Adulting is hard. Life is busy. Some things can’t be avoided and we can only do so much. But sometimes we over-complicate things. Been there. Done that. Bought the t-shirt.
Maybe this sounds familiar. You spend what seems like waaaaayyyyy too much time over the weekend searching recipes, trying to decide what to make for the upcoming week’s meals, then planning your grocery list, and God-willing, actually getting to the store…all when you’d much rather be relaxing in your favorite chair with a magazine and a cozy mug of coffee. Forget about searching deals and coupons, because in what time is left of your precious weekend, you have other commitments and projects to complete, and the to-do list is longer than the hours that you have.
Washing produce and prepping those meals over the weekend would have been awesome, but, of course, there wasn’t time. So you head into Monday thinking you have the meals covered, only to be hit by all sorts of snags that you didn’t expect, because HELLO, it’s Monday. After a day at work you have to choose between working out OR running errands…because there isn’t time for both AND getting supper done in time for the family to eat before your daughter’s dance practice.
The week continues with some misses and wins, but overall you wind up spending more time and money making extra trips to the store (or running through the fast-food lane) in an attempt to get food on the table amidst all the busyness. Some of the produce you bought, intending to use for a specific recipe, goes bad before you get to it. More money lost. In the end you feel like you’re always scrambling, failing at everything, and all the while missing out on what life should really be about.
Over the past year or two I have really been trying to cut back commitments and trying to take back my time. In addition to just wanting to be able to have some downtime to have fun with my family or do something relaxing for myself, I have business goals that I want to achieve (that I talked about a bit here on Saturday). I can’t do it all and neither can you. But even when I decided to not join a moms group again, quit teaching Jazzercise, and greatly reduced the amount that I volunteer, I still felt overwhelmed. The constant question then became, “I have to work to pay the bills, so where else could I free up time without giving up what I love?”.
Planning meals and grocery shopping takes a lot of my weekend time. I’ve been using the eMeals app and I do like it. It provides a fresh round-up of recipes every week, and I can tailor it to my diet preferences and family size (for the most part). But trying new meals all the time means having multiple meals that the family isn’t a fan of, and some of the healthier meals aren’t always budget-friendly. I like it when I’m in a rush to plan meals (like today) because it gives me less choices than if I went through my entire recipe box or all of my food pins on Pinterest.
In the past I had only minimally considered a monthly meal “rotation”. I tend to make what sounds good that week and that is often dictated by the weather (on a cold day soup sounds good, and in the spring/summer I love to grill out and am more likely to eat salads). I also like to try new recipes and when I thought of a meal rotation, it was because my husband suggested it in order to get his (unhealthy) favorites on a more regular basis.
Recently, though, I looked at the idea through new eyes. It occurred to me that having a monthly meal plan would save time, even if I allowed for some flexibility to swap out seasonally appropriate recipes. In addition, if I had a consistent stockpile of recipes geared to my diet goals, I wouldn’t have to put so much work into staying on track, and I would likely be more successful in sticking to them. Budget is another area that we need to work on, and I figured that if I had a consistent monthly grocery list and was eliminating time spent creating a menu every week, that I could use that time to search deals and coupons…and I’d always know what things to look for since my recipes wouldn’t change that much. When I put it like that, I wondered why I hadn’t done it before! Spring-cleaning is taking a backseat for me…I’m making a monthly meal plan!
Creating such a meal plan will take some time initially, so I am going to break it down into smaller chunks over the next month. Each week I will post a smaller task to focus on, and by the end of four weeks, we will have created a monthly meal plan to kick our summer off right! (Bonus: Most of this is mindless-enough work that you can have your favorite show going in the background to help pass the time! For me, it was catching up on Young & The Restless. 😉) Today, we’ll start with selecting recipes. Let’s do this!
Begin Selecting Recipes
This week you’re going to go through your recipe stash and start gathering meals that can go on your monthly meal plan. I began tackling this a week or two ago by going through my recipe box and the file box where I had recipes that still needed to be tried out or written onto cards to go in my recipe box. This step alone was a huge weight off my shoulders because that file box sat looming as one of those to-do’s that never got done and seemed too overwhelming to ever complete. By going through and determining what recipes I would ACTUALLY MAKE and eliminating those that I wouldn’t, I was able to toss a LOT of those recipes and greatly reduce the “transfer-to-cards” stack.
When going through your recipes, follow these guidelines:
- Make a pile of recipes you and your family like and that fit with your diet goals.
- If you come across recipes you clipped but never made, toss them. If you haven’t made them yet, you won’t likely make them now.
- If you come across recipes that use processed ingredients, excessive sugar, or otherwise are not the kind of food you want to be eating or serving your family, toss them. Just like eliminating food from your pantry that you don’t want to be tempted by, do the same by recycling unhealthy recipes, and enjoy the bonus of eliminating clutter in your recipe collection. Why spend extra time rifling through recipes you don’t want to make??
- If a recipe takes a lot of time to prepare and/or uses ingredients that are expensive or difficult to find, toss them. If you’re trying to free up time and watch your grocery budget, you don’t want to attempt these recipes. The only exception would be recipes that you make for holidays and special occasions, like my favorite corned beef and cabbage recipe for St. Patrick’s Day. Those recipes won’t go on the monthly rotation list, so file them back in your recipe box and when you need to pull them for a specific month, you know where to find them.
- At this point don’t worry about having not enough or too many recipes for a month. Just focus on fine-tuning your recipe collection and getting a good start on potential recipes for your monthly meal-plan.
Sort What You Have
As I went through my recipes, I realized that I not only wanted to plan for suppers, but also breakfasts, lunches and snacks. Obviously you have to cover all of these foods when shopping at the store, and eating healthy requires planning, as much as (if not more than) having willpower. There will also be some recipes that you only want to use seasonally, like soups for the colder months and grilling recipes for spring/summer. Therefore the next step involves sorting the recipes so that when it comes time to make a plan, you’re not rifling through options that don’t fit what category you’re trying to fill.
- Sort recipes into piles: Main dishes, veggies/sides, lunch ideas, breakfast recipes, and healthy snacks.
- If there are seasonal-specific recipes, further sort those: Soups for fall/winter, grilling recipes and salads for spring/summer, etc. You may want to consider adding a seasonal category to your recipe storage method of choice to make it easy to find these when you need them. Or if you already have “soups” and “salads” categorized, maybe add a “grilling” or “summer recipes” tab.
- Recipes that you want to keep but that won’t go into your monthly meal-plan can be filed right away. This includes recipes for appetizers, desserts, and drinks. With that said, it may not be a bad idea to have ingredients on hand for a few “treats”. For example, if the mood strikes, you could whip up a healthy ice cream alternative and avoid hitting DQ! Decide if you want to include a select number of treats or desserts in your monthly plan.
- If you have recipes selected that aren’t in the format of your main recipe collection (recipe cards in a box or binder, or typed into some sort of electronic storage system), convert them so that all your recipes are together. In my case, this means taking recipes printed from online or photocopied recipes from my mom and transferring them to recipe cards to go in my recipe box. This will save time later and will eliminate even more clutter, which will further simplify your life!
Create a Rough Monthly Meal List
All of these steps are going to take some time, but keep in mind that the ultimate goal is saving time and money the rest of the year! In this next step, you’re going to take the recipes you have and start plugging them into a monthly LIST. Eventually you will put these meals into your calendar for the upcoming month, but we’re not there YET.
- Start with suppers and create a list of 30 or so meals. Depending on the size of your family, if you plan to use leftovers for lunch, and how many servings a meal makes, you may need to plan one meal a day or half that many.
- Next to each meal name, make notes about serving size, if this can be a freezer meal, or if it can be prepared in a crock pot overnight. Can part of the meal be used for a different meal the next day? (For example I have a Tex Mex roast beef recipe that then can be used for a beef tortilla soup.) Additionally, include any other notes that will be helpful as you plan your calendar.
- Indicate which meals will be a one-shot only meal and which you can plan on leftovers for the next day’s lunch or supper.
- Keep your ideal calendar in mind as you make your list. Maybe you should plan at least one freezer meal each week to help out on busy nights or just in case something goes awry in your plan. Do you want to simplify things further by having Meatless Mondays, Taco (Mexican) Tuesdays, or pizza on Fridays?
Fill in the Gaps
Once you’ve sorted and organized your recipes, and included the recipes you have into a monthly list, assess that list for any gaps. Using the last bullet point as a guideline, do you need more freezer meals? Do you like the idea of Meatless Monday but don’t really have many meatless recipes in your current collection? Fill in the gaps using Pinterest or recipe sites. Of course, as you try some of these new recipes you may find that they’re not as good or as easy or as healthy as you initially thought, and you may have to replace them down the road. But our goal at this point is to supplement an already tried-and-true recipe list by filling in holes with additional recipes that fit our meal-planning goals. Occasional meal swaps and substitutions won’t take nearly as long as recreating a new meal plan every week.
I gave you a lot to work on for the next week, so focus on that and NOTHING MORE. Don’t work ahead, don’t feel like you need to implement this in two days. We’re being realistic and intentional and taking baby steps to simplifying our lives.
Life won’t stop being crazy but we can simplify and automate some of our routine tasks to make it less crazy and try to take back some of our time for living. As a mom, meal-planning and grocery shopping can take a lot of time, so this is where I decided to focus in simplifying my life and routines. Join me over the next few weeks as we streamline this process!