Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Meal Planning, Budgets, Recipes, Shortcuts and Tips.... or how to not hate feeding your family

This is one of those posts I have been meaning to write for a while now, but life keeps getting in the way. As it does.

I was prompted to write this one on a day last week when I saw at least 7 (but probably more) friends stressing about dinner in my newsfeed. Talking about whether they should do a meal subscription service. If so, which one? Do they need an instant pot? Why bother if all the kid will eat is the same three things? Allergies? Texture issues? Very limited budgets?

The biggest issue with these challenges is a simple one: it's endless. Ongoing. Every damn day. It isn't the kind of grown up life thing that happens only every so often, so you can ignore it for a while if needed. Nope. People have to eat every day. It never ever ends.

Then there is the matter of the dishes. THE DISHES. Shakes fist at the sky. Again. Like yesterday.

Also, I'll have you know that in order to even write this post, I'm postponing the morning round of kitchen cleaning. The things I do for you people...

Because there is a lot of information to cover here, I'm going to attempt to organize it in a way that makes sense. It might work. Heh.

Before I get there, a few disclaimers. First, I am sharing what I've learned over years of feeding a small army of humans. Second, there are always going to be pieces that might help you, pieces that might not work at all for your family. That's okay. I hope you find something in here that is useful. Take just that piece and use it, don't feel like this is some list of requirements or something. Third, the wonder of the internet means that apps and websites are forever changing and evolving. This info is current as of today.

STEP ONE : TAKE INVENTORY

Don't worry, this step doesn't involve scary accounting terms, just make a few lists.

1. Items you already have or keep stocked
Open the pantry, the fridge, the freezer. What is always in there? What do you always have? Are there staples that you always keep on hand? Is there stuff in there that you can't identify because it's been so long?

If there are pantry items that need to be used up, frozen foods that are approaching their use-by date, put an asterisk next to them. If you aren't sure how long food stays good for, use this handy chart.
We'll work on getting those used in a few steps.

Here's a pretty basic list of pantry staples you can use to assess your inventory. Feel free to ignore stuff you're never going to use. I buy just about all of these in bulk because we have so many people and I cook nearly all of our meals from scratch. I stocked up on mason jars to keep things fresh, and buy whatever I can from the bins in the bulk section of the store to reduce wasteful packaging. It's also a hell of a lot cheaper. Your quantities should be determined by how fast you'll likely use up the items. In other words, big box stores and huge quantities won't save you money in the long run if they spoil or you never use them. On the flip side, smaller quantities of just about anything that is packaged will be more expensive. Look for the per unit price, not the overall price, to tell if you are actually getting a good deal or not.

2. Things you already know how to cook confidently
I know it probably sounds weird to think of this as taking inventory, but it is essential. Brainstorm, then write down every meal you know how to make. Every meal the other people who cook in your house can make. My husband LOVES spreadsheets and entered them all into a Google sheet online (you can use this for free, and I love free things...they are my favorite). Don't discount any meal, no matter how simple it is. If you can make it and people can eat it, it gets put on the list. When I finally made this list, it was easily over 150 meals. I've since added more. You do not have to eat the same seven dinners every week...but if that kind of routine works, do it.

3. Things you'd like to learn how to make, but don't know how
Another list, I know. This is where you write down the things you'd like to learn how to cook. Don't be afraid to think big here, and include any meals from restaurants you like, foods from other cultures that you might not have attempted making before. Add them all. It's a fantasy list. Have you always wanted to learn how to make Beef Wellington? I have. Seriously, it is on my list. No, I still don't know how to make it.

I set a goal to attempt no more than one new recipe a week, if I'm feeling adventurous. Some weeks I just don't have the energy for that nonsense, so I go with the reliable meals.

4. Resources
What cookbooks do you have? Do you ever use them? Do you know what the terminology means? Does the difference between chopping and mincing matter? (short answer: sometimes) If you can get your hands on one, I highly recommend the America's Test Kitchen series, taken from the PBS series.

If you don't have cookbooks, don't worry. You're reading this on the internet! Hooray! The internet is FULL of recipes. Some websites are more likely to have reliable, tested recipes. I LOVE food.com and allrecipes.com, but here is a list of a whole bunch more.

allrecipes.com
foodnetwork.com
food.com
yummly.com
chow.com
epicurious.com

You're likely to have some degree of success with these websites. Also, anything Alton Brown, make it. Just trust me.

I have a 3 ring binder with clear sheet protectors. If a recipe is a success, it is allowed in the binder. If it fails, it goes into the trash.

Hit or miss places to find recipes include: Facebook videos (they look good, but I've had some horrendous failures), Pinterest (I really do love this site, BUT have had 50/50 success/failure with recipes here), and other blogs. I have a recipe blog, long neglected, if you're inclined. debiehivebuzz.blogspot.com.

STEP TWO: PLANNING AND SHOPPING
Depending on your budget limitations, this could go one way or the other. If dietary restrictions or picky eaters are you main constraint, and cost isn't the biggest issue, plan your menu first. If cost is your most limiting factor, plan your shopping first.

Either way, you'll end up with the same goals.

I learned a very long time ago that I hated grocery shopping with the fire of a billion suns. I go once a week, occasionally more often to pick up fresh produce if needed. I hate hate hate it. I also know that the only way I can feasibly stick to a weekly budget is to limit trips to the store, because even if you are planning just to get one thing, it's never just one thing. To limit those trips and costs, I meal plan, one week at a time.

If cost is your major constraint, build your menu based on seasonal produce and whatever meat on sale. Check the discounted meat section. ALWAYS. If there is something you might use in there, take it home and freeze it before it goes bad. If you're cooking that night, you can easily buy the bruised produce, the day old breads, and save some money. Look for sales on shelf stable goods and stock up when you are able. It may be better to buy meat in bulk and freeze it in smaller sections to use for multiple meals. A whole chicken costs much less per pound than cut chicken. Chicken thighs are much cheaper (and taste better) than white meat. Ground turkey is often cheaper than ground beef, even more so in bigger packages. Again, section and freeze into meal portions. On the flip side, frozen meat can be cheaper than fresh, depending on sales. There are some cuts of pork and beef that are very inexpensive, but do well in slow cookers, so save the money and get the cheaper cut. I buy all our beans, rice and pasta in bulk as well as other pantry staples because it is so much cheaper per meal.

I use a blank monthly calendar template. There are a million online. Do not pay for this. I print them out a few months at a time, because I like pens and paper. If you're a virtual person, good for you. There are calendar apps and list making apps too, but I can't tell you about them because I don't use them. Get off my lawn.


I fill in the calendar first with the dates, then any activities or obligations we have BEFORE I even think about meals. If I know that we're going to be at a high school football game one night, I plan a meal that works for that. If I know that we're going to be home all day, I'll save longer prep meals for those days.

In our house, we aim for 2 vegetarian meals a week. More involved dinners with longer cook and prep times only get made on weekends. Nights that I am working, there's usually a crockpot involved. Busy school nights, I focus on quicker, easier dinners. I do not have an Instant Pot, but people swear by them. I do have two crockpots that get used multiple times a week. Sheet pan dinners are also quick and easy. 

When you are planning out the meals for the week, check over that inventory list. What frozen stuff needs used up? Spare produce that will go bad before the end of the week? Work it in.

There are some amazing apps and websites out there that will help with planning around certain ingredients, or avoiding them for allergy (or picky eater) purposes. Yummly.com allows you to build groups of recipes that exclude items.

A few sites that find recipes based on specific ingredients are supercook.com, myfridgefood.com and myrecipes.com.

Have a recipe that you really want to try, but someone is allergic to one ingredient? Have everything except one ingredient to make that meal? Look for substitutions here. I kid you not, there are ways to make dairy free, egg free, gluten free things that taste good. I promise.

If there is a way to bundle recipes that use shared ingredients, do it, that way you won't waste anything remaining. If you're looking to make meals that will have leftovers, plan your quantities of ingredients accordingly.

Certain meals are easier to make in larger quantities than others, such as the baked penne I made last weekend. LUNCHES FOR EVERYONE.


Once you get the meal list done, make your list. Start with whatever pantry staples need replenished, whatever items you routinely buy. Then add breakfast items or whatever you need to pack lunches. Then go through the menu day by day, adding whatever ingredients you need. Snack options in my house are generally fruit and whatever other snack item was on sale that week. Good luck kids!

I use online coupons that get loaded directly to my card (Kroger stores). It's another step yes, but doesn't take too long, plus it saves money.

STEP THREE: PREP AND COOKING
This is actually the part that I don't mind. When I was pregnant the last time, we did a decent amount of prepping and freezing meals ahead of time since I knew I was having a c-section. It was a lifesaver, and there is really no good reason that I don't do it more often. This is the list we used, plus a few extra recipes. These are all freezer-to-crockpot meals.  If you are generally pressed for time, weekend prep and freeze sessions are amazing. Buy meat in bulk, section it into meal portions and freeze, or cook it ahead. Mashed potatoes can be made in huge amounts, then used for the next day's meal with just a simple reheating. Roast a chicken one night, make stock for soup the following day.

Frozen cut vegetables are generally very inexpensive, often even cheaper than fresh and there is zero room for shame in my life for using them copiously. Frozen, diced, cooked chicken is so amazing in quick meal prep that I feel like it's my dirty little secret, but seriously....I love this stuff. It's cheap too. If you know that you've got a few nights of prep work ahead, cut the vegetables all at once, and bag them in the fridge for the next day. Need browned ground beef for two meals? Do it all together, save half.

If there are other people in your house eating, then there are other people in your house that can help prep or cook. Even young kids can help with many aspects of cooking. And everyone can do dishes. I also started teaching the kids to cook, and each night one of them is supposed to help with dinner. It's SO MUCH more work in the beginning, but they do end up being helpful once they get the basics down.

I do not work as a short order cook. I do not make separate dinners for my kids. I do not make them something else if they don't like what was prepared. If you want to do those things, more power to ya. Honestly. Me? I'm making one dinner a night. Most kids will learn to eat most foods with enough time and persistence. (seriously, last night my 14 year old told me she finally likes this one type of rice I make. ***takes victory lap***). The way we have always handled it was this way: you have to try a bite. If you don't like it, you don't have to eat it. There's the cereal. Even with sensory issues, texture issues, a few go-arounds with elimination diets, and strict dietary restrictions, most of my kids are adventurous eaters.

Also, Spaghettios are a meal. So is cereal. Not every night has to be fancy.

STEP FOUR: DISHES
Ugh. Dishes. Speaking of which, I need to go do mine.

I'm sure that I missed a ton of stuff, so ask me questions. I'll edit and add things as we go. Good luck!

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