a year of meal planning

Monday, March 10, 2014

If you would have told me about a year and a half ago that I could successfully meal plan for an entire 12 months, I would have never believed you.  There was a time that meal planning was slotted in my 'really ambitious' goal for myself.  But last January, I was determined to put one oven mitt in front of the other each week, and I made it bit by bit through the whole year planning our family's meals - and haven't stopped since!

I have no big secret or science to how I did it, it was really all about making it a habit.  I am so relieved that I am in this place now that meal planning is just something that I do.  It has changed and grown over the course of the year and is still evolving into what works the best for us.

This post is written in hopes to inspire or assist other Mums who look at meal planning as the daunting and scary mountain that I used to view it as.

How I got started:
1. weekly meal plans:  since I never used to meal plan at all, it was all about starting out slow.  I started by picking a day each week (Tuesday because that's when the grocery ads come) and planning out next weeks' meals based off of meat sales.  I planned one week at a clip and wrote it down (in pink or red pen) on each weekday for the following week.

2. Pinterest:  One of the big obstacles for me for meal planning has always been getting bored.  Sometimes, I just feel like if I have to eat another grilled chicken breast, I'm going to lose my mind.  Hah!  Enter from stage Left, Pinterest who provides 4528 recipes for chicken.  Seriously.  When my meal planning/eating boredom strikes, I start pin-searching new recipes and suddenly I'm energized with newness again.

3. Learning what my family likes:  It has been a year of learning about my families eating habits through meal planning.  I know the kids love spaghetti best of all, but that also has translated into watching them joyously eat other spaghetti like food (meatball sandwiches, pierogies & sauce, chicken parm). We have found by accident that the kids both like eating salad with dinner too (woohoo for veggies!) and our families #1 favorite side is steamed broccoli with corn on the cob a close second.  We are definitely meat-eaters over here and if I make a meat-less meal, there is mass confusion and a need for a protein fix asap (we go through eggs over here like no one's business).

deer meat sandwich!
How I stuck with it:
1. bi-weekly meal plans:  after getting comfortable with weekly planning, I bumped it up to planning two weeks at a time.  It freed up every other Tuesday, but also we started seeing more grocery bill savings since we were really only make a big trip every other week to the grocery store.

2. the slow-cooker:  we have a slow-cooker cooked meal probably 2-3 times a week.  I love slow cooking, its so easy and done when it's time to eat.  See Pinterest for approximately 8979 recipes on different things to cook in the slow cooker ranging from full meals to soup to desserts.  It's seriously the best invention ever.

3. adding breakfast & sweets to the planning:  I also started to incorporate a planned 'real breakfast' two times and a weekly dessert after getting more comfortable with dinners.  it allowed me to feel accomplished that the kids and I were eating anything other than toast/oatmeal for breakfast and the sweets were like a little love-pick-me-up through the week.  Plus, it's easy to get the kids in on helping to bake and provided a fun afternoon activity for us weekly to bake cookies for our family.

My top 3 benefits from meal planning:
1. less stress:  there is an amazing sense of calm that comes with simply knowing what your family will be eating come dinnertime.  So much happens during the day and by dinnertime I am generally too tired and brain-fried to attempt to assemble a meal with what I think may be available in the fridge & freezer.  Just having the meal written down in my planner to glance at the night before or the day of has made all the difference in my stress level come 5:30/6p each night.

2. money saved:  Since meal planning, we have found that we have saved money for a variety of reasons.  First, if something is already planned, I am less likely to tell B to just bring something home because I'm too tired to cook or clean up afterwards.  I mean, it's already setting out or slow-cooking, so we're good.  Also, we're not impulse buying at the grocery store because we only need the things on the list - and we're going to the grocery store fewer times during the month.  Granted, we still buy random stuff (hello Pringles), but it is at an extremely less often rate than pre-meal planning.

3. confidence:  through planning and preparing meals for my family, I have increased my self-confidence in what I am capable of in the kitchen.  I have found that I am trying out new flavors for foods that I may not have been brave enough to try before, and also not afraid of suddenly realizing I'm out of a particular ingredient (there are tons of info on substitutes for everything.  My fave:  applesauce in place of eggs).  There are meals now in my repertoire that I think, 'hmm, I wonder if this dinner will be something the kids will think of as one of Mum's meals when they move away.' I am a different home chef than I was a year ago and that makes me feel powerful.

Grey helping with mardi gras themed chocolate covered pretzels

Where I am today:
1. Monthly meal plans:  this year, I've been trying out planning out the whole month of meal planning at one time.  This is in an attempt to only do one big grocery trip (supplemented by the milk/eggs/bread sort trips occasionally) and really learn to start digging and using the stocked items we have in the pantry.

2. Planning 5 days a week:  This seems to work best for us, I plan 5 dinners a week for the 5 weekdays.  Most often, one day will be covered by left overs and then that will bump a planned meal to the weekend, or we'll eat dinner at one of our parent's houses, or have frozen pizza or something unplanned.  Of course, we occasionally eat out too, so all 7 nights are covered with little stress even when I only plan for 5 nights a week.

3.  Lunch:  since the kids and I are home everyday, lunch isn't ever planned outright but rather usually consists of leftovers from last night or bento-style lunches for them (salad or a sandwich for me).  Even though its the most obvious chart on the planet - somehow this little thing has really helped me when whipping up lunch for the kids:

So, that's how I overcame something that seemed so scary but also so necessary for my sanity as a Mum.  It is with relief and pride that I now can include myself as a meal-planning Mum:)

And for some meal-planning inspiration - here have been some of our favorites over the past year -

Our top 10 favorite new-to-us recipes
(that we've discovered and made multiple times over the past year):
Korean Beef (with ground beef)
Cheesy Vegetable Chowder  - like broccoli and cheese with more veggies
Slow Cooker Kielbasa and Cabbage
Meatball Sub Casserole
Quick Baked Potatoes - this has essential become my fallback potato recipe; so good, so easy.
Slow Cooker Brown Sugar & Garlic Chicken
American Goulash
Crockpot Meatballs
Grilled Country Style Pork Ribs
Slow Cooker Three Envelope Pot Roast

And how about top 5 desserts too:
Iced Oatmeal Cookies - the entire family went bonkers for these.  Brandon ate four at a time.
No bake energy bites
Thumbprint Jelly Cookies
Monster cookies -our go-to cookie recipe
Homemade Granola Bars - we add m&ms and chocolate chips to ours

And because breakfast can get so boring,
how about these top 3 favorite 'real' breakfasts:
Blueberry Banana Bread
Breakfast Enchiladas


  1. Brandon eating 4 Iced Oatmeal Cookies at a time might be the funniest thing I've ever heard.

    I am not a Mum (yet) but this is inspiring and I'm proud of you!
    First off was coupon cutting (tackled!)
    Now on to actual meal planning (hooray!)
    Thank you for this post - and your helpful emails.. when I ask you how to meal plan every other week... oops!

  2. This post has hit close to home for me. My husband does 90% of the cooking now (it all evens out though...whoever cooks, the other cleans), and my NY resolution was to make 2-3 meals/ week. Meal planning was a big part of this!
    Thanks for sharing your favourites!