The Power of the Meal Plan

Ah, meal planning. Something we all aspire to and yet rarely get around to doing. And it’s too bad, because for such a short time investment you reap huge benefits. Meal planing saves time, money, and a great deal of sanity. For those who have never meal planned before and may be a bit daunted by the prospect of coming up with a weeks worth of meals RIGHT NOW, I’ll break down my process for you. It’s not nearly as huge a beast to tackle as you might think.

First things first, take a quick look in your fridge, freezer, and pantry. If you can plan your meals around things you already have on hand then your shopping list is that much shorter, and you’ve already saved money.

In my fridge I have 1-2 meals worth of turkey (depends on what I decide to do with it), lots of eggs, bacon, cheese, carrots, celery, and homemade yogurt, among other things. In my freezer I notice a surplus of green beans, and a package of boneless skinless chicken thighs. We’ll definitely be seeing those on the meal plan this week. And I always keep a fairly well stocked pantry of dry goods such as rice, beans, flour, onions, potatoes, sugar, spices, etc.

Once you have determined which leftovers from the week before need used up, and what ingredients you have on hand already, it’s time to start thinking about the meals themselves. I typically try to do my meal planning on Sunday so that I’m ready for the week, but I was working Sunday night/Monday and so I’m doing it today. I also try to plan meals for early in the week that I have all the ingredients on hand for, so I have a little flexibility in my grocery shopping. Nothing kills a grocery budget like running to the store at the last minute for the one thing you need for dinner and coming home $50 later with a bunch of stuff you don’t really need.

Any time you can cook once and eat twice you should. Baked chicken thighs for dinner one night can become the basis for soup, stew, sandwiches or casserole later in the week. I can stretch that turkey for two meals if I do one soup and one casserole. I also try to plan one meatless (or at least less meat) meal based around beans and rice.

Now it’s time to start planning those menus. If you have something to use up but don’t know how, I like (was recipezaar) for finding new recipes. Just make a basic plan of what to serve and when. We’ll look at our recipes in a bit to decide our shopping lists. There are several tools you can use to organize your meal plans. Here are two that I’ve used that are working for me.
I found this nifty note pad at Target. It gives you space to write in your meal plans with your shopping list underneath. I like that it doesn’t take up much room, and is always visible on the fridge so I can add to the list as I discover things we need.

This is the menu section of my Home Management Binder. I don’t use my binder nearly as much as I wish I did, but I’m trying to make it a part of my daily life again. The pages are in page protectors, and you can write with a dry erase marker. I have two menu pages so I can start planning next week without having to erase the week that’s not quite over yet.

Here’s how my weeks meals are shaping up:

Monday (yesterday): We ordered wings. Yum!
Tuesday: Turkey Stew
Wednesday: Turkey and Rice Casserole
Thursday: Baked Chicken Thighs, Roasted Green Beans
Friday: Bean Soup with Bacon
Saturday: Dinner w/Grandparents
Sunday: Chicken Sandwiches, salad

I’m using up my turkey first since it’s been in the fridge for a few days. Also, I need to get the chicken thighs out of the freezer and into the fridge so they’ll be thawed for Thursday. I love meals that can be made all in one dish, so I haven’t listed a side dish for things that include plenty of vegetables. Both my husband and I are watching our weight, so we’re trying to stay away from starchy sides and focus more on veggies and salads.

Now is the time go go through your recipes and make sure you have all the ingredients you need and make out your shopping list. Looking at my list, the only thing I need to pick up is salad greens. This is mostly because I shop according to sales and keep my fridge, freezer and pantry well stocked with things we use often. It’s partly because I get in ruts and we tend to eat the same several things over and over. Now make up that shopping list, and sit back and relax knowing you’ve avoided the “What’s for dinner” panic for the rest of the week!

Home Management Binder: Schedules and Cleaning

As promised, here is a more in depth look at my schedules and cleaning sections in my HMB. Since my kids are still very small, and not involved in many activities, my schedules is more a rough structure to the day and week than a rigid calender of events. In order for my day to run smoothly certain things need to happen at more or less consistent times, and everything else falls into place nicely. I achieve this state of scheduling bliss an average of once a year. My day is broken up into several different routines that I try to follow, hoping that eventually the become, well, routine. This is an area that I struggle greatly with, so forgive me if this entire post comes across as hypothetical, because most days it is.

Following certain routines each day help to ensure that things are getting done on a daily basis

My morning routine starts as I roll out of bed. Right now I try to remember to pull the covers back up to the pillow. For a while I was beginning my days with a series of yoga Sun Salutations, and would like to get back into that practice. It really is a wonderful way to greet the day and really gets your blood and lymph moving. As the kids wake up, I need to get breakfast made for the family, and a lunch packed for Brad to take to work. Then I need to clean up the breakfast dishes, wipe down counters and table, sweep the kitchen and start the laundry and the morning routine is done.

Nap for the baby starts between 11:00 and 12:00, depending on when he woke up in the morning and how well he slept the night before. On a good day, he’ll be out for 2+ hours. If it’s a run around day, he may be lucky to get 30 minutes in his car seat between errands. I try to start lunch around 11:00, because the baby goes to sleep better after lunch than before. After I feed the kids (and myself) and put the baby down, I clean up the lunch dishes and wipe the counters again. Then I try to enlist the help of my 3 year old in the straightening of the living room, and do a quick sweep in there as well. Flip the laundry, and try to squeeze in some exercise while Connor naps.

The evening routine sets me up for an easy morning. I try to make sure all dinner dishes are washed and the counters and kitchen table are wiped down. I try to pick up the living room one last time, then brush teeth, wash face, and get to bed at a decent hour. I usually aim for 10:30.

If everything in my routines is getting done, then the rest of my day falls into a pretty natural rhythm.

After the morning routine is done, I allow myself time to putz around on the computer, knit, read, or sew. Then lunch and the afternoon routine. If we have any errands to run or play dates scheduled, these usually happen when Connor gets up from his nap. Then comes Daily Duties time. I have the (very small) house divided into 5 zones, one for each week day. In the Daily Duties I include a deeper cleaning of one of the zones per day. So in theory it’s never been more then a week since any part of the house has been scrubbed. I need a little more time to work with this schedule before I decide if it is really working for me, but it makes sense to me. In the evening we have dinner when Brad gets home from work, and then it’s the boys bed time. Brad and I spend some time together playing cards or watching TV, and then the evening routine and bed.

Here’s how I’ve divided up my Daily Duties:

Monday: Kitchen/Dining Room
~Clear and wipe counters and kitchen table
~Sweep and mop kitchen and dining room
~Clear off computer/sewing desks
~Baking for the week

Tuesday: Living Room
~Sweep under coffee table, couch, and chairs
~Mop living room
~Organize toy box and shelves
~Wipe down coffee table and play table
~Clear shelf under coffee table

Wednesday: Bed Rooms
~Put away clothes
~Pick up books/toys
~Declutter dressers
~Sweep bedrooms, hallway and stairs

Thursday: Bathroom
~Wipe down shower and tub
~Wipe down sink
~Wipe down outside of toilet and around base
~Swish toilet bowl
~Spray mirror
~Sweep and mop floor
~Change out towels

Friday: Focus Clean and Project
~Pick one Focus Clean area
~Pick one project to work on

Focus cleaning is a list of detailed cleaning that doesn’t need done on a weekly basis, but does need to get done. I include things like baseboards, inside the oven, the fridge and freezer, washer and dryer, that kind of thing. I keep a running list, and add to or cross off things as I notice things that need to be done or complete things on my list. Projects are a list of organizing and decluttering projects that need to be done. My craft heap in the basement, decluttering the closets, culling toys the boys have outgrown, sorting the boys clothing.

And there are my Schedules and Cleaning sections of my binder. As I mentioned before, this is an area that I struggle with a lot, but really want to make work. I feel so much more at ease when the house is presentable and my days flow smoothly. Soon I’ll put up my Menus section, because I think it deserves a post of it’s own.

My Home Management Binder

Today I’d like to introduce you to my Home Management Binder. It doesn’t have a name yet, but if you have any great ideas, let me know in the comments. My mother has a file on her desk that we always called the “black hole” because if you were missing something, that’s probably where it was and no one but Mom could ever find anything in it. My binder is still a work in progress, and I don’t use it as much as I would like, but I really do like the shape it’s taking so far, and maybe posting about it will encourage me to fill it out a little more. Here is the outside of my binder:

This binder was not bought specifically for this purpose. It has had many lives before it’s current incarnation as a HMB. I believe it was first put to use holding paperwork from my Mary Kay business. It later served as a coupon binder, and now finds itself housing all of my home maintenance information. I like that it zips all the way around, and I love the 5 pocket accordion file in the front. This notebook lives in the front pocket. Right now it is mainly used for brainstorming blog ideas and rough drafting posts. Sometimes it tracks weights and measurements when I’m dieting. Sometimes it catches the random thoughts that jump out of my head. I like my things to be able to multitask.

This is the inside of my binder. I have a small notebook that serves many of the same purposes as the large one, plus it’s my go-to for shopping lists and notes while I’m on the phone. There is also my pencil bag for pens, pencils (duh) and dry erase markers, and behind that (you can’t see it, but trust me, it’s there) is a 3-hole punch. I’d like to give you a quick peek at the different sections I have my binder divided into, and I’ll go more in depth on each section over the next few days.

After you flip the pencil bag, the first page of my binder is the Desiderata, written by Max Ehrmann. It is one of my favorite inspirational works. I also have it hanging by front door. There is a lot of wisdom in this piece, and it never hurts to be reminded. I’ll post the text in a couple of minutes.

After the Desiderata I have my Household Information page. It has our home address, important contact numbers for close relatives, the police, emergency, poison control, and the pediatrician. Pretty much any number a babysitter (or husband) might need if there was an emergency and I was not at home. Also a handy reference for me. **Note to self, tell Brad this is here in case he ever needs it.**

After my household info comes Schedules, Cleaning, and Menus. I’ll go into more detail about these over the next few days.

In the back of my binder are a few folders, a clear plastic envelope that has yet to be assigned a duty, and extra page protectors.

Some sections I have yet to add but that are floating around in my head include: holiday planning, gardening, and budget. Check back tomorrow for a closer look at the different sections in my binder and how they’re set up and how I use them.