Monday, April 7, 2014

Monthly Meal Plan

Monthly Meal Plan

I have been doing meal planning for...oh, ever. I am not one of those people who can leave the question "What's for dinner?" unanswered until the time comes to actually make dinner. Maybe it's the planner in me, but probably more honestly, it's the foodie in me. Or maybe a healthy combination of both.

Ok, so you've decided to meal plan. Why? The answer to that little question is probably the most important part of your success to making a successful meal plan- and sticking with it. Use your reasons to build your plan.

These are the things I had in mind when I began meal planning:
Eat more seafood
Eat less meat
Time, or lack of time
Make use of leftovers
Make more healthy meals (I was be surprised how I could spot too many processed meals my family is really having when it's laid out in front of me).

I used my reasons to help me section my month/weeks. Instead of days of the week on my monthly calendar, I have "Cheap", "Crockpot", "Seafood", "Meat-free" and then some free days.

As you can see I start by labeling my days in recipe/meal categories. I don't get so anal that I have to have crockpot meals on Monday and seafood on Fridays. If that works for you, go for it. I just shop for the week then usually decide on my meal the night before- taking anything of the freezer that I may need.

First, I check my freezer, fridge and pantry to see what I have on hand and when possible, I make meals out of that first.

Next, I pull out several of my past weeks grocery lists/menus and several previous month's plans. That way I can copy over some of those meals we especially enjoyed.

I am a recipe and cookbook FREAK! I mean it. And I have ZERO shame. And my Pinterest boards? FULL of recipes. Follow me here. Ok, so maybe I am a little addicted to it.

TIP: As I pour over Pinterest for meal planning, I have a board on there that I pull the recipes I am using that month/week. I just delete them when I am done. This saves me time so that I'm not hunting for them when it comes time to make the recipe AND, although I do love paper copies in my hand, I am trying to do my part and not use paper as much.

But I do still like to print out recipes and make notes. I rarely stick to a recipe the way it is written. Not to mention, my little D has adopted my iPad and I need him to be occupied while I am making dinner so I don't dare try to use it then.

I know that meals like spaghetti and sausage pasta are favorites so they go on the calendar. Then, since I like the time and money saving aspect of rolling meals over, what I call "base meals". I plug those sorts of meals in next. (See below for more base meals ideas). I put whole crockpot chicken down at least once, sometimes twice a month since shredded chicken is so versatile and such a time saver.

Special days

I also check the calendar for any upcoming special days and plan those meals as well. For instance, April has Easter and my son, C's, birthday.


Another thing I like to do is double meals when I can. I do NOT have time or the energy to do one day, all day, of meal prep. But, by planning out my meals in advance, I can easily double (or triple) some recipes and pop those suckers in the freezer. This differs from base meals. (See below for meals to double).

For instance, I will double the grilled mushrooms, zucchini, green peppers and onions and turn the extra into grilled veggie quesadillas.

Some meals I can put an unprepared portion of into a freezer bag that I will use later in the month. Crockpot meals are the best for this. Some of my favorite recipes for freezing are apricot chicken, beef stroganoff, sloppy tamale pie, smothered pork chops, sweet and sour chicken, salsa chicken *see below for recipes and more suggestions- all of which can be doubled- make one for that specific day then while you are at it, measure out all the ingredients into a freezer bag with instructions written on the front. This plan ahead strategy of base meals, doubling and making my own freezer bag meals usually yields enough "free" meals for a whole week (and then some)- I like to tack that at the end of the month when rent and bills are due or pull out a homemade frozen meal when I just don't feel like cooking.**TIP Speaking of freezing meals, any meals that have sour cream or cream cheese in them, do not add it before freezing. It doesn't freeze well.

By the time I plug in these meals, my month is starting to fill up and doesn't look as daunting.

Then I plug breakfast and leftovers in a couple times. Both fairly quick and money saving. You probably have certain types of meals your family enjoys that you can plug in almost every week as well; like taco day, sandwich night, pizza or even take out/eat out nights.

I also denote meals that will be doubled or used as base meals to remind me of my plans.

Then I round out my calendar with recipes I've found and want to try.

Some ideas for base meals to get your creative juices flowing:
Meatloaf can become meatloaf sandwiches, break the cooked meat up and use it for chili or meat sauce, slice it thin and use it for cheeseburger quesadillas, put it in a sub roll with sauted green peppers, onions and provolone for a mock Philly cheese steak sandwich. Break it up with a potato masher, toss in some taco seasoning (which I also make much cheaper than the store bought kind) and you have meat for tacos or a delicious taco pizza. Sloppy joes! On and on and on...
A large ham can be frozen and used in casseroles...many chicken based casseroles can be swapped with ham. You can slice or chop it and use it with breakfast, the meat and bones can be used in many soups and stews. The end bits of a ham can be thrown in your food processor and make a ham salad spread for sandwiches.You can use chunks of it in salads as well.
Whole Chicken The possibilities are endless. Casseroles, soups, skillet meals, homemade pizza. And you can usually get a whole chicken for less than $1 a lb. Sure, there is the labor of deboning the chicken but then you also have the carcass to make into stock as well!
Beans Dried beans are so inexpensive and since they make a lot, you can freeze them for later use. You can add them to soups in place of, or in addition to the protein. You can also leave out the pasta and swap it for bean in soups as well. Refried beans for tacos, burritos, quesadillas. You can even turn beans into a delicious dipper or sauce. I love to make a "country dinner" with pintos, then freeze the left over beans for Mexican inspired dishes. (I also freeze the extra corn bread for stuffing).
Spaghetti sauce it's not just for spaghetti dinner anymore. I don't buy the jarred kind anymore, unless I find a REALLY good deal on them and then I just keep them on hand. The sauce is great for pizza sauce, to top things like chicken/eggplant Parmesan, baked ziti or even use in soups in place of tomato sauce.
Salmon, shrimp or tilapia can be made into chowders, Po Boy sandwiches, salmon cakes, casseroles or to top green salads.
Chili is also a dish you should double or triple. Aside from just thawing out a bag of chili for another pot. You can use it for chili dogs, or strain it a bit and use it for burritos or nachos.

Soups, stews, casseroles are good for doubling or trippling. I promise, once you start meal planning a couple times, this all come easier.

I really only plan dinners. For breakfasts and lunches, we pretty much have the same handful of things all the time. So I just make a quick list for each on the backside of the dinner calendar. ie Breakfast- oatmeal, pancakes, smoothies, cheesy eggs. Lunch- deli sandwiches, quesadillas, grilled cheese, kabobs etc.These are things that I always have on hand. On occasion, I do make a batch of tuna pasta salad or homemade spaghetti-o's and I plan those accordingly.

By the way, I don't coupon. I don't have time to run around from store to store. Plus I rarely buy store brand products. I shop produce that is in season and all sale. Below are some of the other ways I save money in lieu of couponing.

Money saving tips 
1) I use dried beans and long cook rice when and where I can. Both real money savers. Both usually make lots more than one meals portion so they lend themselves perfectly to either rolling into another meal that week or to be frozen for another meal.

2) I always buy and cook more ground meat than I need as well. It's nice to have this step already done. It makes another meal quicker and you save a few cents a pound by buying in larger packages.

3) I like to make whole cuts/portions of meat when I can. Like whole chicken, roasts, ham, porkloin etc. Likewise, make an extra meatloaf or two. Cook a couple extra filets of salmon or chicken thighs and you are setting yourself up for time and money saving meals later in the month.

4) If you don't already do this, you should consider adding one, or more, meat free meals to your weekly meals. Meat is usually the most expensive component of the meal, so by swapping it out for meat-free protein choices, you can make your grocery dollar stretch AND might even do your health some good as well.

5) Double duty your produce as well. For instance, cole slaw from half a head of cabbage and the other half goes to a pot of soup. Left over asparagus can be tossed into pasta primavera. Left over zucchini can easily go into an Italian pasta dish and help stretch it out. Or, put small portions of left over vegetable into one large freezer bag and use it for a big pot of vegetable soup.

And that's how I do my meal planning. I don't shop for a whole month at a time. I don't have the space for that much food and, I must confess, I love to grocery shop so I like to do it every week. I am considering starting to combine two weeks at a time, however. I'll let you know how that goes when I do finally take that leap.

If you have any questions, please leave a comment below.

Recipes mentioned above that do not have links
(the measurements are for one meal)

Apricot Chicken
12 dried apricots
8 chicken thighs, skinless, boneless. About 2 lbs
1/2 tsp nutmeg (I like more)
1/2 tsp all spice
2 tbs unsalted butter
2 tbs evoo
1 large onion sliced
1 c chicken broth
2 tbs apricot jam *optional
slivered almond *optional
Scatter apricots on the bottom of a crockpot. Sprinkle chicken with s&p, nutmeg and all spice. Arrange chicken on top of apricots.
Saute onion in butter and evoo until brown. Pour over top of chicken. Add broth to pan, loosening brown bits and allow it to simmer for a few minutes. (**allow the onions to cool a bit before you pour it over the chicken.) Pour over chicken.
Cook on low for 4-6 hours.
Transfer thighs to a dish, cover to keep warm. Pour remaining liquid into the saucepan. Boil to reduce and thicken. Add jam if desired. Taste for seasoning and adjust if needed. Pour over chicken.

Smothered pork chops

2lb pork chops (I prefer center cut and don't mind paying extra in this case so I don't have to fish the bones out of the sauce)
1 can fat free cream of mushroom soup
2 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
1 small can mushrooms
1 large onion, sliced

Toss it all in a crockpot and let it go 4-6 hours on low, until cooked through. If you are freezing it, put all ingredients, uncooked, in a freezer baggie with instructions written on the outside.

Salsa Chicken

2-3lb Chicken thighs
1 jar mild salsa
Crockpot 4-6hrs on low. 
(You can cook the chicken in the crockpot just like this, or add any or all of the following)
a cup frozen corn kernnels
cumin to taste
black beans (rinsed and drained)
cream cheese (added toward the end of cooking)
Southwest Roast (extra roast can be used for nachos, burritos, empanadas)

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