Category Archives: Cooking & Meal Prep

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

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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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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The Perpetual Salad Initiative

Okay, I have a confession to make.

I have prosaic American tastebuds.

I am thoroughly embarrassed about this. I don’t like quinoa or kale or tofu. Eating Thai or Indian food or sushi usually makes me throw up. I love the idea of being a food sophisticate, but I am so not. I like things like sloppy joes and tuna noodles and hamburgers, for heaven’s sake. Cole slaw is fantastic, and so is fried chicken.

Reading the internet, you’d think you couldn’t be healthy unless you like to eat vegetables with unpronounceable names and stop eating meat or carbs or both. Well, I am out to prove people wrong. I have no desire to change my cultural palate, but that doesn’t mean I can’t shift it a little to the healthy side without massacring it. I have a few rules I follow to create a healthy American cuisine:

  1. Limit cheese-heavy and cream-based sauce meals to once a week. They are foundational in American foods, so enjoy them by limiting them.
  2. Cook with real ingredients and make things yourself when possible. If you only eat homemade donuts, you’ll eat a lot less doughnuts.
  3. Throw extra vegetables in everything, but don’t disguise them. I personally think it’s silly to hide your vegetables in cake, bread, smoothies, etc. All that does is create a habit of eating cake/bread/smoothies, which may not always have vegetables in them. Get the vegetables out where you can see them and put them there in boatloads. Yes, this means my version of chili has carrots, celery, corn, garlic, onions, and peppers.
  4. Have a side salad with dinner every day.

It’s this last item that I’m working on. As you might guess by my taste preferences, I’m not so much into salad. Usually when I buy a bag of greens, half of it rots in my fridge. This year, I hope to get my family to be more consistent about eating salad. Well, mostly my husband and I, as my children, thanks to excellent brainwashing training, both love to eat salad.

The other thing that keeps me from eating more salad—besides its nasty chlorophyll-ly taste—is the effort it takes to make the thing. Salads come in second only to sandwiches in their time-to-make to tastiness ratio. (Does that make sense? It takes way too long to make them given the pitiful result.)

Thus I am beginning the Perpetual Salad Initiative. The idea is to add a few new ingredients each day to transform the salad into something new. Hopefully this will make salad more interesting and keep us from getting bored of eating it. Ready to see the plan? All right, then.

Day 1: Caesar salad – Begin with romaine lettuce and Parmesan cheese. Serve with croutons and Caesar dressing.
Day 2: Spinach w/fruit salad – Add spinach, craisins or berries, and walnuts or almonds. Serve with poppy seed dressing.
Day 3: Garden salad – Add a lettuce mix (spring greens, 7 lettuces, etc.), and two or more vegetables such as cucumbers, onions, mushrooms, and olives. Serve with Thousand Island dressing.
Day 4: Cobb salad – Add more romaine lettuce, as well as either tomatoes or avocado, chicken, and grated cheese. Serve with a vinaigrette.
Day 5: Chef salad – Add iceberg salad mix, chopped hard boiled eggs, and ham. Serve with croutons and ranch.
Day 6: Dump it and start over!

Any of your favorite salad types that I missed? What are your tips for making and eating salad? I could definitely use some help.

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Mormon Parenting Hacks: “Mom’s Sick” Emergency Preparedness

Okay, I promise this post is way more awesome than it sounds.  Also, it’s not really a hack just for Mormon parents.  It just seems especially Mormon to me since we’re well-known hoarders of 5-gallon buckets.

I first read about this idea last week on Latter-Day Homeschooling as “Emergency” Homeschooling Survival Kits.  The idea was to have three days of homeschooling lessons packed into three 5-gallon buckets, to be used on days when you’re sick or otherwise un-motivated to teach homeschool.

But, really, what mother with toddlers at home doesn’t need an “emergency sick day” kit?  I’m pretty sure this sounds like the best idea ever to me.  Pack a bucket (or reusable grocery bag) with a days worth of activities for your toddlers, then pull it out when you’re ill, or one of your kids is ill, or when the refrigerator breaks and you need to entertain children at home for the day with minimal effort.  Maybe you’ve all thought of this idea before, but to me, it’s revolutionary.  Why not be prepared for the inevitable?

My goal this month is to put together 3 emergency sick day kits for under $15 each.  Here are my ideas of what to put in an emergency kit:

  • New school/craft supplies – because nothing makes coloring suddenly interesting again like a new box of crayons.
  • Stickers – a great activity I recent read of is to give the kids a million little stickers and a paper with a large shape outlined on it.  Have them fill the shape with stickers.  Sounds like 30 minutes of rest.
  • Printed out craft instructions – something simple and non-messy but time consuming?  Also ideal if it’s at the level a child can do by himself without a lot of help from (miserably sick) you.
  • Coloring books & puzzles from dollar section at Target – really, any thing from the dollar section will work.
  • Cake or cookie mix – both activity and comfort snack
  • Picture book
  • Clearanced toy from “the stash” – Do you guys have a stash?  I keep a stash of under $10 children’s toys for birthday presents; they’re also my current “bad day” go to solution, but doling them out like this will keep them more under control.  You could also do this a more expensive way and buy toys that you want to add to your toy collection, but not give them out until sick days.
  • Children’s DVD – great for the last hour before your husband gets home when you really can’t do any more.  Again, think of it as building your collection in a beneficial manner.

What do you think?  Any other brilliant ideas for what to put in an emergency kit?  I also like the idea from the original post to have emergency meals stored in your freezer.  A great way to do a little freezer cooking without feeling like you have to live that lifestyle.

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Filed under Baby (9 - 18 mos), Cooking & Meal Prep, Family Culture, Infant (0 - 9 mos), Mormon Parenting Hacks, Preschooler (3 yrs - 5 yrs), Toddler (18 mos - 3 yrs)

Spreadsheet Wednesday: Food Storage Link Love

Since at the time you read this I will be on a mini-vacation with the in-laws, I’m including a little link love for this Spreadsheet Wednesday.  We’ll be back to our regularly scheduled and original programming next week.

The girls over at Food Storage Made Easy are honestly one of my favorite resources for building your food storage.  (Not sure what I mean by food storage?  Read their great explanation.)  Everything they have to say is on the ball and I love their practical approach of doing one things at a time to move towards a healthier lifestyle that incorporates food storage.

But most of all, I love their spreadsheets. Oh yes, I’m that much of a geek. My favorite is the 3 month supply calculator, which makes the project of figuring out what you need easy. But there are more of great resources available, so check them out.

One of these years I’m going to follow their baby steps emails and get my food storage in proper shape . . . But for now, visiting their website counts, right?

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