Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Meal Planning 101

Do you ever walk in the door at 5pm after a very long day and wonder to yourself what you will be making for dinner? We've all done it to ourselves. Planning meals is something that takes a backseat to all the other things that life throws at you each week. I've found a few strategies that make getting dinner on the table a lot easier.

Recycle your Food
If you pull out a whole chicken, you have several meals in your near future. The first is the roasted chicken. Maybe with mashed potatoes or rice and a few fresh vegetables. I usually carve off half the meat to serve for the meal. The rest of the bird is picked clean and the meat is shredded for a casserole or chicken salad. Then take the carcass and place it in the crockpot or large pot and cover it with water. Add a quartered onion, some celery leaves and let it cook for 24 hours. This will produce a nice chicken broth that you can turn into any number of soups, stews, base for dried beans or strain and can or freeze for later use. You can also do the same with a beef bone. For more on making beef broth, see this post.

Don't Waste Food
Don't throw it out if it can be repurposed. Turning leftovers into something else is a great way to end the monotony of the week and prevent it from ending up in the trash can. A pork shoulder can be roasted and served plain, then shred the leftovers and make bbq sandwiches or cook it some more with added spices to create a burrito filling.
If you have small portions of meat or vegetable, place it in a freezer container or bag and save it. When you have accumulated enough vegetables and meat, make soup! Some of my leftover soups, though unrepeatable as a recipe, have been our favorite meals.

Shop and Stock
While it seems like a nice concept, shopping for the week's meals on a budget is often impossible. I rarely see the ultimate sale on the right variety of foods to create the best menu. So when hamburger is on sale(a really good sale), I stock up. I often get a quarter to half cow in fact direct from a farm. The meat is either frozen in meal-sized portions or canned for later use. Then, when I plan a meal, I can pull from the "grocery store" of bargains in my home. The same goes for poultry, vegetables and any other staples that I need. My purchasing several meals worth of each item that is on sale, I have my own pantry full of options and can make the most economical meal possible.

Sunday is Recipe Finding Day
On Sunday's after church, I try to relax. One of my favorite things to do is pour over new cookbooks from the library, search on internet cooking sites or watch cooking shows. From that I can come up with new and exciting recipes to try.  If I am wanting to try a new recipe, I put any items I do not have in my pantry on the shopping list so that when it goes on sale, I can get it. I write down where the recipe is(if its in a book) and that makes it easier to find later, particularly if I am planning a few weeks out. If its a new recipe, I print it out and put it in my planner. If the recipe is a hit with everyone, it gets added to my cookbook, if not, I throw it away.

Putting it all Together
After I have a nice "database" of recipes, I pull out my trusty planning sheet. I use this to outline meals for each week. Sometimes I do this with a friend and we plan our weeks together. This makes the process much more fun of course! I start with the upcoming week and fill in the blanks. For the week coming up, I will add the things I need to do, appointments, any prep work for food later in the week and any missing items that I need to purchase.  If I found a ton of beef recipes, I might spread them out over several weeks and leave blanks for the non-meat and other meat days. I can fill them in later. The current week goes inside the cover of my binder for easy reference. If I don't already have the recipe in my binder, I note where the recipe is. Then, when my week begins, I am ready. I have learned that knowing ahead of time makes pulling out the necessary items to thaw, soaking the right amount of beans and starting the long-cooking items much easier to remember.

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