Saturday, January 3, 2015

How I meal plan for the entire year

It's the beginning of January, which means I've been busy meal planning. For those of you who know me well, you know that I like to menu plan for the entire year. Yes, you read that correctly! It might sound crazy, but I've been doing it for about 3 years now and have learned a lot along the way. It does take a few hours to set it up, but once it's done, the rest of my year is stress-free! Well, at least it is in regard to meal planning. :)

Occasionally people ask me why I'm so crazy how I do it, so I thought I'd hop on my old, neglected blog to describe the process as best as I can:

Discuss and Compile
Gather up all the recipes your family loves. Talk together about the frequency you want to eat these meals. Whenever I try out a new recipe, my husband and I rate it (on a scale of 1-5, 5 being the best). If the meal is rated 3 or higher, we talk about how often we would want to eat it (every month, every 2 months, only in the summer, etc ...).

Make your Reference List
Once you have all that information, create what I call a "Meal Ingredient List". I got this genius idea from a book called Confessions of an Organized Homemaker by Deniece Schofield. This part is time consuming, but it will pay off later, I promise! (No more rummaging through all your recipes to write up your grocery shopping list!) Make a graph with three columns (see below): (1) the name of the meal, (2) frequency, and (3) ingredients. I also divide up my list by the kind of meat I use (meatless/fish, chicken, pork, beef). You could also alphabetize it, but I haven't done that at this point - though now that I mention it I will probably go back and do that too.

Here is my personal meal ingredient list. You'll see that I put links in it to all the online recipes that I use, just in case you want to give them a try in your home! ;)

After you finish typing up your list, you could choose to keep it on your computer and refer to it that way; however, I'm old-school and I like to print it off and put it in my meal planning binder - more on that in a bit. I personally try to avoid the computer around meal time and when I actually want to get things done. I get so easily distracted on the computer, so I find that having a meal planning binder is more efficient (for me!). If you aren't tempted by online distractions, then by all means, use the digital approach.

You'll also notice that sometimes I list what I typically serve with the main dish. This helps when I am putting together my grocery lists.

Print off a calendar for the current year (one month per page). Or you can use an online calendar. For a couple years, I used Google Calendar and it did work well for me, but as I said before, I prefer to menu plan offline now. I put the printed calendar in my menu planning binder. Now grab your Meal Ingredient List, start at the top of your list and just work your way down writing your meals on your calendar. 

As an example, my first meal listed is "Mizithra Cheese Pasta" (yummm, one of my very favorites!). So I pick a day in January and write it down, flip my calendar to March, write it again, flip to May, write it again, and so on every two months through to December. Then move on to your next main dish. Do this with all of your meals and you will see your calendar begin to fill up! 

If you use a program like Google Calendar, use the same method - just copy and paste the meal however often you want.

I have about 85 meals on my Meal Ingredient List. Every year I take some off that we're tired of, change the frequency of some meals, and add new ones.

If you don't have a big collection of recipes you like, you will probably have empty spots on your calendar. I know I do on mine. I use it as an opportunity to try new things and then add them to my master list if they rate high enough. Over the years, the empty spots become fewer and you won't have to experiment as much.

The beauty of this method is it will work for any person or family to create a custom plan that will fit your situation. Some people don't need much variety, so their months will look similar. We enjoy having homemade pizza and I schedule that every week on Saturdays. Other than that, we like variety and most of our meals are repeated every 2-3 months.

Another tip is to vary the kind of meat and/or style of food you use when you are plugging the meals in your calendar. For example, I try not to serve chicken 3 nights in a row and most weeks have only one night of each ethnic food - though once I did serve "Mexican" 4 out of the 7 nights in a week and I was teased about that by a certain someone...

Shopping Lists
I usually go grocery shopping once each week - after the kids are in bed or during the day when my neighbor can watch the boys. I have found that I save at least $20-30 each week by shopping without the boys. I think this is because I am so rushed to leave the store when I have all the kids that I make lots of impulse buys and don't price check as much. 

When I am preparing for a shopping trip, I get out my meal planning binder and look at the current week on the calendar. If there are any empty spots, I find new recipes to try. I use this grocery shopping list template (printed off). On the bottom of that page, I write the meals I am going to make that week. 

I never feel bound to the calendar plan when I sit down to make my grocery list for the week, I use it as a launching point and sometimes I switch the meals around during the month as I see fit. I do feel comfort in knowing that we will have a variety of meals and everything is spaced out to our liking.

So now that I know my meals for the week, I get out my Meal Ingredient List and copy the ingredients for each planned meal onto my shopping list. Before I had created my Meal Ingredient List, I would have to look up each recipe to see what the ingredients were, now all of that information is in one place! It is such a time-saver!! The other beauty of having all of this in a binder is you can take it with you anywhere. You can put together your shopping list while you're waiting at the doctor's office, or for your kids to be done with piano lessons (or whatever else you are waiting for).

When I go shopping I fold my shopping list in half and put it on a small clip board with a pen. I know, I'm pretty hardcore! :) Last time I was at the store with my clip board list a man actually told me, "That's awesome!"

Menu Planning Binder
I keep mentioning my binder, so I thought I'd tell you more about it. Inside it I have: 
  • A "Master list" in a page-protector - a reference for things I usually buy that aren't part of the main dish (apples, oranges, eggs...)

  • January-December calendar pages - one for each month. All filled out with meals.

  • All my recipes printed off and sorted alphabetically with tabs

And that's about it! I hope this all made sense. Let me know if you have any questions!

PS. Now I remember why I don't blog any more. The house is destroyed and the kids are all grumpy and attention-deprived! 

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