Well, here it is- one of the big doosie posts I’ve heard so many of you are looking forward to (I can only hope it lives up to the hype)! Today I am going to tell you how to plan your meals out for a year- yes, I said a year. By the time we are done here today you will know how to map out a working outline for your year that will only need a few tweaks along the way and incorporate some manageable freezer cooking and, I promise, will greatly simplify your life! Be sure to stop back by tomorrow though, when I show how to organize all of your recipes and the whole master plan into an attractive show-piece for your kitchen! (Ok, so it’s just a jazzed up binder! BUT I love mine and am proud to have it out in my kitchen!)
First, before we really get planning though, let’s talk about why you would even want to tackle this project- ya know, for you skeptics out there! So, just to get you motivated (and possibly convinced), here are my
Top 5 Reasons to Plan Your Meals Out For a Year:
- Save Time- in more than one way!! Never face the 4:00 witching hour again! Having a plan set in place months in advance gives you peace of mind and one less thing to think about. Plus, as you make certain meals in triplicate to freeze for future months and are able to get big prepwork jobs done (since you know what needs to be prepped so far out) you save yourself oodles of wasted time by doing those tedious jobs all at once!
- Save Money! Having a long-term plan allows you to buy nonperishable items in bulk, saving you a huge chunk of change! You never thought you needed that 5lb can of olives from the wholesale warehouse before, but now that you’ve planned out your meals and discover that in the next couple of months you have 6 recipes containing olives and 2 of them you are planning to make in larger quantities so that you can freeze some, you realize that that 5lb can is a bargain compared to the multiple small cans you would buy over that same time period! And that isn’t even mentioning all the cash you will save by not having to run to the store for those last-minute forgotten items, since, ya know, you’ve had everything planned out and detailed shopping lists written! Oh, and have I mentioned the last-minute eating out savings you will also incur? See, the benefits just keep spilling out!
- Diversify your meals! I don’t know about you, but when I did monthly freezer cooking my husband hated the monotony of the meals, week after week! When I plan out a year at a time I am able to make sure I am spreading things out and not cooking the same thing all the time. I find this so much easier to do when I am looking at the big picture!
- Reuse plans! Just think, next year at this time, your work will be done! How stinking awesome is that!?! Aside from the minor tweaks and additions of new meals you will want to make every year, you have got your basic working plan in place after your first year and never have to go back to square one of meal planning again! Since you have planned a year, each month will be seasonally based and customized to your unique family! Booya!
- Feel like a homemaking queen! This just might be my favorite perk! I mean seriously, you feel pretty ridiculously good about your organizational and homemaking skills when you accomplish this feat that sounds so daunting to the average Joe-Blow who hasn’t yet been enlightened with the simple steps I’m about to reveal to you! I should hand out badges or something!!
So, have I reeled you in yet? Are you ready to give it a go? You’d be crazy not to, right?! Ok, buckle up! Let’s get started!First of all, we are going to be making one of these puppies…
…but actually not until tomorrow! However, you will need the planning forms. And since I love you more than my luggage, I have uploaded the entire set to Google Docs for you, (see this post for the link)). So, go run over there and print them out really quick! Pages 1 & 2 you will need only 1 copy of, but you will need 12 copies of page 3 (the calendar) and 26 copies of page 4 (the shopping lists). Pages 5 & 6 (the recipe cards/pages) are for you to use however you like ( I am hoping to figure out how to make them editable so that you can type in your recipes- or cut and paste- but that might take a bit before it happens).
All printed and ready to roll? Awesome! Here are the other things you will need to complete your menu binder (but remember, we won’t be putting it all together until tomorrow)-
- Sheet protectors (a LOT of them!)
- Packing tape (or a 12-pack of dividers, but ONLY if you are using page-sized sheet protectors!)
- Decorative paper (just to pretty up the covers, as you can see on mine)
Ok, now set your binder aside until my next post and just get out your calendars. This is where the diligence begins- ya know, the part when you are actually going to plan out all the meals! Don’t freak out! Let me simplify it for you.
First- think about the needs of your family on a weekly basis. What does your schedule look like during the week? Is there a certain day of the week that an easy soup or crockpot meal would typically come in really handy? Is there an even crazier night that it would be super helpful to just be eating leftovers? Are you one of those families that likes Mexican on Monday, Italian on Tuesday, Chinese on Wednesday, and so forth? Use this knowledge to formulate your basic weekly routine.
Let me give you an example of the basic routine we are going to be following this year. I know that as we travel the world with our homeschool curriculum this year, Monday nights are probably gong to be the best for eating ethnically from the particular country we are studying. So every other Monday I have planned a dish from those countries. I have filled in the other Mondays either with a second dish from that country, or a tried and true recipe that we love. Tuesdays I am primarily reserving for new dishes that I have found (or will find along the way- remember, this plan is flexible and is meant to fit your life. I’ll be going into this more in a minute). Wednesdays we have an activity in the later evening, so I have planned to make a crockpot meal or soup AND I will be making a large enough quantity so that we can have leftovers on Thursday, since that is our craziest day and night of the week (Co-op all day followed by hip-hop and eventually basketball! Sheesh!). Many Fridays my boys will likely be hangin’ with the grandparents, so I have tried to plan a meal that is more parent than kid friendly and is a smaller dish. With that said, I try to keep a few alternatives easily on hand in case they are home that evening and I need to switch things up. Saturdays and Sundays I also try to plan easy foods (that often have leftovers)- like homemade pizza or a roast for pulled meat sandwiches.
Alright, you still with me? Have you mapped out the typical weekly needs of your family? Great! Moving on!
Next we are going to take into consideration all those little hiccups that occur throughout the year- and by that I mean the things that break you out of your mapped out routine, such as holidays, birthdays, dinner with friends, etc… The holidays are pretty easy to manage- just don’t plan those days! I figure that we will be with our extended family those days and even if I am helping prepare the meal it is a joint effort and not something that I need to plan for. Around each birthday I typically leave one night open with no plan, figuring that we will be getting together with family or going out. I also leave one or two weekend nights open each month for the possibility of getting together with friends or family. It doesn’t really matter which weekend nights I leave open though, since they can easily be switched around (its more about the number of meals planned than the exact night they were planned for in this case). When it comes right down to it, of course other things always arise throughout the year that will cause you to have to break away from the plan which is fine- the point is that you have the plan in place as a back up. The plan doesn’t master you- you master the plan!
Now that you have taken all your scheduling needs into consideration, it is time to get down to the nitty-gritty! Start filling in that big blank canvas! Don’t feel like you have to follow the order of the days. I find it is easier if I go through and plan all my Wednesdays, making sure I don’t repeat things too often and so on. I’ll then thumb through my recipes for the ones my family really loves and go through the next few months plugging them in once a month or so, so that the kids are satisfied but The Carpenter isn’t burnt out! I plan hardier dishes through the winter months and allow for more salads and lighter fare in the spring and summer. I try to incorporate seasonal sidedishes and even throw in a big fancy dessert here and there just to bless my family’s socks off!
So what if you discover a dish mid-year that you want to add but have no room in your schedule? Do you just wait for next year? Well, of course not! That would be silly! As I mentioned above, I actually plan that my Tuesdays will be new dish night, most of the time. So I just leave start leaving my Tuesdays open on my plan (a few months out), figuring that I will be filling them in with new dishes I find along the way. My one stipulation is that I always have a full schedule for 2-3 months so that I don’t end up getting caught one night with nothing on the agenda. And if I run across a recipe that I really want to try sooner, well I just switch it out! I planned it, it’s my prerogative to switch it if I want!
Also, on that note, what do you do with the new dishes that you try and like and want to start working into your schedule before next year? Well, I leave one or two days open every month (once again, a few months out) to start working those new and well-loved recipes into our regular mix. Always remember to make the plan work for you- just don’t get behind in filling in the little stuff throughout the year or you’ll be kicking yourself and defeating the whole purpose of all this preplanning!
Now, what if you are looking at all those empty dates and thinking, “There is no way I have enough recipes to fill all this in without repeating every other week!” or you just aren’t sure where to get new recipes to fill in your “new recipe day” with? Well, let me give you a few of my favorite go-to sources:
- Pinterest!!! There is just nothing like the visual plethora of meal options on the beloved Pinterest! Seriously- this is my first destination when looking for new material!
- The Pioneer Woman- oh the deliciousness that spills out of that woman’s blog! And hey, her show on Food Network starts on August 27- so you can check her out there too!
- A Year of Slow Cooking- a different slowcooker recipe for every day of the year!
- Mel’s Kitchen Cafe- This lady has some awesome stuff! Love, love, love! Some of our favorite recipes are straight from her archives!
- Granola Mom 4 God- My dear friend has some rockin’ whole food recipes! Just this week she posted on how she makes countertop yogurt (no cooking!)- I must try! We love the Almond Flour Chicken Bites she posted a while back- in fact we just had it last night!
Just keep working at it. To be totally honest this process is time consuming, so you may even want to set aside some time for a number of days, just to not get overwhelmed! I think you will be surprised to find, though, just how much of a roll you get on as you begin filling in those little blank spaces!
Alright- go get to work! I’ll see you tomorrow and we’ll bang out that cute binder I showed you!!