How to Plan Meals for Three Months in Three Hours: Hour Three

So at the end of hour two, you should have your meal plan completed, and you could be finished. However, I have found that taking the process one step further makes a big difference. During hour three, you gather all the materials you need to make actually preparing your meals easier, namely recipes and shopping lists.

Hour Three: Creating a Seasonal Recipe Book

If a lot of your recipes come from online sources, it’s simple and quick to create a recipe book of all your meals for the season. Even if they come from traditional cook books that you keep handy, I suggest copying all the recipes for the season into one place. That way when dinner comes around, you can simply pull it out and go. I even keep a bookmark in mine so I know exactly where I am. Every second counts, right? (Only if you are obsessive like me. :D ) Plus if your recipes are all in one place, your husband can even pull off dinner if you’re sick. I can’t tell you how many times I had to scrounge through pinterest half delirious with cold medicine before I figured this out.

Here’s how to create a personalized recipe book as quickly as possible:

  1. Buy your materials – I like to use a 8 1/2 x 5 1/2 binder, because it’s more compact than the traditional full page binder size and therefore takes less counter space. It’s really easy to scale your recipes to print on half a page (more on that in a minute). Grab some half size page protectors, and maybe some tabs and you’re ready to go. You’ll also need a word processing program and a printer that’s not running out of ink. :D
  2. Create a title page and table of contents (Optional) – Open up a new document in your favorite word processing program. Type “Fall Recipes” (or whatever clever title you come up with) on the first page and maybe throw a cute piece of clip art in there. On the next page, add a table of contents. Most word processing programs can auto-generate one. In the most current version of Word, it’s under References >> Table of Contents. As long as you put the title of each recipe in the “Header 1″ style, it will automatically add it to your table on contents. Now’s a good time to make sure your document has page numbers too.
  3. Gather your recipes – Run through your menu and type each recipe onto a new page of the document. Copy and paste from the internet, type it out of your cookbook, or even take a picture–if your camera is high enough resolution that you can read the recipe. You can be as lazy or as fussy as you want with formatting, but the point is to get them in one place and in the order you are going to make them. Make sure to choose a heading format for the title if you want your table on contents to auto-generate.
  4. Size up the fonts and print 2-to-a-page – This last step is the real trick: make sure each recipe fills as much of the page as possible. Size up the font on each page until the page is just filled, but not flowing over to the next page. Then make sure your table of contents is up to date–you may need to hit a refresh option to see all the recipes. Then print your recipe book, but select the option to print 2 pages on every page. (Trust me, it’s in there somewhere.) Ta Da! Your recipes now take half a page each.
  5. Fold in half, put in page protectors, and start cooking – Yup, if you fold the page in half, it fits perfectly in a half size page protector. Congrats on making your own cook book.

Hour Three: Pre-Writing Your Shopping Lists

Ah, but there’s one more quick trick. Now that you have all your recipes in a binder, you can easily pre-write your shopping list. Pre-writing your list means that it takes a lot less time to write your list each week, which means you can be out the door faster!

For each meal, write the ingredients in the shopping list column of the meal plan sheet. Leave out any pantry staples that you always have on hand (like flour, salt, and milk); list just the specialty ingredients. I leave off chicken and ground beef, and common vegetables too, since I always have those on hand. Use your judgement as to what to put on.

And that’s it. I’m currently going through the process of revamping my fall meal plan. Anyone interested in seeing my step-by-step?

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Filed under Cooking & Meal Prep, Spreadsheet Wednesday

How to Plan Meals for Three Months in Three Hours: Hour Two

All right, now that you’ve finished hour one, I’m sure you’re ready for hour two of your meal planning adventure! By the way, I never do all three hours at once, since that would lead to total burnout. I usually break it up over the three weeks before the season I want to start using the menu plan, but even spacing it out over a few days would help.

Hour Two: Making the Plan

This is where you get down to the nuts and bolts of making your meal plan. Narrow your brainstorming ideas down to the final 15 (or 21 with no pizza night or leftovers night) and start slotting them into your calendar. Here’s a blank copy of my seasonal menu plan to get you started. Tips on how to organize the meals into a plan below.

blank menu plan

Blank Seasonal Menu Plan

  1. Shopping Day – You’ll notice my weeks begin with Friday rather than Monday or Sunday. That’s because Friday is my shopping day. This way, I can see the whole week’s worth of meals I need to shop for at a glance. Feel free to rotate the days so that it’s organized by your shopping habits.
  2. Groups of 3 – I like to organize my meals into groups of three that are similar by some theme (again–ethnicity, meat, grain, cooking method, type of meal, etc.). If you used themed grids to come up with your meal ideas, this will be easy! Then you can simply pick a day for each group: Monday is Mexican day, Tuesday is salad day, Wednesday we grill.
  3. Keep your schedule in mind – When you’ve got a particularly busy night weeknight, make sure you slot in something simple that night, or you’ll end up at Subway again. If you’ve grouped your meals by type, put the crockpot or 15 minute meals on this night! And conversely, don’t put something that needs time to rise or marinate on a day when you have a busy morning.
  4. Check for variety – To keep things from feeling boring or routine, you need to make sure each week has a good variety of meals in it. After I’ve initially placed all my meals, I go through the list checking for meals that are too similar next to each other. I avoid having the same meat or grain two nights in a row–one can only take so much rice. I make an exception for chicken, but three times in a row is still my absolute limit. Juggle things around until you’ve achieved a good balance between weeks.
  5. Side dishes – Evaluate each meal for balance. If your main dish doesn’t include enough vegetables, note in the side dish column that you need to prepare a veggie with it. You can either pick something that goes well, or just leave it as “veggie” so you can take advantage of what’s on sale or in your CSA box. You should also note if you need to prep rice, rolls, or other side dishes.

And your plan is finished! Doesn’t it feel good to know you won’t have to think about dinner all season long?

We’ll be dealing with the “shopping list” column during hour 3, next Wednesday!

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Filed under Cooking & Meal Prep, Couponing/Money Saving, Feeding, Spreadsheet Wednesday, Uncategorized

How to Plan Meals for Three Months in Three Hours: Hour One

I hate meal planning. Anyone who knows me will be baffled by this statement since I am notorious for my hyper-organized meal schedules. But the reason I made all my crazy spreadsheets was that after college and my first few years of marriage, I got really tired of thinking about what to eat. It stressed me out and I never knew what to put on the menu–I am not the kind of person who always has a random recipe I’m dying to try.

After trying a lot of different techniques, I finally settled on a system that works for me: I plan out my meals for an entire season at once. I pick out three weeks worth of meals, then I repeat those three weeks 3-4 times until the next season arrives, when I’ll make the next season’s list.

How do you go about planning an entire season of meals at once? Well, it takes about three hours. Seems like a lot, but remember, you’ll be saving time in the long run when you don’t have to spend 15 minutes wracking your brain each night for what to cook.

Hour One: Brainstorming

Before I get down to trying to lay out a schedule, I do some serious brainstorming to come up with meal ideas. Pull out lots of scratch paper and write down whatever comes to mind when thinking about the season you’re planning for (spring, summer, fall, winter). Here are a few exercises I pull out to get my meal planning mind going:

  1. What’s broken? – What don’t you like about your current system of meals? Too much pasta? Too little veggies? Too much cooking time on busy nights? Too much Chinese take-out? Write down your frustrations so you can fix them. Also keep in mind the schedule for the upcoming season. If the kids have sports practice on certain nights, write that down so you can plan something simple or a crockpot meal you can prep ahead of time.
  2. Stretch goals – Every season, I try to set a nutritional goal for our family. Eating more salad, trying out different kinds of beans, consuming less meat, and eating more fish are all goals I’ve used in the past. Pick one to work on this time around. It’s much easier to work on one thing rather than the general goal of “eat healthier.”
  3. Seasonal produce – I print out a list like this one of the produce that is available in the season I’m planning for. Back when I was planning meals weekly, I would plan around produce sales to reduce my grocery bills. Planning around seasonal produce accomplishes the same thing without the weekly hassle. If you have a garden, think of what produce will be ripening in it.
  4. Imagine you’re eating out – To make it easier to stay home than to eat out, I will imagine the kinds of foods I would order if I went out to eat. Find a recipe to recreate the dish at home and bam! you can satisfy your cravings and stay at home. Pull out the menus from a few of your favorite restaurants for inspiration.
  5. Family favorites – If you’re like me, winter makes you think of hearty soups and stews, while summer makes you think salads and grilling. Write down any meals that are “must have” favorites for the season.
  6. Thematic grids – When coming up with more meals to fill in the gaps, I use a tic-tac-toe grid to generate ideas. I write one set of “themes” along the columns and one along the rows. For example, I might write “chicken, beef, fish” along the columns and “Asian, Mexican, Italian” along the rows. Then I try to come up with a meal that combines both the row idea and the column idea for each box. Where “chicken” and “Mexican” intersect, I’d write my favorite Mexican meal with chicken in it–chicken enchiladas. For “beef” and “Asian,” I’d write beef and broccoli. If you can’t come up with something to fill in a slot, poke around a favorite recipe site and find something new! Some themes you might use to help generate ideas:
  • Meats: chicken, beef, pork, fish, meatless
  • Ethnic cuisines: Asian, Mexican, Italian, American, Indian
  • Grains/starches: pasta, rice, potatoes, tortillas, bread
  • Cooking methods: slow cooker, oven, one pot stovetop, grill, salad, stir fry, soup

For three weeks worth of meals, you’ll need about 21 different meal ideas. If that sounds like too much, you can do what I do: throw in a Friday (homemade) pizza night and a Saturday leftovers/eating out night. That knocks out two days and now you only need 15 meal ideas, which is much less scary. Coming up (soon?): hours two and three.

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Filed under Cooking & Meal Prep, Spreadsheet Wednesday, Uncategorized

Quick Poll for my Mormon Readership/Friends

So some of you have probably heard from me about my enthusiasm for the way our family studies the scriptures with our very young children (5, 3, 1). I’m so excited that I’m in the process of writing a little ebook curriculum with our reading schedules in it.

The problem I have in writing this book is that I don’t know much about the experience of other families in studying the scriptures with young children. So I’m calling upon all the Mormons I know to do a little informal research study for me. If you currently have (or had in the past) young children (say, under age 6), could you answer these questions for me in the comments? (Or via email if you’d rather be private.)

  1. When did you start reading the scriptures with you first child? When did you require subsequent children to be present at family scripture study?
  2. What did you read for scripture study with young children? Did you use the LDS Scripture Stories manuals? The actual scriptures? Other scripture story books?
  3. Did you do any other studying activities (ie memorizing, journaling, etc.) on a regular basis?
  4. How consistent were/are you at reading with your children? What barriers exist to being more consistent?
  5. Any other comments, questions, problems related to studying scriptures with young children would be awesome.

Thanks in advance for your input on my quirky little project.

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Filed under Baby (9 - 18 mos), Early Elementary (6-9), Mormon Parenting Hacks, Preschooler (3 yrs - 5 yrs), Toddler (18 mos - 3 yrs)

Out of the Best Books

Or, Why I Believe in Reading Outside Scholarship as Part of Scripture Study

There’s an attitude in the church—and I strongly suspect it began during the correlation period—that you should only use the scriptures, the Ensign, and the lesson manuals to study the gospel. You might be able to get away with adding in anything said at the BYU conference or by a BYU professor, but anything beyond that would be reaching into dangerous territory. If you seek too much outside of the basic resources, you could be in danger of losing your testimony. We hear the ominous echos of Jacob’s lament (2 Nephi 9:29) always over our shoulder:

“O that cunning plan of the evil one! O the vainness, and the frailties, and the foolishness of men! When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God, for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves, wherefore, their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not. And they shall perish.”

We forget that among the things our founding prophet did, he established many schools, and not just schools where he taught by revelation, but schools where they sought to learn Hebrew from books and teachers. We forget that Brigham Young established schools and sent people from Utah to seek out learning elsewhere. We forget the next verse in Jacob’s sermon:

“But to be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God.”

If we look more carefully at Jacob’s warning, he gives no straight line between learning and apostasy, but rather three intervening steps:

  1. They think they are wise—or, we believe that we understand in the subject entirety, leaving no room to doubt our own research.
  2. They hearken not unto the counsel of God—or, we do not allow for cognitive dissonance between scholarship and revelation.
  3. They suppose that they know of themselves—or, we are prideful in our learning, rather than grateful to God for our knowledge.

Or, to sum it up, knowledge plus humility is a good thing. Got that? A good thing! Not just acceptable or okay, but a good thing, as in “seek after every good thing”?

Some may say that there is enough in just the scriptures to keep anyone busy for a life time, but to this I say, how can we understand the scriptures without outside sources? How can we say we are truly seeking to know the scriptures if we read them in a naive way as though they were written yesterday in a culture familiar to us? This is like saying you want to get to know someone, but only ever talking about what they did today, never getting any of the details of their past, and stopping them if they start to tell you anything uncomfortable. That’s not how I think God wants me to know him.

The Bible is less a book than a collection of books, and the understanding of who wrote them, to whom, and why, and which ones were left out seems to me critical to understanding the message they convey. The same goes for the Doctrine and Covenants: they are nigh unto incomprehensible without the explanatory headers to each chapter, and even those only scratch the surface of comprehension. This argument applies less to the Book of Mormon, standing as it does as a book without much external context, but even here outside research is of huge benefit. The Book of Mormon Critical Text project shows that we have so far to go in understanding even this book of scripture given to us so cleanly less than 200 years ago. Also, many passages are quoted or interlinked with other scripture which does have a context.

Obviously, our studies should still be rooted in the scriptures, and I believe there is still a place for reading them straight through without outside sources. As an English major, I think of how I learned the novels we studied in class: yes, there is a value to reading it through at least once, without context or commentary, to get your own visceral reaction to the text. But there is only so far you can get without history, linguistics, and discussion. That last word—discussion—that’s all scholarship is. Discussion with people who have discussed it with other older sources, but a discussion none the less. As long as we treat it as a conversation, and not a revelation, as long as we consider it rather than worship it, it’s just like having a really interesting gospel doctrine class. :D

Which brings me to the last reason that I believe in using outside sources in scripture study: the problem with straight up studying the scriptures, with only asking the pre-written questions out of the manual? It’s boring. There, I said it. Scripture study is boring. If I only read the scriptures straight through, I usually stop after a couple of weeks because it feels like a waste of my time. When I pull in outside sources, I am energized. They send me back to the text, to process it in new ways. They provide new fuel, new insights, new material for the Spirit to work with. I figure anything that drives me to read the scriptures more, to think about the scriptures more, must be something “virtuous, lovely, of good report, and praiseworthy.”

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Busby Family Rules

Drafted these tonight for Family Home Evening. My kids were so excited to have input on the rules, and to get the rules written down so they know what they are! Georgie has been going nuts because he feels like he never knows when he’s going to get in trouble, even though it seems obvious to me. But I guess not to him. Anyway, there are two sets, general rules and the table rules.

Busby Table Rules
1. No robots (or toys) at the table! – Robots in this context means anything with a screen that turns you into a robot instead of a real, present human being.
2. Try one happy bite of everything before you leave the table. – You don’t have to swallow if you don’t want to, but everyone tastes everything. Everyone also must have everything on their plate.
3. If you want seconds, eat your firsts (all of them). – If you want seconds of a favorite food, you have to eat your veggies. But otherwise, you can choose to eat however much you want to. Or not at all. But no short order cooking here.
4. No crazy noises at the table. – A necessary rule in a family of boys.
5. No interrupting, no talking with your mouth full of food. – We’re working on the basics of conversation here.
6. Leave the table with your plate (or to go potty). – Even a two-year-old can clear his dishes. It’s not that hard.

Busby Rules of Conduct
1. If someone is going to be hurt or something is going to be broken, tell Mom or Dad.
2. Otherwise, use nice words and voices to solve your own problems. – Yup, I don’t make my kids share.
3. If you try two solutions that don’t work, you can come ask Mom or Dad for help. – I will think of ideas for you, or give suggestions, but I will not solve your problem.
4. No screaming at anyone (especially parents at kids!). – This one is especially for me. Guilty, 100%. My kids get to send me to time out for this.
5. No hitting ever. – Rough housing is okay though.
6. Everyone does their chores. – I tried to add “with a smile,” but my hubby said that was pushing it.
7. Everyone gets an opinion, but Mom and Dad get final say. – I want my kids to know I will listen to their complaints about the rules and consider them politely.
8. Love each other. – This covers pretty much everything else, right?
9. Laugh. – About good times, about horrible times, always.

What are your family rules? Anything important we missed?

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Filed under Discipline, Early Elementary (6-9), Preschooler (3 yrs - 5 yrs), Toddler (18 mos - 3 yrs)

5 Ways to Adapt Grown-up Board Games for Children

So my oldest son is currently obsessed with board games. And not the little kid ones like Candy Land that I’ve let the kids tear up for years. No, he’s facinated by our “grown-up” board games, with the millions of cards and figurines. And why wouldn’t he be? They’re colorful, have lots of small, interesting pieces, and have exciting themes like trains and conquering the world. How can lame games featuring candy and slides stand up to that? Georgie is always begging to play Ticket To Ride or Dominion. The one thing he asked Santa for this year was Monopoly.

The problem is that he’s five. Georgie might, on a good day, be able to handle the mechanics of Monopoly but the strategy of it is beyond him. And clearly letting anyone under the age of 13 touch Dominion would result in disaster.

Or would it? As a result of enormous five-year-old pressure, I’ve embarked on a quest of adapting some of our exciting, grown-up games for little kid playability. And granted, I wouldn’t hand over these games to a kid who is still in love with chewing cards or playing 52 card pick-up. But I’ve picked up a few strategies along the way that have actually made things fun.

  1. Reduce options – Many adult board games, like Ticket To Ride and Alhambra, rely on allowing you to draw either one of the five face up cards or from the draw pile. Cut the number down to reduce the time it takes your child to pick his/her cards. Similarly, in games where you are working towards multiple goals, like the four diseases in Pandemic or the four treasures in Tobago, try cutting the number down by half. Your kids will be able to focus better and be more strategic if there are fewer things to compare.
  2. Remove elements – The fun part of many modern board games is trying to track multiple strategic elements at once. For example, in 7 Wonders, there are at least 7 different ways to earn points to win the game. You might try to remove some options until your child gets the hang of a few. For example, getting rid of the blue and green cards in 7 Wonders doesn’t change game play too much, and greatly simplifies the goals. When playing Alhambra, you might choose to ignore the different colors of money or the requirement that your city be walkable until your child gets a hang of the scoring system. Similarly, you could ignore missions in Ticket To Ride and just go for straight points and the longest route.
  3. Play “open-face” – In games with lots of cards, tokens, and other collectables, it’s difficult for your child to even hold all their cards, much less understand what they are all doing. In this case, it can be helpful to have everyone play at least one game with their cards “open” on the table. Playing with cards visible allows your child to observe the choices you make, see card organization in action, and understand your strategy. Playmats can also be helpful for this purpose. We love to use this one when we play Bohnanza. You can find playmats for other card games by searching on BoardGameGeek.
  4. Make it co-operative – When a game is truly too challenging for a kid to understand, get together and play as a team. Make up a co-operative goal: for Ticket To Ride, you could pick a mission card and work together to get there. The great thing is, kids don’t care if there isn’t a failure condition. Just pick a short goal in the game and achieve it! My boys also like to play against a “computer” or “bad guy,” especially in games like BANG where the theme lends well to it. Regular co-op games like Pandemic also lend well to you just telling the kids what to do.
  5. Add a time limit – Because, frankly, you can only Ticket To Ride with a five-year-old so many times before you go nuts. Before you start, let your child know the limits: “This time, whoever gets the most points in 15 minutes wins!” This might be helped by skipping ahead slightly in gameplay by dealing out more starting cards (Ticket To Ride) or starting at a higher scoring level (Alhambra).

What are your family’s favorite board games? Does your child ever want to play games above their skill level and what do you do about it?

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Filed under Preschooler (3 yrs - 5 yrs), Early Elementary (6-9), Tall Poppies, Having Fun