Finally! We are done with the setting up the systems and now onto the method. Love this part. No really, that's not sarcasm that just didn't come through the screen. I really do love this part! I love food, so I love to plan what I'm eating each month.
1. Carve out some time. Preferably with your spouse, roommate, kids, significant other, etc. It really is helpful to have their input. And it's easier to think of meals with someone else. And more fun. Meal planning doesn't take that long, but plan about 30 minutes.
2. See what you currently have. Look in your fridge to see what perishables you need to use up. Also take a look in your freezer to see what you have on hand that you need to use, what meals you already have in there, etc.
3. Budget and Balanced. This means to keep in mind how much money you may spend on a meal as well as how much time you will spend making the meal. This is where you get your calendar out and see which evenings you will be eating out or which ones you will need something really quick and easy. Go ahead and fill those dates in.
* Writing in which evenings are planned to go out to eat will do wonders for your budget! If you have kids, think about which restaurants have a "kids eat free" night and try to plan that restaurant on that night. This month I've planned a night out to McAlisters on a Tuesday because we can feed (and bring home left overs) our family of 6 for $14.
* If you decide to forgo a planned meal one evening and go out unplanned...you can still save money - just mark off one of the more expensive meals that you've already planned, instead of a cheap one. For example. If you really want to go out to dinner, but you have planned spaghetti - feel the freedom to go out to dinner. But, don't mark off the spaghetti. Mark off a more expensive meal, like the steak.
* If you notice that one week is particularly expensive, try to plan cheaper meals the next.
* I'm working on a post on how to meal plan on a tight budget, so stay tuned!
4. Get out your recipes. This is your chance to try new ones that you've wanted to try! Putting it in writing and buying the ingredients will get you motivated to actually make new things.
* If you are busy, try to add only one (1) new recipe per week and that's max. Maybe even one new recipe every other week. You don't want to set yourself up for failure.
* If you are new to cooking or if cooking is not intuitive to you, then you'll probably need to use more recipes.
* Keep in mind those perishables from step number 2 that you need to use and find recipes that include them. Check out www.supercook.com if you need some inspiration using what you have.
* I will be doing a post dedicated just to recipes, so come back!
5. R and Star System. This is a system I use to keep my menu organized at a glance.
* If I write a meal down that is from a recipe, I put at R with a circle around it. I either write the name of the cook book and page number with it or pull the plastic sheet protected recipe out of one of my notebooks and hang that near my menu.
* When I plan a meal that is in my freezer, I write a star beside that food.
For example, say I am planning on roasted chicken, mashed sweet potatoes, and green beans. If I have the chicken frozen, I star it. Then when I am making my shopping list, I know I don't need to buy the chicken. If I'm using a recipe for the green beans, I put the circled R beside it.
6. Be flexible! Don't be chained to your plan. Just because you said you were going to have loaded baked potatoes on Friday, November 4, 2011 doesn't mean you actually have to!! This is a key advantage of planning monthly. Writing down what meals you have on what day is a guideline. Things happen. Your kids' soccer practice runs late that evening and you no longer have the time for the planned lasagna. Just do the breakfast that was planned next week (assuming you have all the ingredients!).
* If you're planning monthly, don't write specific fruits and veggies for the whole month, unless it's something that you'd be willing to spend full price on (since you don't know if it will be on sale) or if it's something that really works well with the meal (I can't seem to have any kind of Chinese inspired dish without snow peas, so I write snow peas even when I know that they will probably not be on sale the week I need them). When you grocery shop for the week, just count how many veggies you need and how many fruits you need and you can still shop what's on sale.
7. Plan in left over nights. Keep in mind that left overs don't always mean creating a different and exciting meal from what's left over from other meals. I kind of want to highlight, bold, and underline this point...which may be over kill. But this point took me a while to get, so it's important to me to free up all those non-creative meal makers out there. The purpose of left overs is to clean out your fridge without wasting food - not to make a meal impressive enough for guests.
* This is ALWAYS our Sunday lunch. We get back from church too late to actually cook anything and we don't want to spend the money (or deal with a fussy baby who needs to take her nap) to go out to lunch. So we come home, pull everything out of the fridge that's not been accounted for in other meals and we have a smorgasbord. I organize the left overs by food type and tell the kids they can pick X amount of food from each group (i.e. they get to choose 1 carb, 2 veggies, 1 fruit, 1 protein, etc).
* I typically plan for 2 left over nights every week. But, plan for less if you don't love left overs or if you have teenage boys (yes, yes...I know. There are lots of girls who eat more than boys. Just some humor for those of you who have been able to pay attention through all of this post - it's long!).
8. Keep it simple. An easy way to plan is to assign a meal type to each weekly night. For example, Mondays are meatless, Tuesdays are salad with a protein, Wednesdays are breakfasts, Thursdays are a type of pasta, etc. And remember that just because you assign a meal to a particular night doesn't mean you actually have to eat it that night. It's just for planning purposes. If it's Meatless Monday and you crave meat, go ahead and make the carnivorous meal that was planned for another night. Then you can save your meatless meal for another time.
This concludes my series on meal planning. I hope some of it has been helpful! I will be continuing to answer more food questions on bulk cooking, meal planning on a budget, recipes, and shopping.
Previous posts in this series:
Meal Planning, Part 1 - Why?
Meal Planning, Part 2 - Self-Assessment
Meal Planning, Part 3 - Implement a System
Meal Planning, Part 4 - Where to Stay Organized