3 Months of Fall Meals: My Menu Plan

Well, I did some revising of my own menu plan for fall as I wrote about my menu planning process, and so I thought I would share the result with you all: 3 weeks of very family friendly, not too time consuming meals.  Each recipe makes about 5 servings: one each for me and my husband for dinner and lunch the next day, plus a half serving each for the kids. (Ender still doesn’t really count. :D) Anyway, if you’re interested in not having to plan dinner for the next three weeks, here you go! Shopping lists are included in the menu file, but don’t include basics like chicken, rice, flour, etc., so you may want to check that your idea of kitchen staples matches mine. :D

Fall 3 Week Rotation Menu

Fall Recipes for 3 Weeks

Week 1:

Friday – Canadian Bacon Pizza, salad, cheesy bread
Saturday – leftovers/eat out
Sunday – Salmon, rice, veggie
Monday – Chicken Squash Corn Chowder (in the crock pot), baguettes
Tuesday – Mongolian Beef, rice
Wednesday – Bucatini Al’Amatriciana, veggie
Thursday – Oven Fajitas

Week 2:

Friday – Canadian Bacon & Apple Pizza, salad, cheesy bread
Saturday – leftovers/eat out
Sunday – Calzones (no recipe for this one, as the instructions are a little complex to rewrite; the recipe is found in Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day, which every cook should own!)
Monday – Autumn Minestrone Soup (in the crock pot), baguettes
Tuesday – Almond Chicken Stirfry, rice
Wednesday – Tuscan Garlic Chicken, veggie
Thursday – Tostadas, corn, salsa & chips

Week 3:

Friday – Philly Steak Pizza, salad, cheesy bread
Saturday – leftovers/eat out
Sunday – Chicken Enchiladas, salad
Monday – Cheesy Vegetable Chowder (in the crock pot), baguettes
Tuesday – Beef and Cashew Stirfry, rice
Wednesday – Paprika Chicken Stroganoff, veggie
Thursday – Black Bean Soup, rice, salad

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Filed under Cooking & Meal Prep, Feeding, Spreadsheet Wednesday

Interest Based Learning–It Works!

So the whole summer I’ve been working with Georgie on his handwriting. He got interested in writing shortly after he learned to read at age two. I kinda freaked out on him. It wasn’t his fault–I have a handwriting complex. My best friend in elementary school was a fastidious person, the kind who carefully colored things in with markers line by line, never overlapping. Through my young eyes, her stick-straight lines and perfectly curved arcs looked like a type-writer. I always felt like my handwriting, well, sucked by comparison. I spent Christmas break in fourth grade–the one where we rented a cabin and went snowmobiling–trying to reinvent my handwriting into something cute, copying the alphabet over and over, dotting my i’s with hearts, writing my e’s as backwards 3’s. It took me years to straighten my writing back out. I still catch myself trying to write those ridiculous e’s sometimes. It didn’t matter much anyway: my thoughts always ran faster than my pen and my handwriting would quickly go downhill trying to catch up to the runaway train.

Anyway, so I projected all of that on to my son and freaked out that he was going to get into bad letter formation habits if he started writing without instruction. I insisted on starting a formal writing curriculum rather than just letting him continue scrawling 2-foot high letters on posterboard with his washable Crayolas. I selected the gentlest curriculum I could find, but his little fingers just weren’t ready. My impatient rants about how his writing would be ruined forever if he didn’t start at the top of the letter and follow the directions probably didn’t help. In the end, he stopped completely–writing, coloring, painting. It was a struggle to get him to make a mark on a coloring page in his children’s class at church.

As he approached the end of his pre-K year, his teacher told me that his shaky writing–always tracing over her marks rather than making his own–needed to improve if he was going to be able to handle Kindergarten work. My goal was just one short sentence or 5 spelling words a day. I wouldn’t care about form, I would just get him to write, at all. But no matter what I did, it was like pulling teeth to get him to write each letter–a battle against suddenly thirst and bathroom trips, whining and surprise interruptions from his stuffed animal dog, who used to be called Dog-Dog but was now named Teddiursa after a creature in Pokemon, his current obession.

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to redirect his interruptions by making the sentence he wrote about Pokemon. “Teddiursa is a silly Pokemon,” I wrote on a little whiteboard for him to copy. I went to help my other son read something he was playing on the computer. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Georgie bounding down the hall.

“Georgie, you need to do your writing,” I called after him.

“I’m done!” he said. What? But sure enough, all the words were down in his book, faster than he had been able to write one word, one letter last week. It was like removing the dam from a river–letters were suddenly flowing onto the page. Today he wrote a 10 word sentence (one that I tried to shorten, but he insisted on) in less than 2 minutes with no prompting from me. I can’t believe that tearing down that Berlin Wall could possibly be that easy.

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Parenting Book Review: Diaper-Free Before 3

So I never got around to finishing this post about how I potty-trained Noah, but now that Ender’s potty training has begun, I’m ready to approach the subject again. I checked out Early Start Potty Training again from the library to refresh my memory, and I saw this book–Diaper Free Before 3 by Jill M Lekovic, MD–on the shelf next to it. Boy, am I glad I did! I’ve finally found a potty-training book that embodies my personal philosophy of the process.

The philosophy behind Diaper-Free Before 3 is simple: earlier potty-training means fewer diapers. Fewer diapers are better for the environment and mean greater freedom for both the parent and the child. I personally have also found that it is easier to potty train at a younger age because 1) your child is less independent and more willing to respond to direction, and 2) you are more patient because you expect slower progress with a younger child.

Note that I said it’s easier, not that it’s faster. It took me 6 months to train Georgie at age 2.5, and it took me 6 months to train Noah at age 1.5. However, Georgie’s 6 month potty training was filled with yelling, bribery, and tantrums on both of our parts, and Noah’s was a gradual, pleasant, laid-back experience. I know which way I’d rather spend 6 months.

So what is the Diaper-Free Before 3 method of potty training? You’ll have to read the book for the long version, but here’s my cheat sheet:

  1. Learning to sit on the potty – Starting as early as 6 months, set aside 10 minutes a day to practice sitting on the potty. After a meal or before or after naptime are the best times to ensure your child will have some success. Bring a book and comfort your child as he gets used to sitting on the toilet. If something ends up in the potty, great, deal with that, but otherwise just focus on the routine of using the potty once per day.
  2. Increasing potty opportunities for success – Once the child is willing to sit on the potty when asked, increase the your 10 minute potty sessions. I like to introduce a new one every week or so, again after a meal or before or after a naptime. Soon your child will be a pro at the routine of sitting, and even be successful some of the time. Use the phrase, “It’s time to go use the potty” rather than asking your child, “Do you want/need to use the potty?” They don’t know, and the default answer to a parent question is often “No!” Just make it part of your day, like eating lunch or brushing teeth. However, there’s no need to force your child to sit for long periods, just like you shouldn’t force your child to eat if they don’t want to. Just go and try, then finish and be done when they are done.
  3. Training sessions – When your child makes the connection between the potty and what goes in it and is having lots of potty trips each day, add a period in your day when you allow your child to wear training underwear or go naked. (No pull-ups, please!) This will allow your child to realize when they are going in their diaper and hopefully begin to make the association that they need to use the bathroom.
  4. Full time underwear – After your child understands the process and has few accidents per day, transition to full-daytime underwear!

Notice there are no bribes, rewards, or elaborate systems. This is what I love about this system. No coercion, just a normal expectation that they will learn eventually. It’s a slow process, but because you start early, it’s much less stressful because you have all the time in the world.

I also love Dr. Lekovic’s relaxed tone. She takes a very middle of the road approach to many parenting debates (cloth diapers vs disposable, early potty training vs readiness) which makes her a delightfully refreshing voice. I love how she bases her opinions and evidence rather than philosophies and guesses.

I highly recommend this book to anyone looking to potty train a child. It doesn’t matter if your child is older than 6 months; just start now. I started with Ender a few weeks ago (14 months old). At first, he was terrified of sitting on the potty, but he’s calmed down now and even had a few successes. And he loves washing his hands! I’m excited to see where this adventure takes us.

What are your favorite potty training tips and tricks? What parenting books I should read next?

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Filed under Baby (9 - 18 mos), Montessori, Potty Training, Toddler (18 mos - 3 yrs)

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)