Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Meal Planning 101

Planned meal times with one's family not only saves money within the household budget but it also strengthens the family unit.  Coming together each day for a meal validates each member of the family.  Studies show that  family meal times increase nutritional awareness and reduces eating disorders, increases self esteem and respect for others, and the children of families who eat together are less likely to become involved with alcohol and drugs. 

Many people have told me they don't like meal planning because they have a difficult time sticking to a grocery budget and their family is, simply, too busy.  I surmise that flexibility within the grocery budget, impulse buying, and lack of planning contribute to budget and family meal time failures.

Unlike our mortgage / rent, auto payments, etc., grocery budgets can be very fluid. Often times we experience financial "surprises" and the first thing we do is reduce that week's or month's grocery budget to cover an unexpected expense.  This perceived flexibility can be a huge budget buster and before we know it we are using our credit card at the grocery store for the current week's groceries. Which, by the way, most likely ends up being purchased a the end of an exhausting day, without a plan and a rumbling stomach.

A busy activity schedule including sports, music, drama, etc. can have everyone "eating on the go".  Take out, microwave and frozen meals or food left in pots on the stove for everyone to dish out at his or her convenience has become the norm for busy families.  This is where the parents must step in and designate specific family meal times.  Although having family meal time on a daily basis is best, studies indicate that a minimum of three family meals per week are necessary for the above mentioned benefits.  For some very busy families these meals may include one weeknight and Saturday & Sunday afternoon.  Other families may need to be more creative and incorporate breakfast as part of the family meal schedule / planning.  Also, when implementing family meal time, PLEASE make the meal table an electronics free zone.  The goal is to spend time together, focusing on each other not high school gossip or the latest crisis at work.  Once the meal is on the table, most families have finished eating within 30 minutes - electronics can and should be set aside.

I am a firm believer that meal planning is a cornerstone to working within a grocery budget and getting everyone to the table at the same time.  Since most families are paid either once every two weeks or twice per month, I believe a 2 week meal plan is best. Determining a spending limit prior to shopping and having each meal's ingredients in your pantry, refrigerator and freezer are paramount to sticking to the plan.  If someone is having to run to the store several times per week or daily to pick up needed items,  the grocery budget will skyrocket because one will be too temped to impulse buy, either at the grocer or take-out drive thru, and the meal plan will have been a waste of time and family meal time may not happen.

There are several concepts to meal planning that can keep it organized for the list makers and flexible for adventurous.  First of all a simple wall calendar, the ones that come in the mail for free are perfect, is all that's needed.  Over the years I've used several creative ideas to keep our meals varied and exciting.

Themed Meal Plans
Meatless Mondays, Taco Tuesdays, Waste Not Wednesdays, Take-Out Thursdays, Finger Foods Fridays, Seafood Saturdays and Sunday Soups or Salads keep the meal plan fun and varied.
Monday - pasta & vegetable stuffed zucchini, warm garlic bread
Tuesday - tacos, Mexican rice, refried beans
Wednesday - leftover buffet
Thursday - family meal out at favorite restaurant
Friday - pizza & salad
Saturday - parmesan crusted tilapia, buttered green beans, roasted potatoes
Sunday - sausage, lentil and spinach soup, hot buttered rolls,

Monday - asparagus tomato salad, mixed olive crostini
Tuesday - beef fiesta bowls
Wednesday - leftover buffet
Thursday - family meal out at favorite restaurant
Friday - honey barbecue chicken wings, spicy sweet potato chips
Saturday - mixed paella, tossed salad
Sunday - chef salads, croissant rolls, cheesecake bars

Rush Hour Meal Plans
Crock pot / slow cooker recipes, cook once - eat twice recipes, comforting make-ahead casseroles, breakfast for supper, minute meals and speedy sandwiches are great for the busy family.
2 week EXAMPLE:
Monday - large crock pot of beef stew (reserve 3 c. for later in the week), buttered peasant bread (such as rye or pumpernickel)
Tuesday - make-ahead chicken & pasta casserole, tossed salad
Wednesday - leftover buffet
Thursday - beef pot pie made from reserved beef stew, spinach & parmesan salad
Friday - breakfast burritos
Saturday -tuna salad pita sandwiches, avocado drizzled w/ lime juice
Sunday - grilled steak (grill an extra for next week's steak tacos), loaded baked potatoes (bake two extra for next week's speedy baked potato soup), tomato slices w/ herbed feta cheese

Monday - 20 minute orange glazed salmon, summer squash sauté
Tuesday - slow cooker German style beef roast, bacon & mushroom Brussels sprouts, green beans
Wednesday - 20 minute baked potato soup (made from Sunday's extra baked potatoes), turkey & Swiss w/ herbed greens sandwiches
Thursday - steak tacos (made from extra steak cooked on Sunday), Mexican cheese cornbread
Friday - mushroom & pepper omelet, toasted & buttered peasant bread
Saturday - 30 minute maple pork chops, lime carrots, almond green beans
Sunday - chicken & sausage manicotti (mix up two casseroles, freeze one for another two week meal plan), Italian salad, lemon panna cotta w/ berries

Economy Meal Plans
Simple home cooked dishes, traditional immigrant foods, soups & stews, cooking from scratch, meatless meals, portion control, carrying leftovers to work & school for lunches and "ingredient stretching" are essential for the family on a very limited budget.  Ingredient stretching involves things like purchasing a much cheaper per pound whole chicken and boiling and de-boning to stretch it into 3 meals plus several cups of homemade chicken stock, using meats as flavor enhancers instead of as a main dish, and purchasing ingredients that will be used as components in several meals, etc.
2 week EXAMPLE:
Sunday - homemade chicken & dumplings (made from 1/3 a boiled & de-boned chicken and 1/2 the homemade chicken stock), cornbread
Monday - spaghetti w/ homemade meatless marinara sauce, garlic bread, tossed greens
Tuesday - red beans & rice (made with 1/3 lb. diced smoked sausage for extra flavoring), Sunday's leftover cornbread, sliced onions & pickles
Wednesday - egg drop soup (made with the remaining 1/2 homemade chicken stock), homemade egg rolls (using 1/3 a large head of cabbage)
Thursday - chicken & noodle casserole (made from 1/3 boiled & de-boned chicken), green beans
Friday -  large crock pot of vegetable soup (reserve 3 c. for use next week), homemade dinner rolls
Saturday - cheese omelets, homemade hash browns

Sunday -  chicken bbq sandwiches (made from remaining 1/3 boiled & de-boned chicken), coleslaw (made from 1/3 lg. head cabbage)
Monday - apple cinnamon pancakes (using one grated apple), scrambled eggs
Tuesday - veggie pot pie (made from reserved vegetable soup), lettuce wedge salad
Wednesday - sautéed cabbage & sausage (made with 1/3 lb. thinly sliced smoked link sausage & remaining 1/3 lg. head cabbage), fried potatoes, steamed carrots
Thursday - black bean & cheese enchiladas, Mexican rice
Friday - smoked sausage & potato casserole (made with remaining 1/3 lb. thinly sliced smoked link sausage), steamed carrot, onion and celery medley
Saturday - tuna casserole, pickled beet slaw, sautéed beet greens, lime jello

When planning meals, taking  a quick inventory of what foods are already in the pantry, freezer or refrigerator will eliminate unnecessary  purchases.  Simultaneously adding needed ingredients to the grocery list will prevent additional trips to the grocer and impulse buying.  Perusing the sales ads for deeply discounted items and using coupons for specific ingredients in weekly meals is another frugal tactic that I used for decades while living in a metropolitan area.

Moving to a rural area has forced some changes in my grocery shopping habits. These days I shop "seasonally".  Our family spends the beautifully weathered summer months growing produce,  fattening up livestock, and perusing the sales ads to stock up on deeply discounted staples.  I must confess, grocery shopping during the summer seems like an indulgence - we  have the opportunity to actually buy whatever we want that is within budget for each 2 week meal planning session.  However, once the snow and ice of winter arrives, the items and ingredients from our store room will be our only choices for meal planning.  Many city folks are probably wondering how can one stock up and prepare for months at a time without forgetting something or several somethings?  For me, it started many years ago by developing the habits of budgeting and meal planning.  When it came time for our family to transition to our current lifestyle, I intrinsically knew how much food our family would need for two weeks.  Simple math is all that was needed to fill the store room, ensuring we'd be well nourished while waiting out months of snow and ice.  We received 3 1/2" of snow yesterday afternoon and our outside temperature was - 2 degrees this morning.  That means the days of perusing the store room for our 2 week meal plans have arrived.

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Thank you for taking time to read my blog and leave a comment. I try my best to respond to each one. God Bless You, Mrs.B