Menu Planning – Part 1

4 Steps to & 6 Benefits of Menu Planning :: maximizingdaysblog.com

Say the words, “Menu Planning” out loud and you are sure to get a reaction.  The reactions run the gamut from huge (usually vocal) proponents, to nay-sayers, to those who feel guilty because they think they should do it, but just don’t.  I’d say that I am on the proponent side, but that I’m not obnoxiously vocal about it (at least I hope that I’m not).

Menu planning isn’t something that I just decided to start one day.  The need evolved as my location, lifestyle, and marital and parental statuses changed.

Now, there is no going back.

4 Steps to Menu Planning

  1. Start with your calendar.  Plan meals around events in your family’s schedule.
  2. Inventory the freezer, refrigerator & pantry – and make meals using the food you already have
  3. Assign meals to each day
  4. Create your grocery list comprised of what you will need to make the meal you just chose

Each week, I sit down at our computer, and do these four things.  Honestly, I don’t enjoy the process that much.  Some people may think it’s fun.  I’m not one of them.  But as much as I don’t like the process, I love the end product.  The ends more than justifies the means.

The benefits of meal planning are many and vary among families.

Benefits of Menu Planning Include:

1 – Eat meals at home as a family on nights when there is something else going on

Because I start our meal planning with our schedule, on nights when we have somewhere to go, I plan the meal accordingly.  Usually something in the crock-pot so that we can eat as soon as we get home.  If I didn’t do this, we would eat fast food all.the.time.  And as much as I want to do that, I really don’t want to do that.

2 – Save some serious moo-lah

Or at the very least, it allows us to afford pricier items.

After meal planning, I make a list of what we need to make that week’s meals.  I go through what I call our “masters” list, which is just the staples we always have on hand, and add anything that we are out of.  The items on this list are the only things in my cart when we check out.

In the grocery store, I am a woman on a mission.  I find what I need, and only what I need.  For time’s sake and our budget’s sake, I don’t do any perusing.  It’s not unusual to skip over half of the aisles in the grocery store in any given trip.

If my mentality isn’t “What do I think looks good to eat this week?”, I’m far less likely to make impulse buys.  (Disclaimer: In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that my one weakness to this is the ice cream section.  Ice cream ends up in our cart much more often than it occurs on our list).

There are, however, some foods that aren’t cheap that we really like to eat, and buying groceries this way justifies us spending the money on them.  Because I don’t buy food we don’t need, we have a little extra to eat the things we really love like steak, salmon, LOTS of fresh fruits, and Edy’s ice cream.

3 – Helps with not letting your deep freezer become a black hole

Each week, I try to have at least one meal that comes from our deep freezer.  If I didn’t plan for it, we would only accumulate food in there and never take it out.  Not at all the reason deep freezers were invented.

4 – It adds variety to meals

If it’s something that I really like, I could eat the same thing for days on end.  And when I was single, I did.  I would make a pan of lasagna and that was my lunch for the next two weeks.  I’m not joking.

I do our menu planning electronically on an app called Pepperplate.com (more about that later), which stores all of our meal schedules.  If I feel like I’m falling in a rut, I can look back and see how many time’s we’ve had BLT’s in the last month.  Sometimes, it’s not nearly as often as I think it is, and other times, well, let’s just say that it’s a good thing I checked.

5 – Spend the day looking forward to eating supper, instead of spending it dreading 5 PM and the inevitable standing in the kitchen trying to figure out what to make

I don’t make food that we don’t enjoy eating.  So instead of peering in the fridge at 5:10, trying to make a decision and feeling like I’m wasting precious evening time, I get excited at 4:50 because that night we’re having fill-in-the-blank and everything’s there for it, I just have to cook it.  (Which, I admit that I enjoy.  I know that this is not the case for everyone).

6 – You have to make the decision at some point

For me, this is the ultimate reason.  Even when I lived in DC and heated up frozen pre-cooked chicken breast to add to Pasta Roni (yes, I am ashamed to admit that that was a “good” meal), the 3 minutes I spent trying to decide on that was miserable.

When people ask me about meal planning, what I always say is that unless you starve yourself, you have to make the decision.  It’s not one of those things that goes away if you don’t think about it.  So, if you have to make the decision, why not make in advance?  This allows you to take into consideration all of the factors listed above and any others that make a difference for you, and make the most out of what is going to be a part of your day – no matter how much you wish it wasn’t.

4 Steps to & 6 Benefits of Menu Planning :: maximizingdaysblog.com

For the month of June, I will be sharing more about the benefits of and tricks to meal planning.  Whenever I’ve talked with people about this before, they always had questions.  I will be collecting any questions that come up on my Facebook page and answering as many of them as I can at the end of the month.  Whatever you’re wondering regarding meal planning, shopping and prep, let me know.

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Reclaiming Sunday Nights

Reclaiming Sunday Nights :: maximizingdaysblog.comUgh.  Sunday night.  It’s not my favorite.

I was one of those strange kids that liked school and even more fortunate adults who liked her job, and now enjoys staying home with my kids – and I still dread Sunday nights.

The finality of the weekend is such a bummer.  It seems counterintuitive, but it’s even harder now that I am a stay-at-home mom.  I work hard to get all the stuff that is necessary for life done during the week so that when the weekend comes, we can focus on enjoying it.  And enjoy it, we do.  And then Sunday night comes and all I can think is “it’s five long days until we’re back here again.”  It’s a terrible attitude.

Reclaiming Sunday Nights :: maximizingdaysblog.com

A couple months ago, I read an article in Real Simple where people shared meal highlights and ideas.  One lady wrote about how she grew up with Sunday nights being the one night a week that her mother didn’t make a complete meal or they didn’t sit at the dining room table to eat it.  I can’t remember the exact menu, except that it included a baguette and popcorn and they ate it at the coffee table while watching TV.

I was immediately drawn to the idea of doing something “special” – but simple – on Sunday nights as a family.

So I instituted Sunday Night Snacky Supper.  We have Bible Study every other Sunday night, but on the Sundays when we’re home, it’s Snacky Supper.  The menu varies slightly, but usually includes a meat and cheese tray, crackers, veggies & dip, and fruit.  I joke that it’s snacks disguised as a meal.  (My husband says that I don’t disguise it enough.)  If I’m feeling really ambitious, I’ll add a hot appetizer or store-bought sushi.

We’re not big TV watchers.  We do, however, love sports, so if we’re watching TV, there’s a 90% chance that a sporting event is on our TV. Most Sundays, I bring Snacky Supper to our family room and we eat supper while watching a game.

Reclaiming Sunday Nights :: maximizingdaysblog.com

Last Sunday, there was no sporting event on, so I suggested that we have a family Wii tournament.  I honestly don’t know where the idea came from.  I’ve played Wii ten times in my life, maybe.  But I thought it would be a fun change of pace.  We invited family to join us, but they had other plans, so it was just my husband, me and our 21 month old.

My husband and I played tennis, bowled, hit home runs (or, in my case, didn’t hit home runs) and golfed.  In between turns, we ventured over to the supper trays and grazed.  We let our daughter do the same thing.  She’s never had a meal that didn’t involve sitting in her chair with her food on her plate, so we weren’t sure how it would go, but she did great.  We started out with a plate on her lap, but once she finished that, then she did what Mom and Dad did.  This was in between her laughing at the funny dances I did when I had a great shot and cheering for whoever was up at the moment she decided to cheer.

It was one of the most fun nights we’ve had a in a long time.  And it happened on a Sunday!  It wasn’t until I laid down that night that I realized that it was Sunday night and I was in a good mood.  It had been too long since that had been the case.

Snacky Supper had been a tradition for a while now, but this new game component of it was here to stay.

It won’t always be Wii Tournaments, if, for no other reason than I’m not sure which emotion would hit first for me, boredom or frustration with constantly losing.  This summer, it will probably be an assortment of lawn games.  During the long Minnesota winters, I’d imagine it will be back to Wii and good old-fashioned board games.  The common denominator being that there will be some sort of fun activity for our family to do together.

The reason that I was always so grumpy on Sunday nights is that our family time had come to a close.  What Snacky Supper made me realize is that instead of wasting the little bit of remaining time left mourning that, I should take advantage of it with the very people that make the weekends so great.

Reclaiming Sunday Nights :: maximizingdaysblog.com

Reclaiming Sunday nights (or whatever time where you need what my Grandpa used to call an “attitude adjustment”) was all about figuring out what brought me the most joy.  For some people it may be that they need to be alone.  For others, they may want to enjoy a really nice dinner on their fancy china in their formal dining room.  For me, it was being intentional about spending time with my family and doing something fun.  As far as the meal, the key has been that I don’t have to decide what to make each week and I don’t have to spend a lot of time with prep, cooking or clean-up.

Now the problem is looking forward to Sunday nights so much that I have to be careful not to wish the weekend away.  Not a bad problem to have.

Reclaiming Sunday Nights :: maximizingdaysblog.com

Bonus: Snacky Supper is a great excuse to get all the fruits and veggies washed and cut up before the week.  Both my husband and I are great about snacking on fruits and veggies if they’re in a container in the fridge.  If they’re “whole” and in the crisper drawer, we don’t touch them.  I don’t know why, it’s just the way we both are.  So prepping supper on Sunday nights does double-duty for getting easily accessible healthy snacks.  See more about fridge organization here.

How to Organize your fridge - maximizingdaysblog.com

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When life gets real

The idea for this blog started almost two years ago.  Work began about a year and a half ago, with the idea that we would launch when everything was ready.  So it sat for months and we would work on it in spurts.  Finally, in January, my husband and I buckled down and decided to pick a launch date and work to have anything ready that we needed by then.  For no real reason, other than it was the perfect blend of attainable and it lit a fire under us to finish, we picked March 1st.  And everything was done by then.

One factor that did not get considered in picking a launch date was my pregnancy.  We found out that I was pregnant at the beginning of February and it never occurred to me that the pregnancy would affect any goals we had for the blog.  I was wrong.  This is my second pregnancy, and I have suffered the typical exhaustion and nausea that comes with the first trimester during both of them.  This time, it really knocked me on my butt.

There was no maximization to my days whatsoever.  If a day ended with my daughter still alive and well and our house was standing, it was a success.  I slept every possible minute and laid down whenever my daughter let me.  My husband took care of grocery shopping and I’m fairly certain that we will be responsible for a spike in profits for the Stouffer’s company.  All the while, this little blog went live and my ideas and insights for squeezing the most out of life were available for anyone to read.

I felt like such a hypocrite.

My day to day life looked nothing like the habits I was promoting.  Family and close friends kept reminding me that this was just a phase.  It won’t be like this forever.  And while I knew that this was true, it didn’t make me feel any better.

I finally started to turn a corner at the beginning of April and had grand plans for a month of posts about the benefits of and tricks for menu planning.  Obviously, that never happened.  Even though I was starting to feel better, it took me a lot longer than I would have liked to get back in the swing of things.  And the longer I didn’t do anything with the blog, the more the hypocrisy lingered over me.  Who am I to make suggestions to people when I don’t do them myself?  Even when I’m not nauseous every waking minute of the day.

Then I remembered why I started this little endeavor to begin with.  It’s so easy to look around and be overwhelmed by what we think we should be doing or look like or have and settle for the lie that it’s not possible.  There are limitations, obviously.  I’m never going to be the mom that runs marathons, looks like Kate Middleton or has the shoe collection I covet. But parts of what I desire for my days to look like are attainable with some self-discipline and help from others.  And I firmly believe that this is true for everyone.  Our surrounding circumstances do not dictate what our life has to look like.

When I started reading blogs a few years ago, I found a few that I really enjoyed and read faithfully.  But most of what I found on the blogosphere made me feel inferior (through no fault of those bloggers – it’s just my own insecurities).  When I first thought about ‘Maximizing Days’, my hope and goal for it was that it would be a place where people would be encouraged and feel equipped – and that it would show real life.

Pregnancy sickness and exhaustion lead to two months of inactivity, missed opportunities, messes, and a lot of tears.  But, by God’s grace, in four short months, the end result of that will be a beautiful bundle of joy that I can hold in my arms (along with more inactivity, missed opportunities, LOTS of messes and a lot of tears).  Those days are over now.  New days are here.  And with each of those days, I can choose to make the little decisions that make life better in the big picture.

And you can too.

Those grand plans that I had for meal planning tips are now in the works for the month of June.  Stay tuned.

How a Whiteboard Changed the Way We Use our Deep Freezer

Use a whiteboard to track inventory and maximize deep freezer organization - maximizingdaysblog.com

One of my husband’s favorite stories to tell comes from our first move. Upon pulling the entire contents of the freezer out, it became clear to him how much stuff we had in there.

Having a lot of food in the deep freezer isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  That’s what they’re there for.  The problem was  how long much of the food had been in the freezer.  Every time I cleaned it, I would find things that I forgot were in there or that I’d probably never use.  But because there was nothing “wrong” with them, I’d think “I’ll use it sometime” and pack it back in there.

In an organized fashion, of course….

Josh made a strong case that if I hadn’t used much of this food in the last two or three years – yes, YEARS – I wasn’t ever going to use it.  I insisted that I would and he asked why I hadn’t used it yet.  I tried defending myself, but honestly, when I put food in the deep freezer, I forgot about it.

Then my husband had one of his best husband-moments of our marriage.  He helped me problem solve.  Knowing me as well as he does, he came up with a solution that catered to multiple facets of my craziness.  He suggested that we inventory the freezer and make a list of all the food in there.  He actually said, “It’s like that list it is one of your to-do lists, and your job is to erase things off of it by using that food.” 

BRILLIANT.

Josh was successful in convincing me to throw out much of the old food before we moved to the house, so I started fresh.  This made a huge difference in making this system work.

I started by making a list of all the food in our freezer, along with the quantities of each item and broke it up into categories (Meat, Bread, Meals, Vegetables, Fruit & Misc).  We adhered a whiteboard to the deep freezer door and I wrote all of the contents on it.

Use a whiteboard to track inventory and maximize deep freezer organization - maximizingdaysblog.com

The whiteboard works perfectly, because it’s easy to keep the list updated.  When we take something out, we adjust the list and when we put food in, we write it in.  It’s a quick, at-a-glance way to know what we have in our freezer.  Having this system for a couple of years now, we’ve found that it is beneficial for even more reasons than we originally intended.

1 – It’s a lot harder to completely forget about those items that get pushed to the back.

Inevitably, this happens.  We all have food in our deep freezers that only gets pulled out when getting ready to defrost it. Whether you see something when you look in the freezer isn’t the determining factor in whether that item gets used.  Looking at the list allows me to see everything in the freezer, even if I can’t easily see it when I open the door.

2 – Helps with bulk purchasing

We buy a number of items from Sam’s Club or Trader Joe’s – both of which are at least an hour away, so we don’t get there often.  When we do go, we buy multiples of things.

Before the whiteboard, we’d stand in the frozen food aisle at Trader Joe’s and try to recall what we needed more of.  We had about a 50% success rate.  We would predictably get back from one of those trips and put our three bags of frozen mangoes away only to find that we already had three, but were completely out of mixed berries.

Now, before we leave for Fargo or Minneapolis (where I joke that there are “real” stores and I can do “real” shopping), we take a picture of the whiteboard.  No more guess work in the frozen food aisle; we just pull out our phones and we know exactly what we need.

3 – A Menu Planning Game-Changer

I start my weekly menu planning at our deep freezer.  Looking at the list of everything that we have helps me get started for ideas of what to make.  As much as possible, I try to use what we already have to minimize the amount that we need to buy.

4 – It’s a great motivator

I don’t write dates on the whiteboard, but because we’re constantly updating it, I have a fairly good idea what’s in there that’s getting old.  So, like a to-do list where items should be crossed off, the items on the whiteboard should be consumed.  This probably isn’t true for everyone, but it totally works with my competitive nature.  I couldn’t tell you the last time I had to throw something away because it got old in our freezer.

 

Use a whiteboard to track inventory and maximize deep freezer organization - maximizingdaysblog.com

The whiteboard is a game-changer because it makes tracking inventory easy because it’s right there and is easily edit-able.

TIP: The whiteboard markers that have the magnet on them are necessary.

Use a whiteboard to track inventory and maximize deep freezer organization - maximizingdaysblog.com

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Receipt Organization

How long do you keep receipts for things you purchase?  We keep them for a year – because almost everything is not able to be returned after one year.

I have a (cheap) accordion-style coupon organizer.  It’s small (6”x12”), so it fits in a drawer and it has 12 compartments.  Each of the compartments are labeled for each of the months.  All of our receipts go in that month’s compartment.  At the beginning of each month, I pull out the previous year’s receipts from that month and go through them.  Every once in a while there’s a receipt that I think we should keep for a little longer, and it goes in the very back of the accordion.  All the rest get thrown away to make room for this month’s purchases.  It makes it really easy to minimize paper clutter due to holding on to unnecessary receipts, and it makes it easier to find a receipt if you do end up needing to return something.

Receipt Organization - maximizingdaysblog.com

Receipt Organization - maximizingdaysblog.com

*We only keep receipts for things that may need to be returned.  Once logged in our checking account, receipts for things such as groceries and gas get thrown away.