your selected menu on one side of the paper, and write down the needed ingredients on the other side of the paper. I write things such as "med tomatoes, sm eggplant, lg zucchini, 2 lbs sweet potatoes," etc. I also make little hash marks next to the items to denote how many of each I need to buy for the week. You gotta love those weeks when you need to buy 10 tomatoes!
14. Go through your coupons and pull out ones you can use this week. I'm assuming, of course, that you clip coupons. I'll even make notes on my shopping list such as "black beans - coupon," to remind myself that I have a coupon to use. Otherwise, I'm apt to forget and then I get mad at myself!
15. Shop, baby, shop! And don't be afraid to make substitutions on the fly. One of the reasons I find it helpful to have my shopping list on one side of the paper and the menu items on the other side is in case the store is out of a necessary ingredient. If I need to buy cauliflower, and the store doesn't have any cauliflower, I can flip over the paper and see what I needed the cauliflower for. Was it going in a curry dish? Well, then I can substitute frozen or use broccoli instead. Was I making cauliflower sandwiches? Well, then I guess I'd better make something else, since cauliflower sandwiches without the cauliflower are just lacking, IMHO. And yes, I make cauliflower sandwiches, and yes, they are delicious, thank you very much.

Finally, after all is said and done...

16. Take notes in your cookbooks! If you made some ingredient substitutions, write down what you changed and whether it worked or not. Write down if the recipe was a big success or not, how long it took to prepare, how enjoyable the leftovers were (or were not), whatever. This is all information to help YOU! I have crazy notes all over my cookbooks which help immensely, trust me.

Okay, well it's Friday and my son is napping, so you know what that means....time to menu plan. While watching The Real Housewives of NYC. In front of my faux fireplace. And yes, I am being totally serious :)

No comments: