Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Day 9 - Keep it simple

Once you've finished your family favourite meals list, and made your weekly menu plan, and then made your shopping list, you would think that's all the lists you could need right?

But before we talk about that, we need to get back to the idea of simple.

That sounds like a lot of lists right? To a list person, making lots of lists isn't a problem. In fact, more lists makes me feel more secure and prepared. It makes me calm. Making sure the lists get kept in a useful order, don't have to have a lot of repeats, and are actually useful, can be a problem, so I have to keep only the lists that are actually useful, and keep them in order. And if you aren't a list person, 3 lists seems like tons. It just overcomplicates the whole matter.

You need to find your way to the sweet spot. 

You are the only one who can figure out your comfort level. The space where you feel prepared for the week, confident that you haven't forgotten something that will cause frustration later, and didn't feel like you were locked in a dungeon all afternoon writing lines.

In it's simplest form a menu plan is just a list of things you will cook, and an accompanying list of things you need to buy. Get to your sweet spot, and you will be hooked on menu planning. (But not phonics... you may have missed your chance!)

This figuring out might take a bit of time, but keeping with it, and keeping on working on it, will help, especially in busier and harder times in life. If you are in a season of abundance, you might not feel motivated to work on improving your household systems, but if you are in a season of leanness you have all the motivation, but maybe not the ability to work on this (time, energy, etc.). Just work on things to your own ability, and within your own strengths. Menu planning shouldn't become another area in which we constantly feel insufficient.

So do what works for you. And that is all. And that is everything you need. 

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Day 8 - Filling your shopping cart

Did you guys have fun yesterday browsing all those meal plans from other people at Organizing Junkie

Did it inspire you to write down your meal plan? 

I hope it did, because today we are going to talk about the second step in meal planning.... creating your shopping list. 

Before we start I have to give a shameless plug to Plan to Eat, because they solve the problem that is generally the most disheartening part of the whole menu planning chore. At some point you have to look through every recipe, figure out all of the ingredients, check this against what you already have, and then write it down on a list that you can actually use in the store, without forgetting something. Plan to Eat does all of this for you, and can be set up, so that it checks what you already have. It feels somewhat miraculous every time. 

If you have decided that Plan to Eat is simply not for you, then things will take a bit longer. But we can still work on ways to streamline things. While ensuring that nothing is forgotten. Because after getting home after shopping all morning, and finding out you either forgot something, or got more of something you really didn't need, is one of the worst feelings. Completely depressing. (Or maybe that's just me, and I am too dramatic.)

I find that the biggest time suck when creating a shopping list, is often from having to get out all the recipes and then go through them each. This creates a huge mess, and really does take lots of time. If you prefer to cook from your head, then you probably don't need to do this as much, but you also run the risk of getting a bit boring. And easily forgetting things such a condiments and spices that you are out of. 

Remember on Friday how we talked about the list of all your family favourite recipes? Well today you are going to do a bit more grunt work on that. Basically for each recipe you need a list of all the ingredients needed for it. You could choose to write this on paper, and store it in a binder, or you could make a spreadsheet like this one:

Click to Enlarge
Just keep it on a file on your computer, and then every time you make your menu plan, you simply need to write down the things you are missing. No more getting out all your recipes. This is will save lots of time for you when using these recipes (which you probably are using for most meals) and then you just need to spend a bit more time on special meals. 

I really really prefer a list on my computer because I like to organize my grocery list into categories. On paper I find I have to re-write the list because I am OCD about things being categorized correctly and still looking pretty. On the computer I am in love with the copy & paste function.  Otherwise I end up criss-crossing the grocery store, which is much more tiring and eventually I am just grabbing whatever, just so I can get out of there. I generally also do not take the time to do even a bit of comparison shopping, and so end up spending more money. 

I have seen recommendations from various websites about keeping a pantry inventory, and if that works for you, then that is great. I find that it does not work for me, because it changes to often and is a pain in the neck to keep up, and often led to me not buying something, without realizing that I don't have enough to finish the recipe I had in mind. 

So instead I just start fresh each week, with everything I need listed on my grocery list, and delete the items I already have. For me, this is simpler. 

Ok? So quick summary. 

1. Go get Plan to Eat, because it is the best way to plan menu's ever, and will seriously reduce the amount of time spent meal planning. 

2. If you don't want Plan to Eat, then write an ingredient list (include everything, even oil & salt) for each Favourite Family Meal, and keep somewhere safe. 

3. Each week, when writing your shopping list, refer to your ingredient lists and simply write down the items you are missing, organizing into categories. Make sure you actually check not only that you have the items, but how much of each item you have. 

4. Go to the grocery store and only go down the aisles that you need, and feel confident that your list is complete. 

Monday, 7 October 2013

Day 7 - Let's do it!

Hi guys! I hope you had a great relaxing weekend. Since I work shifts, I mostly worked this weekend, and now am sick with either a cold or flu. Luckily I can blog from bed.

Today I want to introduce you to a favourite menu planning resources of mine - Organizing Junkie's Menu Plan Monday. She posts her own menu plan for the week and then has a linky party for other bloggers to add too. Usually hundreds of bloggers link up. And because these are real people, who often don't have food related sites, you get to see a lot of real menu plans.

As you guys now know, I do my shopping on Friday, so my "week" is from Saturday to Thursday. However, I like to plan my menu before then, just in case life gets busy. I find that if I have to meal plan and then immediately grocery shop it takes all day. Even though I can really meal plan in about 30 minutes, I guess I just get distracted.

Currently my family is myself and my husband, and we try to eat paleo or primal for most of our meals. However, we don't paleo-ify anything, so we just drastically reduce our grains & legumes, but if a recipe calls for 1 tbsp. of flour, it'll probably be white flour not coconut flour. That's why you will mostly see a meat dish and a vegetable or salad. I do work shifts, and often work 2 evenings a week, so for those nights we have meals that can easily be made ahead and travel. As you will see, we usually make dinners that would feed 4 and then use the leftovers for lunch the next day, or, more often, for dinner the next day.  I also just attended a soup swap, so my freezer currently has several different soups ready to go. I will be using those in my meal plans this month. Finally, Canadian Thanksgiving falls within this meal plan, but we will be celebrating with my family next weekend. Don't be alarmed by Monday nights fancy dinner, this is just for a holiday.

My menu plan for next week: 
Friday - Sweet & Sour Pork, Chinese Cabbage Salad
Saturday - leftovers
Sunday - soup from the swap, cut vegetables
Monday (Canadian Thanksgiving!) - Braised Chicken, Rutabaga Puree, Kale Salad (dessert optional)
Tuesday - leftovers
Wednesday - Shepherd's Pie & Roasted Savoy Cabbage
Thursday - leftovers

If you use Plan to Eat my user name is Robyn_M and you can add me as a friend! And I will be linking up to Menu Plan Monday. If you have a blog you can link up as well, or you can comment below so we can all see what kinds of things other people are eating!

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Day 6 - Stretch yo-self!

Ok... so today was supposed to be a blog post about grocery shopping. But instead I am going out to dinner with my sister and then taking a long shower and falling asleep. It's been a loooong weekend.

So... instead let's talk about flexibility. And why is it the central skill of a meal planning.

You see, food is important for basically two reasons on most nights, sustenance and nutrition. You gotta eat, and hopefully it won't be bad for your health. But there is another important reason that we eat... community. We share the table, because the table is where we often let down our guard and really listen to each other. Gathering around shared food actually is a strong bond, that creates trust.

Often, we are invited to dinner, or realize it would be a great time to have dinner with friends at the last moment. Sometimes we just decide to go out to dinner by ourselves on a whim. Or we are struck by a sudden craving.

Sharing food is what makes food fun and exciting. It is no longer just sustenance, it is celebration and life. It is rich, and deep and important.

So make meal plans, because they add flexibility to your life and allow for more of the excitement. See them as the preparedness guide. Basically if nothing better comes up today, then we will have the menu plan for dinner.

It's also kind of awesome to know that you were already going to make a big pot of chili the day you find our your high school best friend has arrived in town and would love to catch up. No searching all over the inter-web, finding a recipe that you have to go to two stores for, plus the liqour store (obviously), and then come home, make all the food and clean the whole house. You're not going to want to really be engaged after that, you are going to want a nap!

If you are someone who struggles with wanting to control life (hi me!) this idea of flexibility is hard. The whole point of a list is so that we are in control right? Well... maybe start slow, and be gentle with yourself. But stretch. Say yes more, and strive for perfection less.

So make menu plans in pencil, because you never know when life will come up. 

Friday, 4 October 2013

Day 5 - One List to rule them all

Ok, so we've talked about our meal plan system, and chosen whether or not to use a list or a calendar.

But, how do we know what to put on our meal plan? We want this to be easy and fast right?
Ok. Here is the magic fairy dust. The part that makes this whole thing worthwhile. Today we are going to talk about how you are going to make meal planning = simple.

What you need to do is simply write down a list of your families favourite meals. These are the meals you have grown up with, the meals you don't need a recipe for, meals you use a recipe for, but that page is probably splattered and tattered. This are your well-worn, time-tested recipes. You can choose as little or as many recipes as you like. But lets give you some guidelines.

You should have at least 20 and no more than 90. Even 60 is a large number. Do you really have that many favourite meals? Also these should be fairly standard recipes, but might play more heavily to your ethnicity or family background. Spaghetti, simple grilled chicken and hamburgers are at home here, but butter chicken, pad thai and cabbage rolls can also be great. Another thing to consider is recipes, that aren't really recipes at all. Your amazing chicken soup that you just create with whatever is in your fridge? That's a non-recipe. It belongs. Breakfast for dinner, grilled cheese & soup and nachos can also work. Just be sure that most things on the list are quick to prepare. Some might need a long time to cook, but they can do so without you standing by. This is pretty important. Do you see what kind of ideas I'm getting at? Simple, favourite meals, that you can make for most weeknights, with a few slow-cooker and sunday afternoon dinners, just for interest and yumminess.

Ok, got your list?

Now, I prefer to organize my list by protein - chicken, beef, pork, seafood & vegetarian. In my world, pork is anything that comes from a pig.

The next part we need to add to our list is sides. Start with vegetables. This can be as simple as "steamed vegetables," which gives you lots of flexibility to full salad recipes. If you are up for it try to vary your sides, maybe even with a different one for each meal. But, again, these have to be vegetables you will actually eat. If you kids or husband, (or you!) will only broccoli and carrots, then include these vegetables each meal. You can decide how to work other vegetables into the meal if you want. Some meals have classic sides, or your family traditionally has certain foods with them. Spaghetti & caesar salad is a great example. This list is not a time to look for exciting and new recipes, it is about the tried & true.

Then from there you can add starches and condiments. You can add appetizers and desserts, but this is mostly so that you can use these same meals for entertaining on casual nights. That part is totally optional. Add each element to the meal, so you don't realize as you scramble to get dinner on the table that you forgot horseradish for your roast beef or naan to go with your butter chicken.

When I initially wrote my list, it was quite un-balanced between the protein categories (21 chicken & 4 fish??), so as I added "experimental" meals, I focused on the more empty categories, so that I could find new favourites. After the initial list was created I have slowly added more detail to this list. And worked on diversifying my vegetable choices. You can revisit this list whenever you like, and add or subtract things as your families tastes change, or you want to change how it works for you.

Ok... so how does this additional list make menu planning easier? Well... you are going to make most of your meals off this list. So when you are doing your planning you can simply grab your list and get most of your meals filled in. And with enough variety it certainly won't seem like you are eating the same thing over and over again. You can add new dishes and stuff too, but only when you want to. And you don't have to haul out your whole collection of cookbooks or view all of pinterest every time you make a meal plan. It will also help significantly when making your shopping list. We'll talk about that tomorrow.

Here is my personal list, shared on Google docs. Because I use Plan to Eat I have simply uploaded these recipes, so I don't have recipe books & page numbers listed. But I would include it otherwise. You need to be able to easily get at this info. Check it out if you want an idea of how to actually organize this list. I love seeing all the cute printables available online, but I think that since this is a working document, printables would make it seem too precious. This is a document that will need to be revised, changed around, erased and scribbled on. Make it work for you.

Tomorrow we are going to talk about why this list makes everything so. much. faster!

What meals made your list?

Day 4 - Planner McPlannerson

Ok... are you guys ready? The next 3 posts are the heart of the menu plan. Everything else is just tips & tweaks to make these things work. So you ready? Have you figured out what kind of planner you are and how long in advance you want to do your planning? Ok, grab you tools and here we go.

So the first thing you are going to need is a planner. Basically a place to write down your outline. On day 2 I had you choose what tool you wanted to use for this. There are basically two styles: lists and calendars.

A list is, well, pretty self-explanatory. Write a list of the foods you would like to eat, for your specified time frame. You can assign days of the week, or not. If you crave flexibility, just a list of 7 dinners is a great way to start. If you crave structure, assign days. If you like routine, you can even add theme nights. We'll get back to themes in a second. Check out these printables if that's your thing, or just grab a piece of paper, or your dayplanner. Make sure you are writing your list in something that is already part of your life. You don't need a new notebook, or a fancy binder, just use what you have around you already.

A calendar, is also just a calendar. The basic difference is a vertical list or a horizontal calendar. But it is harder to have the same level of flexibility with a calendar... but not impossible. Enter the mighty pencil. Haven't used one since grade school? You can probably steal one from your kids. If you are using a computer, well, you have the delete key, and even copy & paste. One of the most important things to realize with a calendar is that you will probably move stuff around. Some days you just really won't feel like what you had planned, or life will happen. Or you'll get a last minute invite to dinner. A meal plan shouldn't get in the way of these things.

Which brings me to a great point. Never plan for 7 dinners a week. You will have leftovers, go out for dinner, make something up from pantry food you found, finally getting around to eating that casserole in your freezer. Or you will just have pancakes for dinner, because this was a miraculous week and none of that happened. I generally do 5 or so, and add notes for times when we already know we are going out, and also include my leftovers in my plan. For instance, last week we had ribs, and since there are two of us, no way are we going to finish 2 pounds of ribs in one sitting. So in my plan I just noted leftover ribs for dinner the next night. Sometimes you plan for leftovers, and it doesn't work out. This is a good time to use your pencil and skip on to the next night, or bust out the pancakes. During this series I will help you get some better ideas than just pancakes for nights like this.

Ok... so back to themes. At one point in my life I felt that if you didn't have a Taco Tuesday in your life, then your menu plan wasn't really a menu plan. But as I would add themes to my planner I found that there were WAY too many great foods out there to just limit it to 7. I eventually went to theme months and would use up to 20 themes for the month. But that was crazy. So I stopped. And so now I have just 5 themes: Chicken, beef, pork, seafood, vegetarian. One meal from each protein a week. Simple. You can adjust these proteins to your way of eating. If you are vegetarian, perhaps try eggs, lentils, beans, soy, vegetables.

And that is all it is. An outline of foods you plan to eat this week. A rough sketch drawn in pencil.

Are you ready to write down your first outline?

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Day 3 - How long in advance should I plan my menu?

We're taking this menu planning thing slowly. Carefully considering it, and thinking about how our day-to-day reality will affect it. Remember, this has to be a plan that will work for you, not be just another expectation we cannot meet. Ok? Still psyched? I am.

One of the things you need to decide before we start writing things on paper (!) is: how often do you want to shop?

There are many, many options here, from every day to once a week to once a month. Quarterly shopping can also be useful for certain items. If one of the reasons you want to start a menu plan is to stop having to go to the grocery store everyday, awesome! If you are here because you actually like going to the grocery store everyday, but feel that you shouldn't.....ignore that voice in your head! A menu plan is for people who want a bit of structure and need some time-saving.

Personally I do not enjoy grocery shopping, so I prefer to shop once a week. But I have also experimented with monthly shopping, including produce, which was quite successful, but I find takes a bit more planning. I think the default for most people is weekly, so if you are really just starting out at meal planning, aim for this.

It is important to decide on a regular grocery shopping day, that will fit into your life, based on your work and home schedules. My day is Friday, based on my work schedule, which generally starts on Saturday. I also like this because if we have people for dinner it is usually on the weekend - so I can get all those ingredients in the same shop. I have noticed that Sunday seems to be the busiest day at the grocery store and Tuesday is the quietest. I really like to try to get to the grocery store between 10 - 11am so that it mostly empty.

One other thing to do before you get to meal planning is figure out what you already have. I think everyone has there one thing that they always feel they are out of, and constantly end up with too much. Mine is condiments. My mother's is carrots and jello packets. A great tip is that you can actually use a dry-erase marker to write on your freezer, which is a really easy way to keep track of your frozen meat or vegetables, especially if you have a large freezer. When you start meal planning it's a great idea to include meals that use ingredients you already have. This will save you a lot of money, and if you can get into a pattern of it, you can start buying in bulk and save even more money.

Ok? You ready? Figured out what kind of tool you want to use, and how long you're going to plan for?  Great! Tomorrow we're all going to start our first menu plan!

What day do you do your grocery shopping?

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Day 2 - What kind of planner are you?

One of the most imporant parts of a menu plan is YOU. And your family. But at this point, mostly you. Since you are the one doing the work and making it happen, its got to fit your organizing style. So answer this quiz to start figuring out where you are and how your organizing style will affect your meal planning.

When you figure out what's for dinner - how do you do it? 
  • Do you just open the fridge and start cooking? 
  • Do you have a note in your daybook or calendar? 
  • Ideas listed on your phone or computer? 
  • A written meal plan for each day of the week?
What kind of cook are you?
  • I make it up as I go along. 
  • I have memorized a few recipes and make them over and over again. 
  • I like to use a recipe, but then adjust as I go along. 
  • I follow every bit of the recipe.
  • I just kind of hate cooking. 
Where do you find the recipes you use?
  • Oh, do people actually use recipes?
  • My index cards full of special family favourites. 
  • In a huge collection of cookbooks
  • I drool over the pictures on Pinterest and FoodGawker.
  • I just google whatever seems interesting. 
And when you go shopping, how do you know what to get?
  • Whatever looks good?
  • I have a few notes and then add as I go?
  • A list scribbled on the back of an envelope or on my phone?
  • I get the same things every week. 

So let's break down these answers into a few examples: Maybe you are someone who likes to be really flexible and make whatever is inspiring today, cooking dinner is your meditation for the day. Or you like need to have a structured plan, so that some kind of food gets on the table. Perhaps you enjoy making gourmet meals some nights, and are ok with eating those leftovers for the next two days. 

Well, here are two things that can help you right now, today:

1. You have to write your plan down. Keeping it in your head actually just adds stress, because now you are responsible for remembering everything. At this point a simple list is fine, we will add structure through the week. But you gotta commit to writing it down somehow. If you are afraid of commitment and only want to plan 2 days worth, or even just ideas such as "Asian Chicken" then do it. Make it work.

2. Choose whether you want to keep your list on paper or on a computer/phone. But please pick a certain spot for it. A dedicated notebook, or meal planning pad for the paper lovers. For the compu-geeks a spreadsheet on your computer, or a website like Evernote or Plan to Eat, will work well. 

In the next few days we will get into the specifics of how to set-up our meal planner. 

I'd love to hear your answers to the questions today. For the record I have a written meal plan for each day of the week, like to use a recipe, but adjust as I go along, LOVE pinterest but also use cookbooks, index cards and make stuff up, and definitely have a shopping list on my phone. 

What kind of planner/cook/shopper are you?