Plan Your Meals for a Month (well, almost a month…)

Each month we will be planning a month’s worth of meals for the next month. Well – I got a late start this month, but we are going to plan for the rest of the month – join us and get a jump on your meal planning!

OK – let’s all take a deep breath. I know that for some of you, planning your meals out for four weeks if going to feel a little overwhelming. For some women, deciding what pair of jeans they are going to wear for running errands can feel a like a huge decision (not for me… I pick whichever ones are clean….and fit.) Some of you may be thinking, “I don’t even know what my life will be like in  two weeks, how can I plan for it now?!?” Exactly. If you are like almost every other woman I know, life is super busy. Nobody I know is doing just one thing – If she is a stay-at-home mom, she’s also leading her local MOPS group. If she is managing a house-full of teens, she is also managing her own mobile accounting business on the side. If she’s working full-time, she’s also the head of the committee to raise funds for a well in a village in Africa. And that’s why I want you to have a plan. I want what you and your tribe (family, roommate, friends,) are having for dinner to be the least stressful decision of your day. I want you to take a look at your calendar and your family’s calendar, figure out what nights you can cook, when you can prep meals for later in the week, and what nights you need to have dinner waiting for you to get home. And then, I want you to sit down with your calendar and plan accordingly.

The Secret to Planning 31 Meals

For years, I have been taking a catch as catch can approach to planning meals. I would sit down with a blank calendar and fill in the spots with meals I knew my family would like. I would make a shopping list based off of those ingredients, go to the store and buy what I needed. I would go home with a plan in hand and the groceries to make it happen. And that is when my plan would bump up against the reality of my life. I would plan a stir fry for Monday night. The problem? No one was going to be home on Monday night – or at least not at the same time. My husband, Roger, had to eat early – he has a phone call to India every Monday night for work. My son, Justen, would be eating late – he works at the library until after 6 o’clock. My daughter, Kimber, had drama rehearsal and didn’t know when she would be home, and Jeremy, my step-son, was doing a drop in at 4:45 after school to change clothes for work. Perhaps not the best night to be doing stir fry? Unless I wanted to be a short-order stir-fry cook, (and let’s be clear, I have no desire to do that,) most of my people were not going to be able to eat dinner (or at least not one that they would want to eat.) It took me a while to figure out that Monday nights in the Lipp-Hunter house were the perfect night for a big pot of soup and a yummy salad; something that was ready to serve at any of the o’clocks that my family members would be eating at. So now instead of planning what was for dinner, I was planning how I was going to cook dinner each night. Taking all schedules into account (most importantly, the schedule of whoever was going to be cooking that day – and surprise – it’s not always me!) I figured out what was going to be the best type of meal for me to fix. Here are the meals I have to choose from: Freezer Meals – These are meals I have prepared weeks, or even months in advance and stick in the freezer to pull out at just the right time. Freezer meals are great for nights when I will get getting home late – I can have someone else in my family stick the meal into the oven so it will be ready to go that evening. Or, when I’m extra organized, I can set the frozen meal into the oven in the morning and set the timer on the oven to turn on 30-45 minutes before we want to eat. (I have to tell you that I feel extra-efficient when I do this. Kind of like Judy Jetson without the severe hairdo.)

Slow Cooker Meals – Love my slow cooker – especially when I’m smart enough to pull all the ingredients together the night before. It gives me a warm fuzzy feeling to know that while I’m running around town doing errand or off working, my slow cooker is at home, slaving away to have dinner ready for us when we get there. Plus, I will show you how to make freezer meals that get dumped directly in to the slow cooker so that you can save yourself even more time and energy.

Left Overs On Purpose – I love this category because it feels like cheating – you had a balsamic pork roast on Tuesday for dinner, but your crew only ate half – and you’re glad. You planned on cooking twice as much as you needed because those leftovers on purpose are now being mixed together with bok choy onions and mushroom to make an Asian stir-fry for Thursday night. (Key note here – if you are making leftovers on purpose, be sure to label your leftovers accordingly. Especially if you have teenage boys in your home.)

Pantry Meals – The meat didn’t defrost in time or you are at the day before your grocery run and there is “no food in this house”. Have no fear, pantry meals are here. These are meals made primarily from ingredients you have on hand- adding in random ingredients you may have hanging around and what to use up. Leftover chicken or ground beef you hadn’t planned on? Make a great chili from your pantry and throw in the meat – yum without waste. I usually plan one pantry meal at the end of the week – a great way to make sure that nothing goes to waste. Fast Food at Home – These are the meals that you actually cook that night. We all have our family favorites that we couldn’t live without. This is when I pull together a super-simple bowl of pasta with marinara, basil and Parmesan cheese, with a bagged salad and a couple of warmed up croissants, or an Asian Stir Fry. Each of us has our favorite go to meals in this category. Every Man for Himself – We have this kind of nights about once a week. Usually on nights when I’m working, everyone has to forage for themselves. This is an excellent way to use up leftovers, but I do make sure that I have sandwich fixings around for lunches and the EVFH nights.

The goal is to match the cooking method with your life – no stir-frys on soccer night, no freezer meals the night after you get home from the farmer’s market, not pantry meals when you have tomatoes in your garden that you either need to use or lose. I want you to plan what you are going to eat around your life so that dinner is less mess and less stress.

So here are the steps to getting your meal plan together:

1. Calendar: Grab a blank calendar page (I have a great one over on my Facebook Author page.

2. Schedule: Look at the activities and schedules for those you are cooking for. Most households develop a weekly rhythm over time. Tuesdays and Thursdays tend to be less chaotic around our house, while Mondays everyone seems to work and Wednesdays have always been a church night. Since we have teens and young adults at our house, Fridays are usually just me and Roger for dinner, and our big family dinners (when even the kids who don’t live at home come back) are on Sunday evenings. While this schedule can vary wildly (especially when I’m traveling) it does have a basic flow that helps me plan my meals. Once you have an idea of the schedule, write down the kind of meal you need to have that night – if you need to have dinner ready when you get there (and not worry about it burning in the oven,) then a slow-cooker recipe could be the ticket for you.

So, following the above schedule, this is one way that I could think of planning: Sunday: Left Overs on Purpose – Round 1 Mondays: Slow Cooker Tuesdays: Left Overs On Purpose Round 2 Wednesday: Freezer Meal Thursday: Fast Food at Home Friday: Every Man For Himself Saturday: Freezer Meal

3. Recipes Now that you know how you should cook that night, it’s time to figure out what you should be cooking. Don’t get overwhelmed! Start simple and small. Mix in one or two recipes from this book with your family’s favorite recipes. Besides your schedule, here are some other things to consider when making up your menus.

• Time of year – I like to eat seasonally as much as possible. If my garden is bursting with squash, or the last time I went to the market the strawberries looks anemic (and were from a foreign country) those are things that can influence my meal planning.

• What I already have on hand – when I hit a great sale on chicken, I stock up. And my veggies from the Farmer’s Market? Those babies have an expiration date. I want to be thoughtful with the food I purchase and use it before I lose it, whenever possible. There have been so many times I have bought what I already had on hand because I didn’t check before making my meal plan and heading to the store.

• The Weather – OK – this may not be the biggest consideration, but last year I put together a month’s worth of meals for June without thinking once about BBQing.  Why have beef stew in the summer or Asian chicken salad in the dead of winter? Celebrate the seasons with delicious food.

So if I were going to add some recipes in, here is an idea of what one week of meals would look like:

Sunday: Left Overs on Purpose – Round 1 Spice-Rubbed Pork Roast with Potatoes and Ratatouille

Monday: Slow Cooker Chili and Bread Machine French bread with a Blue Cheese Spring Mix Salad

Tuesdays: Left Overs on Purpose Round 2 Left-over sliced Pork with Homemade Mac-n-Cheese and Asparagus

Wednesday: Freezer Meal Poppyseed Chicken, Bagged Salad, and baked cinnamon apples

Thursday: Fast Food at Home Veggie Pita Pizzas with Turkey Pepperoni

Friday: Every Man For Himself Leftovers

Saturday: Freezer Meal Teriyaki Chicken with rice and grilled veggie kabobs

Try this at Home: Give yourself some space to plan – don’t try to do the planning, shopping and cooking all in the same day. I would say give yourself a week to plan and shop and do a little advance cooking (for the freezer meals, etc.)

You may be one of those lucky people who share the meal planning with someone else. If that’s the case, I suggest for your first time planning that you set aside a good hour or so to go through the exercise. It actually is a lot of fun to do this with another person.

I would love to hear what you are most excited about implementing into your schedule. If you have other tips and tricks for planning meals for a month share them with me. I am sure everyone will love to hear them too!

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