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.

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