Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Big and Small Meal Planning

As promised a quick rundown of our meal planning tactics.

For those who don't meal plan and turn their noses at the idea... I've been there so hear me out.  There are three main benefits to meal planning, they're quick to show their results and unlike fad diets and the like the results stick around.  Meal planning gives you these:
  1. A balanced food budget, if not money left over.
  2. Less food waste
  3. A sense of ease when confronted with cooking from home on a regular basis.
Since we moved into our house, and I had complete control over our grocery shopping and meal plans, I've been using THIS template from Life... Your Way.  Just a basic weekly planner with room from a small grocery list and then once a week I sit down and figure out the next week, planning on grocery shopping on Saturdays using these steps:
  1. Looking at the week ahead a I make a mental list of our work schedules and any known get togethers with family, friend or other constraints on our time.  If we're meeting someone for dinner that goes ahead in the calendar.
  2. Breakfast and lunch is the same old thing in this house, unless a fancy french toast day slips in on a holiday.  I keep a regular selection of cereal, yogurt, granola and fruit for breakfast and lunch is almost always leftovers, sandwiches or a macncheese treat for the little guy.
  3. Once I've seen the pattern for our week I can start doling out the recipes.  Busy days get assigned "Small" meals which are often premade homemade soups, salad, baked potato bar, etc.  Meals which can be filling and healthy without a lot of elbow grease.  These meals take up 3 dinner slots a week, also insuring that at least three of our meals a week are not meat based meals (which not only cost more, but often take more time)
  4. The other days get assigned appropriate "Big" Meals, these almost always have a meat component and require a little more work in the kitchen and currently someone on hand to lend a little baby supervision.  We get "Big" Meals 3 days a week also.
  5. One day, usually Saturday, gets reserved as a free day.  My husband works every Saturday so it's nice to have this as our planned "no plan" day where we can arrange our meal as we see fit.
  6. Once this list has been completed I can get our pantry and fridge for supplies, update a grocery chart and head off to the store to stock up for the week.
From my unofficial calculations I've been saving between $30-50 a week by planning our meals ahead of time (including money saved by not buying lunch) and who wouldn't love an extra $100 in their pocket.  That kind of savings also means I don't have to be cheap on brands or quality!

As a working mom I don't want to have to scrimp the quality of the food I serve my family, and meal planning makes coming home and whipping up a healthy meal a lot less daunting!

Word to the Wise:  On our "Big" Meal days I always make more than we'd eat during that evening.  Part of this is a hold over from the last year when I was cooking for 4-6 full sized adults and part of it is to help us save money!  My best tip for cooking more without spending hours in the kitchen is simply"
  • Make a large batch of your main course (double what you'd normally make) and let the seconds cook while you're having dinner.  Making a casserole, quiche or baked meal - whip up a double batch and stick the second in while you're sitting down.  Most likely the seconds will be ready to come out of the oven by the time you're doing dishes and you'll have fresh "leftovers" ready for the next day!
Now before I go I will touch on the "big" item I left off of my planning list - recipes.  Over the last 3 years my husband and I have naturally developed a nice rotation of recipes that we enjoy on a regular basis.  I would guess that we have about 12-15 "go to" Big recipes of varying complexity that we draw from. Which, going by our current "Big and Small" System means we have about  months worth of meals to choose from.

If you're having trouble adding variety lets see if you've got your basics covered.  In my own humble opinion everyone should have the following recipes and seasonings in their arsenal, adjusted to personal/family taste of course.  If you're missing one, look around you might be missing that key, quick "go to" meal!
  • Chicken Noodle Soup - everyone should have a homemade chicken noodle soup recipe.  It's a great way to use up the left over veggies before the spoil, not to mention leftover chicken from a previous meal!
  • Taco Seasoning - I'm ashamed to admit, but until a few years ago I thought only a select few new the secret to taco seasoning and it was a well guarded secret.  Turns out it's so easy to make and so much better when you can control the amount of salt and preservatives that go into it - a great basic seasoning can be used on any "mexican" meal you can think of!
  • Seasoning Salt - another quick, easy to make from the stuff in your cupboard.  Again, it's great to be able to control the salt and other "stuff" that goes into the prepackaged stuff.  Perfect for making a great batch of oven fries (I'll be sharing my recipe in the future) or spicing up anything you imagine grilling!
  • 5 Ways to Make _______ - Fill in the blank with your "go to" side dish ingredient like rice, potatoes or pasta.  Have on hand enough variety to make 5 meals worth of potato side dishes without getting too repetitive... you know aside from the 5 days of potatoes thing.  One thing we've lost in America is the staple food that a diet revolves around, most cultures across the world all have one key ingredient to their everyday foods that easy to prepare, high in nutrients and versatile to avoid too much repetition!
  • Homemade Pizza Dough - Pizza can easily become a healthy meal with the right ingredients and a good way to start is homemade dough - starting from the bottom up can give you inspiration to branch out and try more toppings than you might order from the place down the street (says the girl who's single handedly keeping pepperoni supplies in business).
  • Casseroles - Okay, you can laugh as this is a very "midwest" type of thing but the right kind of casserole can be a quick, healthy way to feed your family in a hurry.
  • Word to the Wise - Want a quick way to make a meal healthier?  Use this simple idea to inspire you to branch out.  If you buy it in a package or box at a store, ask yourself if you know what's in it; most likely you'll have no idea what you're putting on your noodles from that "seasoning packet" and well, when you think about it that's a little like playing "let's drink what we find under the sink".  Most likely if it comes pre-made in a box it's not that difficult to make from scratch and lets face it - how hard can it be to make "Butter and Herb" Noodles?
 I hope this gave some of you "Meal Planning" freshmen something to think about and if my style doesn't suit you, just give ol' Google a search of a variety of different ways - there's even a 6 week master plan out there somewhere!

Do you meal plan?  What's your best trick of trade for making it work for your family?  Do you see savings when you stick to it?


  1. Amen and amen! Your style is very similar to ours, but we do two weeks at a time and shop every other Sunday. It really saves so much time, headache, and money for us. On the few occasions (like, maybe twice a year) that I don't plan well and we just go to the store - madness and too much money wasted!

  2. I wish I could figure out a way to get back to 2 weeks, but we just haven't had luck with keeping fresh fruit and veg fresh that long. I'd say at least one shopping trip a month is usually a little bigger than the others to allow for pantry restock, but the rest are just to top off fresh fruit/veg, meat and dairy! Not to bad. =D

  3. I really like the idea of meal planning, but I can't see how to do it without spending about $100 more each month. I just wrote and deleted a really long comment. I guess I need to just write my own post asking for advice! Anyway, it sounds like you really have things down, and that is great!

    1. Hey Rae - The only thing I can think of is that maybe you're "planning" larger meals than you'd normally make on the fly, which is why I give myself days to have leftovers and uncomplicated meals. Also remember that I factor in savings from taking leftovers from work by cooking a little more at night - without that savings my meal plan savings might only be $10-20 a week, and that's if I don't need to restock the pantry for all the basics - when I have a "light" grocery week (when I've found I have enough at home to make a good amount of meals) I'll use that money to stock up on things like olive oil, spices or even freezer veggies! I'd love to see your take on the whole thing though!

  4. Just discovered your blog via Frugally Sustainable! I love your tag line - very creative! :-)I menu planned for most of last year and it worked quite well. Even if I didn't make the meal on the day it was scheduled for, at least I had enough ideas to get through the week. And grocery shopping was much more enjoyable when I knew what I was looking for. :-)

    I'll be following for more inspiration!

    1. Too true! I usually find I have enough leftover each week (because I didn't make something I had planned on) to move into the plan for the following week! I'm really shocked at how little I need to have in my fridge at any given moment now that I'm planning more.

  5. Hi! I too love your tag line- brilliant! I meal plan as it's the only way to keep sensibly within our budget and feed my family of five! One pot casseroles are popular as they are easy to make and I can drop any seasonal vegetables I have to hand in it and if I can't afford organic meat- it's every expensive here- I use legumes. If I were not to plan out my weekly menu I know I would incur more waste and as I like to keep this to a minimum I have to be seriously organised:)
    I'm hosting a weekly linky over at Natural Mothers Network which is all about seasonal celebration and would love it if you popped over and linked this post! It would be great to introduce your blog to my subscribers! Seasonal Celebration Linky Really hope to see you there! Rebecca x

    1. Thank you for finding me! I'm checking out the NMN right now!

  6. Molly thank you very much for placing this great resource on Natural Mothers Network's linky: Seasonal Celebration! You helped make Seasonal Celebration a wealth of intelligent, creative and resourceful information and it's been such a pleasure for me and many others to read through each post. I am really looking forward to seeing you again Sunday evening or Monday! Rebecca x


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