Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Meal Planning -- Cycle One

You now know the basics of how I meal plan.  Are you ready to see how one works at our house from start to finish?

We do our grocery shopping late in the week on pay weeks.  Mostly, I do this so my husband is home to go with me.  So I start planning on Monday of that week.  The meal plan I’m going to walk you through was shopped for and started on November 11th and we cooked the last meal on November 23rd with the last day of the cycle being on Thanksgiving.
Monday morning during naptime, I sat down and made my menu list.  This being my first “formal” go at this, I stuck to tried and true favorites.

·         Mini Calzones
·         Lemon Chicken – quinoa with cranberries, green beans
·         Black Bean & Corn Chili
·         Meatloaf – mashed potatoes, corn on the cob
·         Pasta & Meatballs
·         Potato Soup – cheddar biscuits
·         Red Beans & Rice
·         Indian Chicken
·         Baked Ziti
·         Stir-Fry

Once I had the meals and sides decided on, I listed all the ingredients I needed that I either knew we didn’t have or were unsure of.  Then I went to the kitchen and started checking off the items I already had.  Many items were easy to find in the pantry: pizza sauce, chicken broth, dried cranberries, raisins, rice, and beans.  Other meals I had listed with items from the fridge and freezer in mind: ground beef, corn, stir-fry veggies, bell peppers, onions, and garlic.  I also took this opportunity to write down other groceries we needed.

The next step was to sit down and make the actual grocery list.  I opened up the template in Word and just went down my list plugging things in.  After everything was listed, I went back and wrote down a price estimate for each section and a total at the top (those are the little numbers in pencil).

On grocery shopping day I have my husband look over the list and add things I may have missed (soda and Oreos this trip) and then off to the store we went.

My husband and I are a pretty efficient shopping team.  His job is mostly to push the cart and entertain the kids, and he’s pretty darn good at it!

As things go in the cart, I write down the price rounded up to the next dollar.  That’s the numbers in the black ink.  Items in black ink were things that made it in the cart but weren’t on the list.  As each section was completed, I added up the items and recorded the total price.  These would be the circled numbers.

While we’re walking to the checkout line I run a total of all the sections.  See the chicken scratch in the far right column?  This trip I came up with $93 compared to my $100 estimate.  Total at the register?  $81.97.  Without a single coupon.  Be jealous, I shop at a commissary which means no sales tax, just a very small surcharge.  We also had about $40 worth of WIC items and we tipped the bagger $5.

Groceries home and put away, I made the Stir Fry that night.  No leftovers!

I made the meals rather randomly over the next two weeks.  Some had leftovers, some did not.  I picked what to make based on any plans for that night and whether or not my husband would be home.  I focused on eating the leftovers for lunches so they didn’t go to waste, and we had a total of 4 nights where I didn’t cook and we ate leftovers for dinner.  No one complained.  In fact, the Black Bean & Corn Chili was so good that I’m pretty sure my husband ate it for lunch the first three days he was home and for dinner at least twice. 

Family’s Favorites: Meatloaf, Pasta & Meatballs, and Corn & Black Bean Chili

Least Favorite: Baked Ziti

All said and done, this cycle was a real success for us!  We didn’t eat out even once and very little went to waste. 

I even did some bonus cooking!
  •      After making the Indian Chicken, I realized that I over-bought carrots.  Seeing that I also had some zucchini that needed used, I whipped up some muffins.  My toddler went nuts for them!
  • I made some pizza puffs that turned out to be a great snack for myself.
  • Saturday morning I made Oreo Cheesecake cookies for my husband to take on the road.  His coworkers quickly demanded more.
  • Late Sunday night I got a bug to make crepes which used up a bag of mixed berries and a block of cream cheese that needed to go.  That ended up being at least two or three days of breakfasts and snacks for me and the kids.

I look forward to adding more of the bonus cooking in the coming weeks to use up things from the pantry before we move and to streamline breakfast, lunch, and dinner for myself and the kids.  

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Meal Planning Basics -- Part Two

When we left off a couple days ago, I left you with a kitchen full of groceries!  Look at them and answer these questions:
                  ·         What items can be prepped ahead of time?

·         Any meats to marinate?
·         Veggies you can go ahead and wash and cut?
·         Any dry beans or rice to cook?
·         Is there anything that needs to move to the freezer to make it to the second week?

I’ll be honest; I don’t do a whole lot ahead of time.  I’m sure it would be different if I were a mom who worked outside of the home though!  If you have a day on the weekend where you can do a lot of prep, I seriously recommend doing it, but for us, weekends are about spending time with my husband because we won’t see him again all week.  Also, since I don’t actually assign meals to certain days, I don’t want to get ahead of myself and cook rice for something that won’t be eaten until the second week.  

There are a few things that I do go ahead and get done on grocery day or the next day if need be:

·         I split up meat that was bought in family packs.  Ground meats get split into the amounts I need for meals (usually 1lb) and double wrapped in foil, labeled, and stuck in a big freezer bag.  The big packs of chicken are frozen in smaller freezer bags as pairs.  If I need any of these meats cut (like chicken into bite sized pieces or strips, stir fry meat, etc), this gets done now.  I also go ahead and freeze things in their marinades: huge time saver!
·         Veggies that might go bad get prepped and frozen.  I usually over-buy onions every few weeks.  They get chopped and frozen in cups or half-cups.  Green onions get chopped and frozen in a plastic water bottle (green onion-shaker!).  If I know a veggie won’t be used until week two, it usually makes its way to the freezer.  Anything else waits until later in the week.
·         I make it a point to look at meat expirations and get things to the freezer that aren’t going to be used before them.  I try to at least have an idea of what the first 2 meals I plan to make are, and the rest goes to the freezer.

Actually cook and eat your meals!  

This is where most people fall off the wagon; I know we did.  My biggest downfall was not remembering to thaw the meat.  Now I try to decide on the next day’s meal and pull out the meat during my evening routine (that’s a whole other post!).  Day of, during nap time, I try to do all the prep work I can.  This usually involves chopping veggies, making meatballs, browning hamburger, or shredding cheese.  These things are just easier to do while the toddler is napping and the preschooler “rests quietly.”

Afternoon kitchen time is also where I try to make my time and efforts count most!
·         If I’m already shredding cheese for a recipe that only needs one cup, I go ahead and shred the whole block.
·         Making pasta sauce, triple the batch and freeze in portions.
·         Browning hamburger – go ahead and brown extra hamburger and portion for other meals.
·         Need two carrots slice for that evening’s meal – go ahead and slice/julienne/shred the rest of the bag as needed for other recipes, etc.

If there is no or very little prep to do that day, I try to add in other useful things:
·         Make and freeze cookie or pizza dough.
·         Mix up a batch of baking mix.
·         A small freezer cooking session.
·         General just for fun baking!

I keep a copy of the menu plan on hand at all times.  I’m weird and keep mine at my desk in the other room, but I would suggest posting a copy in the kitchen, either on the fridge or inside the cabinet door.  This just needs to be a list with the main course and sides you want to serve.  Check them off as you make them, and if needed note things like where the ingredients are, and whether the meal was a hit or bust.  I keep thinking I’m going to come up with some sort of rating system for mine. ;-)

You’re on your way to mastering meal planning!  It’s not so hard once you get in the groove of it.  When you’re ready to sit down and prepare for the next cycle, evaluate the one you just finished.  Ask yourself these four questions:
1)      Were any recipes flops?
2)      How were portions?  Too many/few leftovers?
3)      Did you let any meat or produce go to waste?
4)      Were any planned meals not made?  Why weren't they?  Can you add them to the next cycle?

Other pieces of advice:
·         Always have a backup plan. – We call these “pantry meals.”  They are simple meals that we always have the ingredients on hand for and can be lifesavers if something on the plan fails at the last minute.
·         Variety! – Don’t fall into a meal planning rut.  Aim for one or two new recipes each cycle.  If they’re a hit, add them to your running list and watch it slowly expand into an amazing variety of menu combinations.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Meal Planning Basics -- Part One

Meal planning used to be my Mt Everest.  I always wanted to climb to the summit and see that beautiful view that everyone who has been there before me can’t stop talking about.  I planned and trained for the climb but every time I started the journey, I hit a slick patch that would send me crashing right back down.  I dusted myself off and started climbing back up too many times too count, but eventually the equipment and provisions were just too expensive to justify repeating the failure week after week.

That night I found my new attitude, I decided that tackling my Mt Everest was where I was going to start my quest to become a successful SAHM.  I was going to master meal planning once and for all.
But where to start?  Someone wise once told me: “Always start where you are right now.”  So I did two things
1)      I inventoried my pantry, fridge, and freezer.
2)      I compile a list of meals that I already know my family loves.

Next I decided how long I was going to meal plan and how much I had to spend.  I came up with two weeks and $150.  My goal was to spend about $100 of this on the first trip, leaving about $50 for fresh produce and anything else needed in the second week.

*Note: Ever household does this differently.  My budget is based on meals for myself, a preschooler, and a toddler with wiggle room for when my husband is home (1-2 days/week).  I do not plan breakfasts and lunches as we tend to eat leftovers and very basic “staple” items.  This food is included in the budget, just not the meal plan.  Also, we are WIC recipients.  If we weren’t, the cheese, bread and milk would cost us about $50/week more than what I already budget. 

Once you have your basics to work from, it’s time to sit down and start building your plan.  In my case I sit down with a pen and a piece of paper and consult two things:
1)      The calendar. – What things do we have coming up during these two weeks?  Are there nights we won’t be home or busy nights where something quick is a must?
2)      My family. – It’s important that those eating from the plan have at least a bit of say in what goes on it.  This saves you from a lot of last minute changes or flops.

The conclusions I came to after these consultations were that we only had one busy night, but Thanksgiving falls right at the end of these two weeks.  My munchkins are really too young to get much say but I do of course take into account general likes/dislikes and dietary needs.  My husband had a few suggestions but overall won’t be home much.  (I’ll admit, in this realm it makes me happy, he can be kind of picky!)

Now you make your plan!  On a plain piece of paper, write out about ten meal ideas and make sure to leave space in between them.  Ten meals for two weeks is a number that works for us.  It leaves four days for leftovers (we plan one night about every three days for this) and at worst we end up with one meal that doesn't get made and I just transfer it to the next meal plan. 
My next step is to go back and list the main ingredients under each meal and decide on sides I want to serve.  I don’t list spices I know I have and things like milk and butter unless it calls for a large amount.  Then it’s off to the kitchen where I check to see which of these ingredients I already have.  I also use this scan as a chance to note pantry items that are low and any other things that need to go on the list (like Oreos!).

List making time!  I found a handy-dandy template on Microsoft Word that I use to keep my list organized.  I keep it as a short cut on my desktop so that I can add things during the week as I run out.  Having everything lined out by aisle makes the actual grocery shopping so much less stressful.  As I add my items to the template I make sure to not quantity and size if necessary.  Ready for proof of how nerdy I am?  I actually put a price estimate at the top of each category.  While this may seem extreme, I strongly suggest at least coming up with an overall estimate to measure by.

So you have a plan and a list, now what?  Grocery shopping day!  Gather your supplies: list, pen, reusable shopping bags…and hit the road!  Did you notice something’s missing?  Coupons.  Yeah, I hardly use them.  I find that they don’t make them for the majority if items we use, and if they do, it’s still cheaper to buy the store brand.  We shop at a commissary, so my savings because of no sales tax and general pricing are quite comparable.  I do search for coupons if I’m going to be buying things like yogurt of coffee creamer and I know they should be easy to find. 

As you go around dropping things in your card and crossing them off your list, pay attention to the prices.  There is no reason to be surprised by your total at the checkout.  Compare the prices of like items and don’t overlook the helpful corner on the price tag that lists price per unit!  As you cross the item off your list, jot down how much it was.  (I round to the next dollar to account for sales tax when shopping off-base.)  When I finish each section of the list, I add them up and keep a running total.  Also, if you must pick up something not on your list make sure you write it down with the price.  This keeps you accountable and helps you determine if you are overspending because of this, or overlooking something when making your list.

You’ve got the plan and supplies; this is where you reach that slick patch that I was telling you about it.  We’ll go over that soon!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Sometimes Plans Just Have to Change!

Oh my, this week is already not going as planned!  But that's not to say I've been any less productive!

Saturday I was distracted from my good intentions of finishing up the master bedroom.  Apparently I got hit by the nesting bug and in a few short hours my kitchen went from this...

to this...

In fact, I even got all of those dishes in the sink done and put away!

While it may look drastically different, it really didn't take that much effort and no single step took more than 10 or 15 minutes.  It was just a matter of tackling one surface at a time.  The funny part?  According to my decluttering action plan, I had a full week dedicated to this project!

I spent Sunday and part of Monday proving that I can, in fact, maintain that very orderly space.

As per my action plan, I've moved into working on the living room.  I'm hoping that having my wonderful husband home for an unexpected few days will help more than hinder!  This week's Declutter Along will be with this room.  I'm also working on taming the paper clutter this week as I have discovered that is a huge problem area in my main living spaces.  I'm thinking I'll take that week I had planned for the kitchen and show you all my new system instead. ;-)

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Declutter Along! Master Bedroom - Part One

Yesterday I spent somewhere around 30 minutes working on decluttering our bedroom. As you will see by the pictures, it was hideous to start with.

Believe it or not, it used to be considerably worse. That big pile at the foot of the bed used to be at least five times the size it is now. A few months ago, my husband and I took a weekend and tackled it, but that's as far as it went.

Oh, and don't let his side of the bed fool you! The floor is only that clean because I just did his laundry. ;-)

I cheated and worked on this little project while the toddler was napping. My preschooler helped with the first two steps but eventually got bored and wandered off.

Step One
Take BEFORE pictures. -- 3 minutes
This might sound silly, but it is a really great motivator. When you're halfway through and feel like you've gotten nowhere, you can look back and see evidence to the contrary.

Step Two
Remove all trash. -- 7 minutes

Such a simple task, but it can have an amazing effect. I gave my preschooler a plastic grocery sack and set her to gathering everything from broken hangers to discarded clothing tags. Meanwhile, I went to work consolidating and gathering all of the water bottles on my nightstand. Yes, I'll admit, I have a water bottle problem. After I was finished, I went back over the room to get any trash she might have missed. We ended up with a full sack of trash and another full sack of water bottles. Our time even includes taking them outside to their proper bins.

Step Three
Remove all items that do not belong. -- 20 minutes
This step took a little longer than my ideal time limit but it was well worth having all that stuff out of there! I began by designating a laundry basket to collect all of the random items: kids' toys and books, two of my husband's lunch boxes, medicines and hair items. Next, I gathered things that needed to go to the basement: formal dresses, extra coats, and the extra fan. Once these items were taken downstairs and put away, I went to work on things that belonged in the closet: some out of season shoes and purses, and a few backpacks and such. Once put away, I moved on to the bit of dirty laundry. It was mostly things that belong in the giveaway pile or had fallen out of laundry baskets and therefore needed to be rewashed. Into the laundry hamper in the bathroom they went! Now back to that laundry basket full of randomness. It only took a few minutes to go room-to-room and restore the items to their proper places.

Only 30 minutes spent on the project yesterday and I am still amazed at the difference it made. I'm pretty sure I slept better in there than normal last night. And what a weird feeling not to step on things when I get out of bed in the middle of the night.

Wonder what I can get done in 30 minutes tonight after the kids go to bed?

So there you have it: our first Declutter Along! Did you work along with me? Share your progress by leaving a comment below!

<3 Danielle

Declutter Along!

One way I define a successful SAHM is the state of her house.  It doesn’t have to be spotless, but it does need to make her family feel safe, comfortable and happy.  

My house isn’t the worst.  (Ever seen that TV show Clean House?)  I’m not afraid to let my 18 month old run around freely, but neither my husband nor I feel comforted or cheered by out surroundings.  And let’s just say that I’m glad we never have company over.  Certain rooms even overwhelm me when I spend too much time in them. 

This is now how I want to live.  I love to entertain and want to be able to host play-dates, group cooking sessions, and other fun little get-togethers. 

But my BIGGEST motivation to declutter and get organized?  We’ll be moving to a new city 40 miles away in just 10 short weeks.  In normal moving time, two and  a half months is a long time, but we’re not talking normal moving time.  We’re talking doing this 85% on my own with two small children underfoot while pregnant with twins.  That’s right, folks, on moving day I’ll be approximately 30 weeks pregnant with twins!  The only help I’m counting on is to actually do all the lifting and moving on moving day and my mother-in-law and a generous friend have volunteered to help with the actual packing during the month of January. 

My goal is to have as little as possible to pack and unpack.  I want to do as much as I can to keep these little buns baking and be fully unpacked and settled in time for their arrival.  I have a long ways to go.  As my husband says, I have a lot of “stuff.”  

What is my plan of attack?  I’m 19 weeks with twins and have two small children….there will be no marathon cleaning/decluttering/packing sessions in this house!

Do you know how to eat an elephant?  One. Bite. At. A. Time.

Now that I have the day-to-day stuff like laundry and dishes down to a system, I’m going to start decluttering the easiest to maintain rooms first.  I’ve chosen to start with the master bedroom.  It sees the least amount of traffic from little hands and feet that unintentionally destroy all of my hard work.  And I’m going to tackle it 15 minutes at a time.

Feel free to Declutter Along!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Turn Around

We had about two weeks to transition to our new lifestyle.  They were busy weeks filled with lots of trips to his new job (a bit over an hour away) and trying to prepare our kids for the fact that Daddy wouldn't be home much.

Finally, that first week came, Daddy left with a big blue duffle bag and our preschooler started asking questions.  Both kids kept drifting to the door just before dinner time, hoping to see Daddy’s distinct orange truck coming down the street.  Bedtime was a disaster, which had always been Daddy’s domain.  Even though we mastered Skype and things were going better, two days later I packed up the kids and went to visit my husband.  We stayed for two days.  When my husband go home Friday evening, just a few short hours after us, he immediately set the house to rights and slipped back into his normal role of primary caregiver for the kids.

The second week went a little smoother, but we still went to visit.  We only stayed one night this time, but only because Daddy got a surprise couple of days off and we all got to come home together.  Those few extra days came with a price tag though: for the first time we didn’t know how long he’d be home.  What we did know was that when he left again, we likely wouldn’t see him for weeks. 
Daddy ended up being home for four whole days.  When he left again on Tuesday, we were told to expect this trip to be about six weeks.  We were nervous but ready.  It was so much harder than we ever thought it would be.  I chalked up the first week to an “adjustment period.”  The second week I was just miserable.  I rarely got out of bed before 11 or 12 except to feed and change the kids.  We flaked on all sorts of appointments.  Dishes and laundry piled up and at some point I realized that my kids were pretty much living on cereal and PB&J.  I was eating even less.  By the third week I was crying myself to sleep……at 3 or 4AM.  

Miracle of miracles, the job ended early and my husband came home that weekend.  I think I was happier to see him than I was after his year-long deployment to Iraq!

He was home for the weekend which happened to include his best friend’s birthday party, something I’d been desperately hoping he’d be able to attend since he hadn't seen her in a very long time.  He went back to work on Monday and put in a surprise 20+ hour day.  He got the next three off and put in a short day on Friday.  It was nice to have him home, but it didn't help the fact that I wasn't growing into the role of WAHM.  I’m one of those lucky women that have a husband that does everything.

That weekend I reached an emotional and mental milestone.  I knew I wasn't happy in my new role, but now I recognized the underlying reason for that unhappiness: I had no goals.

I had been making to-do lists, but I had not motivation to actually get them done.  I had hit a wall with my business and it was not longer fulfilling and I could not see myself in it long-term.  After a long and heart-felt conversation with my husband and some awesome brainstorm with my closest online friends, I had a plan!  This plan started with an exit strategy for my business and switching my focus from WAHM to simply being a successful SAHM.

I spent the rest of that evening cleaning and organizing my desk and gathering some tools to help me stay focused.  A clean desk seems like such a simple thing but it’s amazing how productive you can be when faced with that nice clean surface and no distracting mess.

I did a lot of writing that night: journaling, lists, you name it.  I read a few articles on motivation, discipline, and habit-training.  While they didn't make me an expert, or impart the deep hidden key to unlock all that magic, they did give me a new outlook.  I had goals and I was ready to face the new week with a different attitude and maybe just a few ideas.

We've All Been There...

One morning we wake up and we’re overwhelmed before our feet even hit the floor.  Our house is a mess, the kids are hungry, we didn't sleep well and we’re beyond stressed out and it’s not even 9AM.

                Does any part of that sound like you?  

I spent months in that state and it was draining to say the least.  I found myself doing only what had to be done to get by.  My kids, my marriage, and mostly my self-worth were suffering because of it.  Most days I didn't even get dressed until it was time to go to my evening-shift serving job.  Even that was done grudgingly.  Adding to the chaos, we had just found we were expecting Baby #3…..and #4.  We had no idea how we were going to afford four kids (four and under, I might add) on our crappy restaurant-job pay.  Or how we were going to care for two newborns and the other two while working opposite shifts and already being stretched beyond anything even resembling healthy limits.

I started dreaming of becoming a SAHM.  I’d done it twice before, only briefly between jobs, and I had hated every second of it.  This time was different.  I was really sick during the first weeks of this pregnancy and physically could not handle serving and bartending anymore.  I couldn’t even fathom going back to a 9-to-5 job, let alone afford the childcare costs.  And, I had this crazy idea that this little home business I had started could grow to be a decent second income if only I could put more time and focus into it.  All I really needed was for my husband to find a “good” job…there was no way I could quit mine with him working 25 hours a week for minimum wage.

Then it happened…he got “the job,” the one he’d been after for months to no avail.  The interview and offer came out of the blue.  He took it blindly, not even sure what his pay would be or what the job would entail.  All we knew was that the pay should be just barely enough that we could make the leap to being a single-income family.

So, I did it…I quit my job to hopefully become a WAHM!

To be continued…