Cooking is a job I’m OK with. Yeah, sometimes it’s challenging with the various allergies we juggle and all the other demands on my time. Sometimes I just want a break. But, for the most part, food prep for my family is not a job I hate.
Planning what to cook, on the other hand, is a chore I detest. Especially when I’m trying to think of it as my crazy day spins out of control. Knowing that, with every hour that passes, my options become more limited as I no longer have time to thaw that roast or make that slow cooker stew. I tick through the items in the freezer and/or refrigerator. What can I make with these raw ingredients? Do I have all the necessary pantry items to complete the meal? Sometimes, more often that I like to remember, the answer was no.
Ugh. All this food and I can’t think of a single meal to throw together. So we might end up eating pancakes. Or hot dogs. Again.
I’d look at the meal planning systems that other moms used. I checked out apps, computer programs, books, printable forms. None of them were intuitive for me. Every system I’ve seen tries too hard to be clever; inevitably, they don’t mesh well with the way my mind works.
I had to blaze my own trail, creating a system that made sense to me. I needed something to help me overcome my hatred of the planning aspect and the unprepared aspect of always lacking ONE thing from every recipe I wanted to create. I had to get all the planning out of the way and plan everything down to the last can of tomatoes I might need before I shopped again.
This is my system.
First, I decide how many weeks I want to shop for. I aim for a minimum of four weeks, but I prefer eight. Remember I hate the planning and it feels so freeing to just do it all at once and have it DONE!
When planning how many meals to make, I consider things like, How many times do we expect to eat out during this time? How often are we likely to have guests over for a meal? How many “extra” meals do I want to have available to bring to a family in need?
We eat nearly every meal at home. We frequently have guests, and I like to be prepared to minister to others, so I always figure extra into my food plan to accommodate this reality.
Next, I select recipes. I choose by season, mostly. Asparagus in the spring, pumpkin in the fall. Grilling in the hot months, soups, stews and baked meals in the cooler months, etc. I decide how many times we will have each meal. There are certain meals our family loves, and eats often. I plan to have these meals multiple times within my menu plan time frame.
I plan accompaniments for the recipes I choose. Spaghetti? I plan a salad and bread along with it. Marinated grilled chicken, I might serve with roasted potatoes and broccoli, or maybe red rice and a salad. Each combination is written down as a separate meal option even if the main dish is the same.
For breakfast, I list all the things that we might make.
Oatmeal, crockpot risotto, multi-grain hot cereal, German pancake, Baked oatmeal, eggs/muffins, eggs/toast.
Lunch, same thing:
Baked potatoes with toppings, hot dogs, sandwiches (egg salad, tuna, lunch meat, peanut butter & jelly, grilled cheese), leftovers.
I multiply recipes until they are enough to serve all the people consistently eating at our home on a day-to-day basis. Then I multiply that recipe by the number of times I expect to serve that meal in the time period for which I am shopping. I write the corresponding grocery list next to my menu selections.
__ pounds chicken, __ cups of rice, __ onions, __ pounds of potatoes, __ pounds of cheese, etc.
I do this for every recipe I will include in the lineup. Then I go through all the grocery list sections and compile a master shopping list. I write the items on the list in categories (meat, dairy, produce, breads, canned/boxed/dry) and then tally the number of pounds or cups of items (depending on how I will encounter if for sale at the store — i.e., I buy cheese by the pound, so I make any conversions necessary to translate recipes that call for cups of shredded cheese to pounds). Beans, rice and other dry items are generally sold by the pound, so I translate cups to pounds. Some recipes call for a certain number of cans of tomatoes, since I’m making mega amounts, I generally multiply the pounds and ounces and see whether I can buy the ingredient in a larger size to save money. (Hello, #10 can!!!) I work my way down my list of planned meals until everything is accounted for on my master list.
For breakfasts and lunches I do the same thing; but since the meals are simpler, I do the multiplication in my head and include it in the master list.
Then I consider my baking. I do a lot of baking. Including a lot of gluten-free baking. I don’t want to plan out exactly what I will bake when. The “fun” of baking for me is the ability to make what sounds good at the moment. Enter the pantry list.
I went through my pantry and listed everything that I purchase on a consistent basis. Things I would replace when I run out. My list is more extensive than some, because I maintain a whole arsenal of gluten free flours in addition to regular wheat flour. I also use a lot of different beans and a variety of grains.
I evaluated each item and figured out the approximate rate at which I use it. How long does it take me to go through a gallon of olive oil? a 25-pound bag of flour? a pint of vanilla? ten pounds of chocolate chips? The rate will vary, so I’m going for an average. Some things I didn’t know; I started dating packages when I opened them, so when I ran out, I would get a better feel for our rate of consumption. Once I had this information written down, I was able to determine how much I needed to buy to last through my shopping period. I add all these pantry items to my master shopping list.
The last categories to add to my shopping list: personal care, cleaning supplies and pet items. Again, I pay attention to how quickly we go through a tube of toothpaste, a bar of soap, a package of toilet paper, cleanser, dishwasher detergent, laundry soap, etc. I add to my list the amounts needed to get us through the shopping period.
Now I’m almost ready to go shopping. The final step is to go through the stock on hand and revise my shopping list to reflect the difference between that and what is on the shopping list already. I take my messy, handwritten, marked up notebook papers to the computer and collate all the information into a neat list that’s ready to take to the store!